Festivals in different parts of Japan run all year long but come summer time, one region in particular surely shines the brightest. In the months of July and August, Tohoku region or northeast Honshu comprised of 6 prefectures – Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Yamagata, overwhelms the streets and dazzles its locals and tourists with paper lanterns, parade floats, and fireworks.

In case you’re tempted to join in on the fun, here’s a handy guide to Tohoku’s standout festivals.

1.Kanto Matsuri in Akita

Tohoku Region is famous for its Three Great Festivals and Akita Kanto Matsuri is one of them. Towering bamboo poles up to 12 meters in height with as many 46 paper lanterns hanging from them are balanced by performers in an impressive display of strength and skill. Even more impressive is when 230 of these poles are raised all at the same time with drums, flutes, and chanting accompanying this spectacle.

With the raised poles looking like the ears of the rice plant waving in the air, it is said that the whole purpose of the festival is to drive away evil spirits and to pray for a good harvest.

Held every August 3-6 with the night parades starting at 7:25 PM
Chuo Dori Street – 15 minute walk from JR Akita Station
Akita City, Akita

2.Omagari Fireworks Festival in Akita

The best fireworks in all of Japan at the Omagari Fireworks Festival in Akita.

The best fireworks in all of Japan at the Omagari Fireworks Festival in Akita. From Flickr

Fireworks rule Japan’s summer skies and of the many shows happening all over the country, Omagari Fireworks Festival is regarded as the top event. It’s an invite-only competition where only the best pyrotechnic teams in the country compete for the highly coveted Prime Minister Prize. Meanwhile along the river, huge crowds also battle it out for the best spots to set up camp and behold these grand explosions in the sky.

Held every fourth Saturday in August at 5:30 PM (daytime fireworks) & 6:50 PM (night time fireworks)
Along the Marukogawa River, a 15 minute walk from Omagari Station
Daisen City, Akita
http://www.oomagari-hanabi.com/ (Japanese only)

3.Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori

Float parade at Nebuta Matsuri Aomori.

Float parade at Nebuta Matsuri Aomori. From Flickr

The most attended among Tohoku’s Three Great Festivals, Nebuta Matsuri Aomori is literally a massive event where giant illuminated floats in the shape of historical and mythical figures are paraded around Central Aomori. Each float has its own contingent of taiko drummers, flute and hand cymbal players, and Haneto dancers enjoining everyone in the crowd to the street party.

There are nightly parades except for the last day of the event, but the best time to catch one is from August 4-6 when all the participating floats are in full swing. On the last day, several floats are put onto boats for display across the bay with a fireworks show at the waterfront capping off the festivities.

Held every August 2-7 with the night parades starting at 7:10 PM
Central Aomori – 5 minute walk from JR Aomori Station
Aomori City, Aomori

4.Hachinohe Sansha Taisai in Aomori

Float parade at Hachinohe Sansha Taisai in Aomori.

Float parade at Hachinohe Sansha Taisai in Aomori. From Flickr

With elaborate floats, a procession of portable shrines, and a tiger dance, Hachinohe Sansha Taisai leaves festival goers with a strong impression of folk Japan. The event traces back its origins in early 1700’s when townspeople and local merchants start to pay homage to Hachinohe’s three shrines – Horyosan Ogami, Shinra, and Shinmeigu, in gratitude for good health and good harvest.

While there are many activities scattered over the 5-day period, the Kagami-style Kiba Dakyu event at Chojasan Shinra Shrine is the one that’s not to miss. A showcase match played on horseback that’s similar to polo, this event is extra special as it’s one of the only three remaining performances of this ancient sport in all of Japan.

Held every July 31 to August 4
City Hall Citizen Park, 10 minute walk from JR Hon-Hachinohe Station
Hachinohe City, Aomori
http://www.hachinohe-cb.jp/festival02.html (Japanese only)

5. Waraji Matsuri in Fukushima

Also known as the Straw Sandal Festival, Waraji Matsuri in Fukushima is one curious festival where a 12-meter long Waraji – a traditional Japanese sandal, said to be the largest in Japan, is paraded by local sandal carriers to pray for something every traveler can relate much to: to have strong legs for a good walk.

Held every first Friday and Saturday of August
Fukushima City, Fukushima
http://www.fmcnet.co.jp/waraji (Japanese only)

6. Tanabata Festival in Fukushima

Legend has it that lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi are only allowed to meet once a year and when they finally do, the whole of Japan celebrates!

Tanabata Festivals, otherwise known as Star Festivals, are romantic summer affairs where streets are colorful and locals are in the mood to go out in their kimonos. In Fukushima city center, the popular entertainment street Paseo 470 is closed to traffic to give way for pedestrians to have a good stroll, make a wish, and marvel at paper lanterns that are believed to be stars that had come down from the heavens. 

