Experience the soul of Tohoku at the Tohoku Kizuna Festival
Have you been to Tohoku (東北 Tо̄hoku) before? Located in the northeastern part of Japan, it comprises six scenic prefectures: Aomori (青森県), Akita (秋田県), Iwate (岩手県), Yamagata (山形県), Miyagi (宮城県), and Fukushima (福島県). Tohoku is a region known not only for its spectacular natural scenery and rich history, but also for its exciting summer festivals (夏祭り natsu matsuri).
Each prefecture has its own unique summer festivals, which are usually held over a few days in the beginning of August. However, did you know that there is a special event where you can experience the passion and energy of all six Tohoku prefectures at once? That special event is the Tohoku Kizuna Festival (東北絆祭り Tо̄hoku Kizuna Matsuri).
“Kizuna” means “bond”, and the festival highlights the deep bonds that the people of Tohoku have formed with each other. Featuring an array of dazzling parades and traditional performances, this festival brings together six of Tohoku’s most popular summer festivals: one from each prefecture.
The six festivals represented in the Tohoku Kizuna Festival. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture, JR East / Carissa Loh, Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)
The festival was started in 2011, a few months after the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Previously known at the Tohoku Rokkon Festival (東北六魂祭 Tо̄hoku Rokkonsai, literally "Tohoku Six Souls Festival"), the Tohoku Kizuna Festival aims to bring attention to and aid in recovery efforts for the regions affected by the disaster. Not just that, the festival also hopes to share the rich culture and heritage, stunning scenery, and delicious cuisine of Tohoku with the festival attendees.
Pamphlet for this year’s Tohoku Kizuna Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The six festivals represented in the Tohoku Kizuna Festival are:
- Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶたまつり) from Aomori Prefecture
- Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈まつり) from Akita Prefecture
- Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り) from Iwate Prefecture
- Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠まつり) from Yamagata Prefecture
- Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり) from Miyagi Prefecture
- Fukushima Waraji Festival (福島わらじ 祭り) from Fukushima Prefecture
Banners for the Tohoku Kizuna Festival at Akita Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Tohoku Kizuna Festival’s host venue rotates between the six prefectures, and this year, 2022, it was held in Akita City in Akita Prefecture on 28–29 May. I got the opportunity to check it out, so let’s take a look at what it was like!
Heading to the venue
I took the free shuttle service from Akita Station to the festival venue. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
From JR Akita Station (秋田駅 Akita-eki), there were free shuttle buses that brought visitors to the festival venue, which was located about 15 minutes away. After arriving at the venue, there was a large map of all the different activities going on at the different sub-venues, which included food stalls (屋台 yatai), an exhibition area, a stage area, and the parade venue.
Floats, drums, and other festival items on display. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Some of the items on display at the exhibition areas included festival floats, drums, kanto lanterns, and more. It was great to be able to get up close to these items, which are usually moving and are far away from the audience during the actual festivals. At certain timings, the performers even gave short demonstrations at the exhibition area.
Food stalls. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
As I was on a tight schedule, I made a beeline for the food stalls to grab something to eat. I was going to watch the parade at 18:00, and it was already 17:45! Festival food is a big part of matsuri culture, and at the Tohoku Kizuna Festival, visitors can enjoy a huge variety of local festival food from all six Tohoku Prefectures.
There were so many things I wanted to try, but they were either sold out or had very long queues, so I decided to get some shottsuru yakisoba (しょっつる焼きそば), a specialty of the Oga region in Akita. This is a seafood based fried noodle, which was very delicious!
Away from the main food stall area, there were also food trucks selling innovative fusion dishes, so you can be sure you won’t go hungry at this festival.
Main event: The Tohoku Kizuna Festival Parade
One of the highlights of the Tohoku Kizuna Festival is its parade, which was held on the evening of the first day of the festival, and during the daytime on the second day. During the parades, performers from all six prefectures will make an appearance to show the crowd the highlights of their local festivals. Mayors of major cities in each prefecture also make appearances, waving to the crowds as part of the procession.
① Akita Kanto Festival
Balancing kanto is not easy. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
The parade started off with a balancing act: the Akita Kanto segment. Held annually on 3–6 August in Akita City (秋田市), the Akita Kanto Festival traditionally prays for a bountiful harvest, where the kantо (竿燈 kantо̄, bamboo poles attached with lanterns) resemble ears of rice plants waving in the air and scaring away bad spirits. Kanto come in various sizes—some can be up to 12m high and weigh up to 50kg—and it’s not an easy feat to balance them!
Kanto performers at the Akita Kanto Festival. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟 and JR East / Carissa Loh)
Of all the matsuri I’ve been too, the Akita Kanto Festival has always been one of my personal favourites. Not just a festival, it’s also a performance, and the kanto balancing acts are works of art. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch the performers, especially when thinking about how long they must have practiced to hone their skills and strength.
With music from flutes and drums in the background, and chants of “Dokkoisho, dokkoisho!” resonating in the air, you can marvel at the highly-skilled performers deftly balancing the kanto on various parts of their bodies—the main four being the palm, the forehead, the shoulder, and the hip.
For more information about the Akita Kanto Festival, check out my previous article here.
