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Tohoku’s Marvelous Matsuri

Occupying most of Honshu island between Tokyo and Hokkaido, Japan’s Tohoku region is a treasure land for travelers. With intact Samurai towns and original Japanese castles, captivating coastal scenery, delectable cuisine and vibrant expressions of all Japan’s seasons, it punches far above its weight—so few people know it.

While Tohoku is amazing to visit no matter when you go or what you do there, coming in summer—specifically, during the first week of August—is especially fulfilling. This is when the region’s matsuri, or festivals, take over its cities.

Over the next few paragraphs, I’ll help you decide whether you should attend the Akita festival or Aomori festival—or both. (I won’t go so far as to declare one of the best of the Tohoku matsuri, however.)

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What are Tohoku’s Three Great Festivals?

The Akita Matsuri and Aomori Matsuri are two of the best festivals in Japan, but there’s another Tohoku matsuri that tends to be grouped together with them. This is the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri which, in spite of its name, actually takes place a month after the nationwide “star festival” that occurs during the month of July (so, in early August, around the same time as the ones in Aomori and Akita).

For the purposes of this post, however, I really want to stick to a direct comparison between the Akita and Aomori matsuri. Thanks to the closest of the two cities—it’s just a two-hour train ride down the coast from Aomori to Akita—and the fact that you can literally attend the festivals one day after another, I think they have a lot more in common than the celebration in Sendai, as spectacular as it is.


Aomori Nebuta Matsuri


How Do Festivals in Aomori and Akita Differ?


While the kanto for the Akita festival are uniform—they’re more or less all rectangular, with a “point” at the top, and are made up of individual lanterns—the nebuta paraded around in Aomori are freeform. They depict all sorts of mythological beings in a huge variety of colors, and are so huge it takes many people to carry them. Both are much more stunning at night, when they’re lit up.


When deciding between Kanto Matsuri or Nebuta Matsuri, the ease of seeing each will contribute. While Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri takes a long route through the city, heading south from the ASPAM building before hanging a left and circling through most of the urban center, the Akita Kanto Matsuri simply goes up and down Kanto Odori street. As a result, you might say it’s easier to appreciate the parade in Akita.


Mysteriously, the history of the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is pretty ambiguous. While it’s thought to have originated from the nationwide Tanabata festival, no one knows for sure; it’s also unclear when the first festival took place. In Akita, on the the other hand, the history is better understood. Specifically, it started in the mid-18th century as a way to ward off not only malevolent spirits, but also the malaise that can set in during the hot, humid summer.


The timing of the Kanto Matsuri vs Nebuta Matsuri is pretty similar. Specifically, while the Akita Matsuri takes place between August 3-6, the one in Aomori lasts from August 2-7. If you decide to attend both, this makes it easy. Personally, I went to Aomori Nebuta Matsuri on August 3, and Akita Kanto Matusri on August 4. If you do plan to go, book early: Hotels in both Aomori and Akita fill up fast, up to a year in advance!


Can’t make it to Aomori or Akita during the first week of August? Not to worry—you can still see the floats from both matsuri. To me, this experience is more enjoyable in Aomori, whose Wa Rasse hall is huge and impressive, and on the scale of the festival itself. Akita’s Neburi-nagashi Museum, on the other hand, is much smaller; the kanto don’t seem nearly as imposing as they do during the actual parade.


Akita Kanto Matsuri


When Do Tohoku’s Summer Festivals Take Place?

Ideally, if you head all the way up to Tohoku during the sweltering summer, you should at least do festivals in Aomori and Akita. Here are the days of all three, to help you make your decision:

  • Aomori Nebuta Matsuri: August 2-7
  • Akita Kanto Matsuri: August 3-6
  • Sendai Tanabata Matsuri: August 6-8
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Other FAQ About Summer Festivals in Akita and Aomori

What are the 2024 dates for the Akita Kanto Matsuri?

The Akita Kanto Matsuri will take place between August 3-6, 2024. Because the festival is more or less the same each day, I’d probably recommend only attending one day. Additionally, do keep in mind that while there are certain daytime festivities, what happens at night is the most interesting.

What are the 2024 dates for the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri?

The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri will take place between August 2-7, 2024. As is the case in Akita, I recommend attending just one day; you will want to choose a day just before or after when you plan to be in Aomori if you plan to see both of these spectacles.

What is Aomori best known for?

Aomori is known for many things, including being the northernmost major city on the Japanese island of Honshu, and for being the country’s top apple producer. Another of the city’s claims to fame? The annual Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, which takes place during the first week of August every year.

The Bottom Line

Should you visit the Akita Festival or Aomori Festival—or both? In my opinion, if you’re planning to travel all the way to one city, you might as well visit the other, especially since the festivals take place during the same week. On the other hand, you’ll need to plan as far in advance as possible, given how quickly hotels tend to sell out around this time of year. Want to put together an amazing summer trip to Japan, which combines matsuri with seasonal spectacles, cuisine and other types of Japanese culture? Consider commissioning a custom Japan itinerary!


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