Tohoku might be thought of as the equivalent of England’s Midlands or perhaps part of the American Midwest. For many it is an unknown area, neglected by those entranced by Tokyo’s urban glamour or by Kyoto’s quaint antiquity. Nonetheless, as with England and America, it is in the heartland where the soul of the nation is to be found.

Tohoku area, which encompasses the northern extreme of Japan’s main island, is best known to locals as home to the most colourful summer festivals of the nation. In August, one is drawn to any one of a number of festivals, many of which include grand night-time parades, public dances, and street fairs. Last August, I attended the three most prominent: the Aomori Neguta Festival, the Akita Kanto Festival and the Tanabata Festival in Sendai. They are happening at the same time, are wildly popular, and can be enjoyed in the space of 3 days.

japanese festivals light up summer nights

 

The Aomori Neguta Festival is a kind of Kabuki theatre on wheels, with grand, stunning, mobile stage sets pulled along by costumed minders, who not only pull the huge decorative pieces but manoeuvre them so that spectators on fixed bleachers can see the hand-made sets from different angles:

 

japanese festivals light up summer nights

 

Next, and most spectacularly is the Akita Kanto Festival of lantern bearers, aged 10-80, who balance candle-lit lanterns on their hips and shoulders accompanied by grand drummers and strolling singers. The poles are held initially above their heads, but as the poles are extended, the poles bend and on occasion crack, sending blasts of sparks and fire on to the screaming spectators.

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