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Experience the Sansha Taisai Festival!

Hachinohe's Summer Sansha Taisai Festival

Nestled in the Northernmost Prefecture of Japan’s mainland sits Hachinohe, a city along the Pacific Coast. Every year during the Summer, the city comes alive with one of the biggest festivals in the region.

The Sansha Taisai festival takes place every year, and is considered one of the main festivals of the city. Sansha Taisai, which translates to “main festival of the three shrines”, takes place on July 31st to August 4th. The festival started out as a religious affair over 300 years ago, as a prayer to the gods for a bountiful autumn harvest. It is not surprising that this rich and historical celebration has been recognised by UNESCO for its intangible cultural heritage.

Colorful floats that tell stories of Japanese myths and kabuki plays glide down the streets every night, alongside troupes of performing artists dancing and singing, as well as children from the local schools. Foreigners and visitors to the area are also encouraged to participate in the festival if they like! Booths are set up along the parade’s route, so you can sign up for one troupe or another. They will lend you the outfit (according to where you decide to join in), and when you’re done, you can return it to the booth you picked it up from.

The three shrines of the festival, the Ōgami shrine, Chōjasan Shinra shrine, and the Shinmei shrine, are key points for the float procession. The parade begins in the afternoon, and it goes on well into the night. There can be as many as 27 different floats in a single night, traveling from one shrine to the next, before looping back to starting shrine from which the procession began. On the biggest night of the festival, the parade can go on for up to 6 hours, beginning at 2pm with troupes of dancers in the streets, musical instruments such as taiko (drums), pan-flutes, reed flutes, and suzu (Japanese hand-held bells on sticks). The giant floats come out in the evening around 5:30pm, and they start their movement down the street.

At nightfall, the floats light up with bright, colorful lights. Just like a peacock displaying their iridescent plumes, the floats too, start to unfold. Starting out as colorful, albeit boxy trailers or trucks, the rigs unfold both outwards and upwards, growing magnificent displays more than 3 storeys tall, and 8 meters wide! (They also fold down and compress themselves at certain street corners to avoid hitting traffic poles and electric wires.) The streets are filled with music – the rhythmic beating of drums, the jubilee of traditional chants and flutes – and as many as 1 million visitors come to see this spectacular sight every year.

It not only reminds me of the longstanding traditions of this far northern city of Japan, it also gives me a deep appreciation of their culture and history. The floats and the legends they depict instills admiration of Japanese values and aesthetics, and a sense of awe at the artistry and engineering. It is a rewarding experience, and is not to be missed!

Getting there

If you're getting there from Tokyo Station, you'll need to catch the JR East Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station (7 stops), which takes about 2 hours and 53 minutes. Transfer to the JR Hachinohe Line bound for Kuji, and ride 2 stops to Hon-Hachinohe Station. From Hon-Hachinohe Station, it is a 10 - 15 minute walk to Ura Street - where the festival takes place!

The walk will take you past Miyagi Park which usually has a Natsu Matsuri (summer festival with food stands and games), and the Ōgami Shrine (one of the shrines of the festival). You might even be able to see some of the floats and performers around Ōgami Shrines getting ready for the festival!

For more information regarding the schedule and the procession of the Sansha Taisai Festival this year, be sure to check out Hachinohe's city website. The website is offered in English and Traditional Chinese, in addition to Japanese.

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Sander van Werkhoven a month ago
Attended this matsuri back in 2013, when I did a whole Tohoku matsuri trip. This sure was one of the highlights of that trip. Not quite as massive as some of the other ones, but those floats are amazing! And somehow Hachinohe always seems to have the best food stalls, both at this matsuri and at the Enburi festival in winter the festival food was truly next level!

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