Japanese hardly need an excuse to party. Witness the tens of thousands of festivals held each year. For many people, the mere mention of matsuri triggers childhood memories of festivities at a neighborhood shrine, of mikoshi portable shrines, and of stalls selling goldfish, cotton candy and plastic masks.
And then there are the spectacular festivals that draw huge crowds from every corner of the country as well as visitors from overseas. Just the sheer anticipation gets the adrenaline flowing.
Here's a guide to three don't-miss festivals held in northern Japan during the sweltering summer months.
The "granddaddy" of them all is the Nebuta Festival in Aomori in early August. It features massive floats on wheels paraded through the streets by muscular men in happi coats, accompanied by a procession of dancers and musicians playing traditional flutes and drums. The floats, each weighing several tons, are lit from inside--so they glow in the dark--and usually depict legendary figures in all manner of color. Sure, there are similar festivals, but nothing beats this.
Also featuring colossal decorations is the Kanto Festival of Akita. Here, the participants must be physically tough. Usually, there are about 230 "torch-bearers"--men, again in happi coats--hoisting poles, some 12 meters long and adorned with lit paper lanterns, down the main streets of Akita. The poles each weigh nearly 50 kilograms. There are five basic techniques to be mastered, the hardest being to keep the pole upright by balancing it on the hip.
While the Aomori and Akita festivals have long histories, Sapporo's Yosakoi Soran--a five-day event in June featuring nearly 30,000 people participating in team dances down the main streets of Hokkaido's capital--is recent. It was first organized in 1992 as a competition by students eager to emulate the traditional Yosakoi mass dance festival of Kochi Prefecture.
The highlight of the Sapporo festival comes on the last day with more than a dozen teams vying for the grand prize.
Even if you are only visiting, you can join right in and dance in a large circle-aptly called wa odori, literally circle dance.
The Nebuta Festival is held Aug. 2-7 in central parts of the city of Aomori. Head for the Aomori prefectural government building, a seven-minute walk from JR Aomori Station, which is a 35-minute bus ride from Aomori airport.
The Kanto Festival is held Aug. 3-6 in Akita city. The main venue is Kanto Odori, a 15-minute walk from JR Akita Station, reached by Shinkansen.
The Yosakoi Soran is held June 6-10 at many venues, the main one being the Odori Park in central Sapporo. Flights are available from major cities.
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