It’s a little around this time of the month when we started planning out our little adventure last year to the Tohoku area. We were giddy since my friend and I both knew that the trip would be a departure from our past trips that mostly revolved in visiting shrines and temples, museums, and famous tourist spots. This time we’ve decided to see the three big summer festivals Tohoku boasts of, the 竿燈祭り(Kanto Matsuri) in Akita, the ねぶた祭り(Nebuta Matsuri) in Aomori and the 七夕祭り(Tanabata Matsuri) in Miyagi. Choosing our summer destination was fairly easy, but it was rather difficult to decide where we should first head off. The festivals were held at three separate locations across three different prefectures at overlapping dates so prudent planning was crucial since we were traveling on a 青春18きっぷ(Seishun 18-kippu), which is very cheap and cheap entails time consuming train rides (this trip took about 60 hours if you calculate the rides collectively). We did our research and figured that it was most convenient to go to Akita, then Aomori, and finally to Sendai. We’ve purchased train tickets, made hotel reservations, printed out maps and train schedules. We also checked out blogs for previous travelers’ advice for satisfying gastronomic experiences and what to expect during the festivals. With all these planned out, we were definitely set!
With almost a week’s worth of clothes and high hopes packed, we left Hiroshima at past 6:00 a.m. to start our extremely long trip. The cool northeastern wind welcomed us the following day as we headed to where the “Kanto Matsuri” was to be held. I didn’t exactly know what to expect from the festival because as honest as I can be, it was the “Nebuta Matsuri” that I really had my eye on. Actually, to be more honest, I didn’t think I’d enjoy the performances. I didn’t think there would be anything special with balancing bamboo poles adorned with lit up paper lanterns. However, as the parade climaxed, even the cynic in me was amazed with the audacious and yet graceful techniques the performers displayed. Making a 12-meter long adjoined bamboo pole with 46 lanterns roughly weighing 50 kilograms stand on different parts of your body, was just beyond imagination not to mention the hazard of setting the lanterns into a bonfire bonanza. Well, set aside awkward and dragging pre-parade dance performances and the redundancy of the “Kanto” performances, the festival itself was nevertheless entertaining and exciting.
Still exhausted, we unwillingly regained our pace and headed farther north for the much-awaited “Nebuta Matsuri”. A woman on the train next to me struck up a casual conversation. She said that she’s traveling by herself from Yokohama and that she’s been to the “Nebuta Matsuri” the previous day. She enthusiastically talked about the parade and openly gave her opinions on it. We found out that the floats had to be wrapped in plastic so the very delicate 和紙(washi) that makes up the float doesn’t get damaged from the rain. I asked where the best view of the parade was and she knowingly gave us an advice plus a mat we could use to sit on to view the parade. We talked on and on until she had to get off at the station where her hotel was.It was a nice encounter. With a few more hours left, we rested and closed our eyes and silently wished for a fair weather.
As we got closer and closer to Aomori, the train got crowded and crowded that suggested the grandness of the festival. We reached Aomori early leaving us enough time to have a taste of their fresh三色丼 (sanshokudon: rice topped with ikura, hotate, and uni) and to take a closer glimpse of each float.
There were 20 entries, all carefully crafted to perfection with some taking up almost an entire year to complete. The size, colors, theme, intricacy all contribute to the majestic composition of each float. Just before dusk the parade starts and the floats, all lit-up, are wheeled and moved around. The entire town already enveloped in a festive mood transported around 1 million visitors into a dreamy world where mystic creatures and legendary heroes came to life with the merry sound of 太鼓“taiko” and 尺八“shakuhachi”. Visitors were encouraged to join the parade by putting on a “haneto” costume but we decided to take up on the role of audiences to be awed and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the shimmering giant lanterns.
I wished for the parade to never end but then all good things come to an end, the town went still, the lanterns were kept again for the following day and the lights glimmered on at the back of my mind as memories. Without a hotel to pass the night, we spent a few hours at a karaoke by the station and waited for the very first train out. Hesitant to leave the cool summer and incredibly sweet sea urchins and scallops of Aomori, we headed for the nearest bathing house to get us set for the next festival.
It was rainy, too humid and too crowded in Miyagi. I wanted to stay locked up in the hotel to keep myself from the musty air outside that was heavy with languor but the thought of having 牛タン“gyutan (ox tongue)” got me up and about. We decided to go to the商店街 “shoutengai (shopping center)” that were lavishly decorated with 3-5-meter long multi-colored “washi” streamers that symbolize the “Tanabata Matsuri”.
This festival was different from the other two since there were neither musicians nor dancers to grace the festivity. It would be proper then to describe it as an art appreciation journey. I did enjoy the spectacular ornaments that resembled oversized army of piñatas hang closely together that seemed to direct everyone towards a path to another world, perhaps enlightenment.
The path apparently led to forever and we were ready to give up from exhaustion. We were just not quite patient enough. We wrapped up the day and treated ourselves to a “gyutan” meal and some ずんだ餅“zunda-mochi(mashed green soybeans rice)” for dessert. The meal was more than just satisfying. It was incredibly good and I came to love Miyagi for it.
After completing all three festivals we made a side trip to Kusatsu to dip our weary bones before we headed back to Hiroshima.
In Kusatsu, a Sotoyu 外湯 (public bath) is available for free while an Uchiyu 内湯 (private bath) is usually
open to hotel guests or to outsiders with some charges.
Contributor: Nina Arteliz Gallego
Currently a Phd student at Hiroshima University (under Monbukagakusho scholarship)