If you are in Japan in August, one of those places you must go to is Morioka. “What is so special about this place”, I hear you ask. “What can this small-to-medium-sized city a couple of hours north of Tokyo offer that other places in Japan can’t”? The answer to that is simple: Sansa Odori
History of Sansa Odori
The history of the Sansa Odori is actually related to the legend of where Iwate Prefecture (Morioka is isn’t capital) gets its name. Iwate, or literally “hand rock” comes from a legend.
In this legend, the people of Morioka were being terrorised by a demon. No one was able to able to get rid of this demon, so the people prayed to the spirits at the Mitsuishi shrine to deal with him. When they did so, both the demon and shackles appeared and he was bound to the rock. Here he was forced by the spirits to never trouble the people again. The Oni agreed and to keep his promise and as a sign of it, the Oni’s handprint was burnt into the rock.
In celebration and in thanks to the spirits, the people celebrated by beating drums, playing flutes and dancing. That celebration has continued to today and is the Sansa Odori.
Sansa odori in Morioka
The Sansa Odori takes place from 1 to 4 August every year; it is the world’s largest Taiko (Japanese drums) drumming festival. It is also one of the Five Great Festivals of the Tohoku region. The others are the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, Kanto Festival in Akita, Tanabata Festival in Sendai, and the Hanagasa Festival in Yamagata.
In addition to being the largest taiko festival, it is unique in the style of drumming. There are a wide range of taiko styles but the Morioka Sansa Odori only features one: the local style.
The Sansa Odori takes place in the evening on the road in front of the Iwate Prefecture Government Building. It starts and ends with special opening and closing pieces. Here are the series of opening pieces:
After these opening performances have occurred, this group leaves the street and it turns into a parade. The parade features primarily groups from Iwate Prefecture, including Iwate University, various companies, school and other institutions. Any group may enter a team. Here are some examples:
Getting to Morioka
The Sansa Odori happens every year from 1 to 4 August, no matter which days it falls on. This means that it could be during the week or at the weekend. The last day (4 August) is the largest day of them all. Because the festival is one of the Five Great Festivals of the Tohoku region, you should book a hotel earlier if you are going to stay in Morioka. A good resource is Booking.com, which I used well on this trip. If you also use Wise, you can use the link in your account for a 10% discount. I was able to get free room upgrades and breakfast through Booking.com, for example.
If you are using public transport (e.g. the “Shinkansen” or bullet train) to get to Morioka, it will take you about 2.5 hours, depending on the type of Shinkansen you take. If you are driving, it will take you nearly 7 hours to get there. Once you have arrived at Morioka station, you need to make your way to the Iwate Prefectural Government Office (10-1 Uchimaru, Morioka, Iwate 020-8570), which is about 1.5 km (~0.95 miles). If you do not want to walk, there are several buses that go from one to the other. At the time of writing, they are the 212, 255, 401, 409, and 513. It will take about 10 minutes with the bus.
More information about the sansa odori
It is free to attend the Sansa Odori. They start closing the road around 5 p.m., so I would recommend being there in order to secure a good place. As people stand along the street, the sooner you are there, the better your view will be. If you are on the corner of a street or an entrance/exit to a building and the street, that is where you will have the best views. The introduction usually starts at 6 p.m. and the parade lasts until approximately 9 p.m.
The Sansa Odori also usually features an Bon Odori, which is where the community can also join in after the parade. However, due to the Covid pandemic, this was removed from the 2022 Sansa Odori. In previous years, classes to teach people how to dance in the Bon Odori were held at the Iwate Prefectural Government Office at 5 p.m.
What else is there to do in the tohoku region?
August is a great time to visit the Tohoku region due to the myriad of festivals that happen at this time. In addition to the Sansa Odori, there is Aomori’s Nebuta Festival and the Tanabata Festival in Sendai. They also fit in well with the timing. The Tanabata Festival happens on 7 August, so your next destination after Morioka could easily be Sendai. Both cities are certainly worth it.