Sendai, capital of the entire northeastern Tohoku region, is no stranger to good times. Festivals are happening every season, with everything from a city-wide jazz jamboree with dozens of stages and hundreds of musicians, to a romantic winter time illumination. Across Japan in the summer is the Tanabata Festival, but Sendai hosts the biggest Tanabata of all. Even with all these great events, if you want to see Sendai's original and oldest grand celebration, make sure to stop by the Aoba Festival on the third Saturday and Sunday each year in May. This should not be confused with the Aoba Ward Festival.
The Aoba Festival, originally called the Sendai Festival, started 350 years ago after the completion of the city's Toshogu Shrine by clan leader Date Tadamune, Like all Toshogu Shrines, they were built to honor the legendary leader that united the country: Tokugawa Ieyasu. Years later when Aoba Shrine was built to remember the founder of Sendai, Date Masamune, people slowly started to start call the celebration Aoba Festival. Today, you'll see the history, tradition, and a little magic by some colorful characters that make the festival the unforgettable experience that it is.
The Saturday festival activities include Sparrow Dance competitions and performances all around downtown. This is considered a warm up to the main events the next day. Still, it is highly recommend to see these skillful performances both days because they deserve the spotlight. The "Suzume-Odori," as it is called in Japanese, was created by stone masons that built Aoba Castle just after the year 1600. The dance includes jumping and spinning while whirling fans ('feathers') around to the beat of drums, flutes, and cymbals. A flock of 2000 of these dancers show up to strut their stuff Saturday and Sunday, so you can't miss them even if you tried. Additionally, there will be some special performances and events which change annually and of course many stalls, games, etc. that are festival standards no matter where you go. On Sunday, the samurai come out to play.
While the local tourism promoting Date Bushotai period actors duel rival warriors in the plaza across from Kotodai Park, a huge parade is making its way through the city. More sparrow dancers fill the ranks, but they are just the vanguard. Signaling their arrival with a thundering boom discharged from replica period muskets, samurai flood into the streets. Marching with their armor reflecting the light that sneaks through the Jozenji Avenue zelkova leaves, these warriors are representations of the legions that once fought and protected the Sendai clan territory. Breaking their proud ranks are wheeled parade floats known as yamaboko. All are pulled by teams of citizens and each is a unique design. Often relating to Japanese mythology, don't be surprised to see occasional Buddhist or Shinto references. Companies sponsor some floats, while others will be ridden by special guests such as the mayor.
The Aoba Festival takes place in the most beautiful and accessible part of the city along the tree-lined streets downtown and at the event space at Kotodai Park. Spend both days taking in the sights, and in the downtime explore some of the nearby museums or numerous restaurants all within walking distance along the European inspired streets. See more pictures of the excitement here.
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Justin Velgus (ジャスティン ベルガス) is a long-term resident and promoter in the Tohoku region. He has been a content producer for JapanTravel.com since 2012 and was the Miyagi Prefecture Regional Partner 2013-2015. Justin’s over 300 published travel and culture articles come from a background of studying in Akita, teaching English in Miyagi through the JET Program, and working for the government in Fukushima. He lives in the gyutan capital of the world, Sendai. Justin is an expert in local culture and history. He was the first foreign volunteer at Sendai City Museum and regularly advises the local volunteer guide group GOZAIN , which he is a veteran member, on guiding techniques and hidden locations in the city even locals don't know about. In his free time he enjoys delivering original walking tours, such as his Dark Sendai Tour (ghost tour) or Kokubuncho Mystery Tour (redlight district tour). Justin is also a Certified Sake Professional.