Held every August 6-8
Paseo 470
Fukushima City, Fukushima

7. Sendai Tanabata Festival in Miyagi

Tanabata Festivals may be common across the country, but Sendai’s Tanabata celebration is the best one there is. In fact, it is so hugely popular that it completes the trifecta of the Three Great Festivals of Tohoku.

During this three day affair, streets and shopping arcades of Sendai city center burst with elegant decorations made of paper and bamboo. Giant paper streamers dominate the view while people write poems and prayers on small pieces of paper and stick them onto bamboo pillars.

Elsewhere in the city center, pocket events happen simultaneously. Live bands, performances, and other activities add to the already cheery environment. Most definitely an assault on the senses of a very good kind.

Held every August 6-8
Sendai Station and Chuo-dori Avenue to Ichibancho Arcade (Bamboo Decorations)
Kotodai Park Citizens’ Square (Festival Space)
Sendai City, Miyagi

8. Shiogama Minato Festival in Miyagi

Shiogama Minato Festival takes the magnificence of shrine parades on water.

During the festival, two portable shrines from Shiogama and Shiwahiko Shrines are loaded onto their respective ships for an aquatic procession around the Matsushima Bay. These two are not without its entourage of smaller boats, a hundred strong fleet, cruising with the same lavish decorations as its leads.

Held every 3rd Sunday in July from 12:00 PM onwards
Port area, Matsushima Bay
Shiogama, Miyagi
http://kankoubussan.shiogama.miyagi.jp/?page_id=580 (Japanese only)

9. Morioka Sansa Odori in Iwate

When the demon Rasetsu was finally driven out of Morioka, the locals were so happy that they started to dance around and chant “Sansa, Sansa!”. This is how the “Sansa Odori” dance came to be.

With this backstory of a people triumphing over hopelessness and bad luck, it’s no wonder Morioka Sansa Odori is by far the most energetic festival on this list. Cheering for good luck and a good life, the locals of Morioka give their full power into this festival. And by that, they mean dancing the Sansa to the beat of 10,000 taiko drums!

This is the largest taiko drum festival in the world where you can witness an endless line of drummers and dancers performing in their colorful traditional costumes. The best part? It’s when they finally signal the crowd to jump in and join the dancing.

At this point, the parade ends and the street party begins.

Held every August 1-4 with the night parades starting at 6:00 PM
Chuodori (in front of City Hall)
Morioka, Iwate
http://www.sansaodori.jp (Japanese only)

10. Ichinoseki Summer Festival in Iwate

Parade of lanterns at Iwate’s Ichinoseki Summer Festival.

Parade of lanterns at Iwate’s Ichinoseki Summer Festival. From Flickr

The second largest city in Iwate, Ichinoseki won’t be left out in spending the summer season in a very celebratory mood. Like its neighbor cities in the Tohoku region, summer equates to dedicating a few days for fireworks, shrine parades, hanging Tanabata paper decorations, and performing traditional dances on the street.

Held every first Friday, Saturday and Sunday in August
Ichinoseki Omachi Jishumachi Mall
Ichinoseki, Iwate
http://www.ichinoseki-cci.com/about/matsuri/ichinoseki.html (Japanese only)

11. Hanagasa Matsuri in Yamagata

Street dancers at Yamagata’s Hanagasa Matsuri.

Street dancers at Yamagata’s Hanagasa Matsuri. From Flickr

For three nights in August, Hanagasa Matsuri or Flower Hat Festival brings out 10,000 dancers on the streets of Yamagata all wearing conical hats beautified with artificial safflowers. In this music and dance fanfare, different groups parade through a straight line route through the city center while each performing their unique dance routines. It’s a flower power party in the middle of summer and you might just as well be its next dancer.

Held every August 5-7 with the night parades starting at 6:00 PM
Tokomachi corner towards Bunshokan Hall, 10 minute walk from JR Yamagata Station
Yamagata City, Yamagata

12. Shounai Taisai in Yamagata

Shounai Taisai is a unique festival that takes you back to Tsuruoka’s Edo-period past. The main procession showcases the locals dressing up as servants, warriors, and lords on horseback to commemorate the Shounai clan – the historical feudal lords of the area. It is a re-enactment of the clan’s compliance to sankin kotai, or the duty of feudal lords to take residence in Edo every two years as a sign of their loyalty to the emperor.

Held every August 14 & 15
Tsuruoka, Yamagata
http://jinjahan.com/taisai/index.html (Japanese only)