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Dancing with flower hats: Yamagata Hanagasa Festival

Dancing with flower hats: Yamagata Hanagasa Festival

In this final instalment of my series on Tohoku’s Five Great Summer Festivals, we head over to Yamagata Prefecture (山形県) to check out the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠祭り), which is characterised by its beautiful straw hats decorated with safflowers (紅花 benibana), the prefectural flower of Yamagata.

 

 

Performers of all ages enjoying the Hanagasa dance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Held annually from August 5–7 in the prefectural capital of Yamagata City (山形市), the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival sees the city come alive when up to 10,000 dancers parade through the streets holding hanagasa (花笠 straw hats decorated with artificial safflowers) while dancing to the tune of Hanagasa Ondo (花笠音頭) a traditional song representative of Yamagata.

 

The lyrics of the Hanagasa Ondo were chosen from ideas from the public, and pays tribute to the Mogami River (最上川 Mogami-gawa), the life source of Yamagata, and also mentions famous produce from Yamagata’s different regions. The song is accompanied with energetic chants of “Yassho, makkasho!” and powerful beats of taiko drums.

 

Hanagasa dance by children. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Compared to the other four Tohoku Great Summer Festivals, which have traditions dating back to centuries ago, the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival can be considered a fairly recent addition. The hanagasa dance was first performed in the Hanagasa Ondo Parade, as a part of the Zao Summer Festival in 1963, a promotional event held to encourage tourism to Yamagata's Zao region. In 1965, the Hanagasa Ondo Parade separated from the Zao Summer Festival to become the Yamagata Hanagata Festival we know today. With its colourful outfits and catchy tune, it’s no wonder that this festival draws crowds of over 1 million people over the 3 days it is held.

 

Types of Hanagasa dances

The graceful Kunpū Mogamigawa dance. (Image credit: 山形県花笠協議会)

 

Did you know that there are many ways to dance in the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival? Of the three traditional styles, the most performed is the graceful Kunpū Mogamigawa (薫風最上川) dance, which is commonly known as the female dance (女踊り onna-odori). This dance is meant to represent a view of the Mogami River, and evoke an image of rice crops swaying in a gentle breeze.

 

The Zaо̄ Gyо̄kо̄ style Hanagasa dance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The second is the bold Zaо̄ Gyо̄kо̄ (蔵王暁光) dance that reminds us of the blessings of nature, commonly known as the male dance (男踊り otoko-odori). Notice that the hats used for this dance are different, and feature predominantly yellow flowers?

 

Kasa-mawashi style dance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Finally, there is the dynamic hat-spinning style (笠回し kasa-mawashi) dance that is mainly performed in Obanazawa (尾花沢), the birthplace of the Hanagasa Ondo song. For the hat-spinning style, the hats used have a dark square-shaped patch behind the centre flower.

 

Violet hanagasa. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Twirling parasols instead of hats. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

In addition the traditional dance styles, there are the creative Hanagasa dances, where participants make up their own dance styles and moves. The hats used for the creative dances are the traditional orange flower hats, or custom props like the violet hats and parasols pictured above.

 

Dancers of different ages, doing different dances to the same tune. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The wide variety of dance styles performed to the same tune is one of the dinstinctive features of the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival. Decked out in matching outfits, each group of dancers showcase their own version of the dance, moving in sync to enthral the audience.

 

Enjoying the parade

Getting comfortable on the roadside. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The parade runs along a 1.2km course in central Yamagata City, from Tо̄kamachi (十日町) to Bunshо̄kan (文翔館), and is held around 18:00–21:30 on all three nights of the festival. Although ticketed seats­­—which are elevated and offer a higher vantage point—are available, the parade is free to watch, and most attendees find a seat by the roadside, marking their spots with floor mats or foldable chairs. Even from the roadside you can get an up-close view; the dancers are just a few armlengths away.

 

Float of Zao Gongen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Leading the parade is a float of Zao Gongen (蔵王権現 Zaо̄ Gongen), the deity of Yamagata. Did you know? Zao (蔵王 zaо̄), another name for Yamagata, comes from this deity. On the first day of the festival, prayers and a parade dedicated to Zao Gongen are held in front of Yamagata City Hall to kick off the festivities.

