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I feel like I should explain that title before getting into the trip. Tohoku is the northern area of Japan, i.e. the area that was most affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami. It is composed of the prefectures of Yamagata, Akita, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima are the coastal prefectures most hit by the earthquake, and especially the tsunami.

Tohoku is famous for its “Sandai Matsuri”, the three greatest festivals (matsuri) in the region. These are Akita’s Kanto Matsuri, Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, and Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri. Before we left for Japan, we decided we really wanted to see these, but didn’t really get around to planning it. Once we came back, we decided to just wing it and drive in a huge circle through the entire Tohoku region to see these three festivals, which luckily are all around the same time but give you enough time between them to get to the next one!

We started driving from home to Niigata prefecture, directly north-west of Gunma, to see the city of Nagaoka’s famous fireworks display, which luckily started off our trip.

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(Kenji’s gorgeous fireworks picture)

We started out our road trip with Nagaoka’s famous fireworks. We parked a station away and took the train into the city proper, checked out the area, went BACK to the car and I changed into yukata, then we claimed a spot and waited for the fireworks to begin.


At the station (the first is Kenji’s picture)


Nagaoka Station


We ate at a Chinese restaurant in the station, and got to try Hakkaisan beer. I’ve only ever had Hakkaisan sake, so it was nice to try the beer. Yum!


Dancing and taiko in the streets on the way to the river


Claiming a spot and waiting out the fireworks


With special Nagaoka sake to hold us up!


I spent a lot of time bug and sky watching…

and then the fireworks started!

My photos don’t compare to Kenji’s though. Here are a few of his!


Me in my yukata

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We spent the night in Niigata City before waking up and driving to Akita the next day. While we drove, the highway ended, so we found ourselves first surrounded by Niigata’s rice growing country, and then along a coastal road. It was a pretty long stretch of driving, but nice scenery! That afternoon we arrived in Akita City, managed to score the very last hotel room Toyoko Inn had on their website, and proceeded to check in and head out to the festival!


Rice country


LOTS of driving pics… it was so pretty! We would have liked to stop and splash in the ocean a bit, but were worried about time.


Arrival in Akita and checking out the area


Across the river is where the festival begins

In this festival, men balance giant poles of lanterns (which look like rice stalks) on their heads, shoulders, hips, or palms. These lanterns are HEAVY, and the skill it takes to balance is amazing, especially because they continue to add length to the poles until they are towering over the crowd! This festival was my favorite of all I saw, because you become so invested in it, you aren’t just watching. It was so fun!


The lanterns are for the star festival, Tanabata


The poles and lanterns, up in the air, and down on the ground


And towering above, especially that last picture!


Balancing on hips, and head!

And a few of Kenji’s pictures of the two of us after, when you could go and mingle among the participants and lanterns:

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We spent the night in Akita City, then began our slow way towards Aomori. We had a day or two to spare however, so we decided for the first day to spend it in the famous samurai town of Kakunodate, which has a whole street of preserved samurai houses, and the evening at Tamagawa onsen, which is the most acidic onsen in Japan.


Kakunodate was really pretty and green. We toured two out of many houses, and spent some time shopping for souvenirs made of cherry bark.


Kenji posing with a dash


Visiting a lake on the way to the onsen


Outside Tamagawa onsen


Kenji taking our picture, and the resulting image


Huts where people could rest on the hot rocks, said to be good for cancer patients and to ease sore muscles.


Boiling water and steam

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The next day was reserved for Odate, the city where Kenji’s great-grandfather was from. We spent most of that day in Odate, before heading toward a night outside Hirosaki City. We got to Hirosaki just in time to see another matsuri, a similar one to Aomori’s Nebuta matsuri, called Neputa. Neputa are more fan-shaped and flat. The next day we explored Hirosaki a bit before heading on to Aomori for their Nebuta festival.


Odate is famous for the Akita breed of dog, so there were statues at the station. Also famous… chicken! We ate some and it tasted like, well, like chicken. Good! But still chicken. Anyway…

We spent a lot of time in Odate shopping for souvenirs, and we both bought new yukata!


Drums and fishie at Hirosaki’s Neputa festival!


Some of the floats

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That next morning we went to Hirosaki castle and Neputa museum, then drove to Sannai Maruyama, a famous Jomon archaeological site, and then on to Aomori to catch the Neputa festival.


Neputa in Hirosaki


Kenji and I with Hirosaki’s hawk mascot


Me getting apple ice cream, as Aomori is famous for apples!


The castle, or rather, one of the guard towers. The actual castle is gone


This looks a lot like the photo at Matsumoto we took two years ago…


At Sannai Maruyama you can go in and see the different styles of houses they think existed.


The famous guard tower, the holes for which are the basis of the entire site!


At Aomori’s Nebuta festival, anyone can participate as long as they had the costume. It was also custom to pin tons of bells on yourself so you jingled when you walked. We both bought some bells and wore the new yukata we had bought in Odate.


Aomori coast


I like this picture!


Me and Kenji, dressed up


The Nebuta were seriously amazing, and could have given mardi gras floats a run for their money! I took WAY too many pictures, and we didn’t have the best spot, but it was still great!

Each float is followed by taiko drummers, flutes, cymbals, and preceded by hundreds of dancers.


Cymbols

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It was VERY late by the time we managed to get back to our car, so we got a late start the next morning going towards Sendai. However we decided we couldn’t skip seeing the famous Lake Towada and the road going to it through Oirase gorge! It is a beautiful drive, but a long way to Sendai, so after the lake we hit the highway and got to the city in time for me to change back into yukata and see the decorations.


The gorge is beautiful and green this time of year


Lots of cool places to stop! We couldn’t stop everywhere, but we did stop in a few places!


Lake Towada


Sendai’s amazing Tanabata decorations… I took WAY TOO many pictures of them!



More

And two from Kenji:

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We stayed in Toyoko Inn again that night, and woke up to see a little more of the city before finally heading back to Gunma.


A little shopping, some last minute gifts,


And one more walk through a forest of paper…

…and we were on our way back to home sweet home. It was a looooong drive back, and we were exhausted, but I can safely say this was one of the most fun trips I have ever had here in Japan. Here is to many more!

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