Festivals in Tohoku: Great Golden Week entertainment

By Vicki L Beyer

Golden Week, which consists of four public holidays in the space of seven days in late spring, is a popular time for festivals celebrating the end of winter, the beginning of the planting season, and various historical events. The confluence of multiple public holidays and unique cultural festivals make this an ideal time to travel in regional Japan.

Golden Week has had an interesting evolution. The emperor's birthday had been observed as a public holiday since the Meiji Period and when in 1948 there was a move to create a fixed number of public holidays nationwide, in addition to the Emperor's Birthday (then April 29), Constitution Day (May 3) and Children's Day (May 5) were introduced. It is said that the official thinking behind putting several holidays in close proximity was that it would encourage workers to take vacations, something Japanese workers are notoriously reluctant to do. Apparently the plan backfired. Workers weren't taking May 4 off, as hoped, so the Public Holidays Law was amended to make a day that falls between two public holidays into a public holiday as well.

When the Showa Emperor died in 1989 after 64 years on the Chrysanthemum Throne, April 29 remained a public holiday, initially known as Greenery Day in recognition of the late emperor's strong environmental interests, and in 2007 renamed to "Showa Day", with May 4 becoming "Greenery Day". The move to keep April 29 as a public holiday was partly in recognition of the length of that emperor's reign; people had become accustomed to having a holiday on that day. It also preserved Golden Week.

Tohoku is a great destination for Golden Week. Being in the north, spring reaches Tohoku later, giving people from southern areas a second chance to enjoy spring. Yet it's rarely as crowded as the better known destinations of western Japan. In addition, there are lots of great festivals to enjoy. Below are just a few to consider.

Yonezawa Uesugi Matsuri Yonezawa, Yamagata April 29-May 3 A castle town and mountain stronghold since the middle ages, Yonezawa's glory days were in the Edo Period when it was ruled by the Uesugi clan. The Yonezawa Uesugi Matsuri relives those glory days with ceremonies at the Uesugi Shrine, a parade, and battle re-enactments.

Uesugi Shrine is the central feature of the former site of Yonezawa Castle. During the first few days of the festival, various ceremonies on behalf of the industries of Yonezawa are conducted here. A stage with live entertainment is also set up in the plaza in front of the nearby Culture Hall. Stalls selling festival food and mementos stretch between the two sites.

Commencing at 9:30 on the morning of May 3, there is a parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) shifting the festival's activities from Uesugi Shrine to the Matsukawa River. From 2:30, volunteers in full 16th century regalia re-enact the Battle of Kawanakajima on the river's flood plain. Kawanakajima was the site of annual skirmishes between the forces of Uesugi Kenshi (lord of Yonezawa Castle) and Takeda Shingen (lord of Sendai Castle) during the period from 1553 to 1563. While these battles never produced a decisive victory for either side, they did pave the way for the Uesugi ascendancy that fixed Yonezawa's course during the Edo Period. The colorful costumes and flags identifying soldiers of each side, as well as the horses and weaponry used by each side, make the re-enactment a particular thrill.

Spring Fujiwara Festival Hiraizumi, Iwate May 1-5

Hiraizumi is reveling in its World Heritage status, conferred in 2012 on the basis of its 11th and 12th century Buddhist history. Under the patronage of the then-powerful Fujiwara clan, Pure Land Buddhism flourished in this area. Only one major temple remains today, Chusonji, but the remains of other temples and their gardens share the World Heritage designation.

The Spring Fujiwara Festival honors four Fujiwara leaders and celebrates their greatest times, particularly when they conspired to support Minamoto Yoshitsune over his brother Minamoto Yoritomo in the late 12th century. Although Yoshitsune was widely believed to be the superior military tactician, he was ultimately eliminated by Yoritomo, who went on to unify Japan and become Japan's first shogun. Of course, the festival's focus is not on this bitter end, but rather on the more auspicious beginnings of the relationship between the Fujiwaras and Yoshitsune, who remains a hero in Hiraizumi to this day.

The highlight of the festival is the "Yoshitsune Eastern Flight Processional" from Motsuji to Chusonji on May 3. This parade is a re-enactment of Yoshitsune's arrival in Hiraizumi seeking refuge from his brother. Even though Yoshitsune was fleeing at the time, the colorful and opulent parade indicates that he did so in high style. Every year a popular actor is selected to play Yoshitsune in the parade. This year, it will be heartthrob television actor Yusuke Yamamoto.

The festival also includes other activities at various sites around Hiraizumi, including torchlight noh performances at the famous Hakusan Shrine stage on the grounds of Chusonji on the night of May 4, traditional dancing and a Benkei strongman contest on May 5, and other local live entertainment.

Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival Hirosaki, Aomori April 23- May 6

Hirosaki Park is the site of what was once Hirosaki Castle, built in the early 17th century and mostly torn down during the Meiji period. Graced with moats, elegant stone ramparts, and a few remaining castle turrets, it is a beautiful park to stroll at any time of the year. When the park's 2,600 cherry trees are in bloom, it is spectacular. Indeed, this is considered one of Japan's most famous cherry blossom viewing spots. Because of its northern location, the blossoms usually manage to show up right around Golden Week.

While the blossoms themselves are the central feature of the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival, there is also daily entertainment, including traditional dancing, as well as over 200 stalls in the park selling food and souvenirs. Rowboats can be rented by the hour in the western moat, providing another vantage on the blossoms. There are festival activities from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days with the trees beautifully illuminated until 10 p.m. One very modern feature of Hirosaki Park is free Wi-Fi throughout.

While many of the buildings of Hirosaki Castle were casualties of the Meiji period, other parts of Hirosaki benefited from Meiji modernization as Western missionaries and teachers came, leaving behind a thriving apple production and some beautiful Western-style buildings, many of which have been preserved and are now open to the public. So when you've had your fill of cherry blossoms and the activities at the park, there's still plenty to entertain you and make it worth your while to have come all this way.

These are just a few --arguably the best -- of the many festivals taking place across the Tohoku region during the Golden Week period. Get out there and enjoy them.

© Japan Today

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