 

Dancers from the Japanese Red Cross Society, Boy Scouts, Kirayaka Ginko (a local bank), and Denroku (a snack company). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Some organisations and companies have their own convoy of  dancers, such as those pictured above. I saw dancers from organisations like the Red Cross and Boy Scouts, as well as local businesses like banks, sports teams, and food production companies.

 

Hanagasa dancers leading the parade. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If you are not satisfied with just looking at the dances, join in the fun and experience the Hanagasa dance yourself! At the beginning of the festival, there is a wa-odori (輪踊り circle dance) segment where the crowd can join in the dance. Anyone and everyone are welcome; don’t worry if you do not know how to dance, for there are instructors who will teach you how to dance. You will receive a hanagasa-shaped fan to use as the hat, and you can dance with this. Another chance to join in the parade is at the end, marked by a sign saying “飛び入りコーナー” (tobiiri kо̄nā, which means “Jump-in corner”)

 

Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠祭り)
Date: 05–­07 August annually
Parade: 18:00–21:30
Venue: Along the streets between Tokamachi to Bunshokan (10-minute walk from JR Yamagata Station)
*Based on 2019's details. Schedule might change.

 

Different types of hanagasa. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If you’d like a souvenir for your festival trip, why not get a hanagasa to bring back? Other than the traditional ones with orange safflowers on them, there are versions which have flowers with other colours like blue and violet, or even LED lights which light up. During the festival period, you can see these hats sold around Yamagata City.

 

Yatai along the parade route. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

What’s a summer festival without food? Along the parade route, there are many yatai (屋台 street food stalls) dotted around, so feel free to grab a snack whenever you’re feeling hungry.

 

Delicious dondonyaki. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

If there’s one festival food you should try out here, it’s dondonyaki (どんどん焼き), which is the local Yamagata version of a portable, easier to eat okonomiyaki­ (お好み焼き Japanese savoury pancake)—rolled up and served on chopsticks! Okonomiyaki is a long-time crowd-favourite festival food, and dondonyaki is a fun and tasty way to munch on this snack while on-the-go or while watching the parade.

 

Tohoku's Five Great Summer Festivals

Clockwise from top left: Aomori Nebuta Festival, Akita Kanto Festival, Sendai Tanabata Festival, Morioka Sansa Odori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The Tohoku region truly comes alive in summer with its lively summer festivals. If you can, I highly recommend paying a visit during this vibrant season. Other than the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival, Tohoku has a multitude of spectacular summer festivals in the same week (the first week of August) that are equally exciting and enchanting.

 

Calendar of major Tohoku summer festivals. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Some of these festivals include the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), the Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈祭り), the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り), and the Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り), which together with the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival make up the Five Great Summer Festivals of Tohoku (東北五大夏祭り Tо̄hoku godai natsumatsuri).

 

If you are thinking of doing a summer festival trip around Tohoku, it’s totally possible to visit a different festival every day. In 2019, I had a blast checking out Tohoku’s Five Great Summer Festivals plus Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (長岡花火大会) on the same trip, and you can visit even more if you squeeze in the other regional festivals. In fact, festival-hopping something the local Japanese tourists do too, though perhaps more commonly two to three festivals over a 3-day weekend.

 

For reference, this was my 2019 itinerary:
03 August | Nagaoka Fireworks Festival
04 August | Morioka Sansa Odori
05 August | Akita Kanto Festival
06 August | Sendai Tanabata Festival (AM) and Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (PM)
07 August | Aomori Nebuta Festival (AM float parade, PM boat parade + fireworks)

 

Getting there

Exterior of JR Yamagata Station. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

JR Yamagata Station (山形駅) is approximately 2 hours 45 minutes by bullet train from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅) via the Yamagata Shinkansen Line, or approximately 1 hour from JR Sendai Station (仙台駅) via the JR Senzan Line (仙山線). The Yamagata Hanagasa Festival parade takes place along the streets between Tōkamachi and Bunshōkan, which can be reached by a 10-minute walk from Yamagata Station.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Yamagata and the Tohoku region, 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 any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Yamagata (~¥24,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.

 

You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to one month in advance, here. After exploring Yamagata, you can also visit the nearby prefectures of Miyagi, Fukushima, Akita, and more.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh

 

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