② Morioka Sansa Odori
Taiko drummers for the Sansa Odori procession. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The parade venue was a stadium track, so the procession went around the track to let all the spectators seated at different areas enjoy a good view. After they went around the track, the performers gathered at the grass field in the middle of the track.
Following the Akita Kanto performers was the Morioka Sansa Odori procession. The Morioka Sansa Odori is one of Iwate Prefecture’s most important festivals, and is held on 1–4 August every year at Morioka City (盛岡市), the capital of Iwate.
Performers at the Morioka Sansa Odori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Did you know? This festival holds the Guiness World Record for the World’s Largest Taiko Drum Parade—over 10,000! During the parade, you can hear chants of "Sakkora Choi Wa Yasse" (サッコラチョイワヤッセ), which is a call for happiness. It is said that shouting this phrase brings happiness and joy to everyone around.
For more information about the Morioka Sansa Odori, you can check out my previous article here.
③ Yamagata Hanagasa Festival
Lovely hanagasa dancers. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After the energetic Morioka Sansa Odori procession, out came the Yamagata Hanagasa dancers. The Yamagata Hanagasa Festival is held annually from August 5–7 in the prefectural capital of Yamagata City (山形市), and sees the city come alive when up to 10,000 dancers parade through the streets holding hanagasa (花笠). Hanagasa are straw hats decorated with artificial safflowers, the prefectural flower of Yamagata.
Hanagasa dancers at the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The dancers dance to the tune of Hanagasa Ondo (花笠音頭) a traditional song representative of Yamagata. The lyrics of the Hanagasa Ondo pay tribute to the Mogami River (最上川 Mogami-gawa), the life source of Yamagata, and also mention famous produce from Yamagata’s different regions. The song is accompanied with energetic chants of “Yassho, makkasho!” and powerful beats of taiko drums.
For more information about the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival, you can check out my previous article here.
④ Sendai Suzume Odori
Performers in samurai costumes (left) and Sendai Suzume Odori dancers (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Following the Yamagata Hanagasa dancers was the procession from Miyagi Prefecture. The procession featured performers dressed as samurai and Date Masamune, the warlord who used to rule over Sendai, as well as Sendai Suzume Odori dancers. Unlike the other festivals, Miyagi Prefecture's Sendai Tanabata Festival showcases beautiful decorations rather than performances, so for the parade, Sendai Suzume Odori dancers made an appearance to represent the prefecture.
“Suzume Odori” means “sparrow dance”, and is so named as the dance moves, which involve a pair of fans, resemble the movements of sparrows. The Sendai Suzume Odori dance is one of the highlights of the Sendai Aoba Festival, another one of Sendai’s famous festivals.
⑤ Fukushima Waraji Festival
Japan’s largest waraji. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Following behind the energetic Suzume Odori dancers was the Fukushima Waraji group. Held on the first Friday to Sunday in August, the Fukushima Waraji Festival is a unique summer festival that revolves around waraji (わらじ)—straw sandals. This festival sees locals parading Japan’s largest straw sandal—which has a length of 12m and a weight of 2 tons—through the streets of Fukushima City (福島市).
Spectators try to touch the straw sandal for blessings. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
During the Fukushima Waraji Festival, spectators try to touch the straw sandal, as it is believed that doing so will bless them with healthy legs. While the giant straw sandal is paraded through the streets, a procession of musicians playing flutes and drums follow, with dancers and energetic cheers of “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!”
⑥ Aomori Nebuta Festival
Giant float at the Aomori Nebuta Festival. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Finally, rounding up the parade was the Aomori nebuta float procession. Perhaps the most famous of Tohoku’s summer festivals, the Aomori Nebuta Festival draws crowds of over 3 million each year, and awes visitors with its stunning giant floats, often depicting historical and mythical figures and creatures.
Nebuta float the the Tohoku Kizuna Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Held in the prefectural capital of Aomori City from 2–7 August each year, the Aomori Nebuta Festival showcases approximately 80 floats, of which about 20 are giant floats. Although the giant floats could not be brought over to the Tohoku Kizuna Festival, we could still enjoy some of the smaller floats, which were wondrous sights to behold.
Other than the impressive floats, the energetic haneto (ハネト) dancers will catch your eye, as they jump to the beat of the taiko drums and chant “Rassera, rassera! Rasse, rasse, rassera!” enthusiastically. Equipped with uchiwa (fans) and bells, haneto dancers bring lots of energy and vibrance to the Aomori Nebuta Festival.
For more information about the Aomori Nebuta Festival, you can check out my previous article here.
Until next time
Catching the last shinkansen out of Akita. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay until the end of the parade as I had to catch the last shinkansen out of Akita. For those of you planning to visit summer festivals in Tohoku, I highly recommend spending the night in the city if you can!
Aside from the Fukushima Waraji Festival, I visited all the other five major summer festivals on a single trip in 2019. Although it was exciting to see a different festival each day, it was a little bit tiring, as I was also nursing an ankle injury. For those of you who don’t have the time to festival-hop, or cannot visit Japan during the first week of August, why not check out the Tohoku Kizuna Festival, where you can experience all six major festivals in one place at the same time?
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are planning on going to the Tohoku Kizuna Festival or any of Tohoku’s exciting summer festivals, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥30,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥36,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.
The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh