Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

R.I.P. Japanese Horror Fan – Rodger Swan (1986-2010)

Some of you who don’t frequent Youtube may not be aware that a long time Japan Vlogger on Youtube, Rodger Swan, recently passed away suddenly. He put out a lot of videos of his experiences in Japan, first as Tokyo Swan then later as Iwate Swan when he accepted a job offer from JET to teach in Iwate Prefecture.

His most popular series was his Japanese Horror movie reviews where he looked at the good, the bad, and the gory of Japanese horror cinema. If you like Japanese horror you should check out his work. This is the first video of his playlist where he reviewed the Ring series. He has a whopping 50 reviews!

January 29, 2010 Posted by | death, Horror, iwate, Iwate Swan, japan, Japan Vlogger, japanese culture, Japanese Ghosts, Japanese Horror, Ringu, Rodger Swan, The Ring, tokyo, Tokyo Swan, tragedy, video, youtube | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Boating Through a Japanese River Gorge – GeibiKei Video

Geibikei is a scenic river gorge in the northern prefecture of Iwate where people can take flat-bottom boats piloted by singing boatmen. The boatmen guide the boats along with poles much with the gondaliers of Venice.

I was back up in Iwate again for festivals (in case you can’t tell I have a thing for festivals). One of them was rescheduled later on the weekend so I had to extend my trip.

With my extra time, I decided to go to Geibikei, a place I visited on a whim 3 years ago with my folks when we were touring the Tohoku area.

It costs about 1500Yen for a 90-minute trip there and back. At the half-way point, you can walk around a bit. On the way back, the boatmen sings traditional songs.

October 23, 2009 Posted by | boating, boats, geibikei, iwate, japan, nature, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, youtube | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Geibikei – Floating Thru a River Gorge in Northern Japan

Floating Through a River Gorge in Northern Japan
Geibikei Gorge – Iwate Prefecture

Flat-bottom boats ply the river in Geibikei Gorge

In northern Japan in the prefecture of Iwate is a little known natural treasure known as Geibikei. Geibikei is a river gorge enclosed by tall rocky cliffs some 100 meters high. Visitors can take large flat-bottom boats piloted by a singing boatmen who pole along the shallow slow-moving river somewhat like the gondoliers of Venice.


The boat pilots guide the boats with poles like the gondoliers of Venice


The round-trip boat journey takes about an hour with a stop in the middle for a quick walkabout. The walk ends at a cul-de-sac where one can try their hand at getting a bit of luck. There’s a hole in the canyon wall across a pool which people try to cast charms into in order to get good luck. For 100 Yen ($1) visitors can purchase 5 stones that have charm characters carved into them. The five are for long life, love, luck, destiny, and your own personal wish.



My first toss went straight into the hole and thinking myself done I gave my other charms to some of my fellow passengers. I forgot until later to see which charm was the lucky one.

Good Luck Charms for throwing

Visitor try to cast their good luck charms into the hole to make their luck come about

On the return, the boat pilot will sing old traditional songs that echo off the cliff walls. It’s a very serene Zen-like experience to be floating along that slow-moving river with the cliffs looming high above, the occasional piercing cry of a bird of prey on the wing, and fish swimming past as the boat pilot sings old folk medleys from long ago.

One of the highlights of the trip is the boat pilots singing old traditional songs as they pole along



My first visit to Geibikei was completely by accident a few years ago. My parents were visiting and having seen Tokyo and Kyoto before, they wanted to venture into the more unknown regions of Tohoku, the northern section of Japan.

A small shrine along the river’s edge



Tohoku is a region which often goes overlooked by overseas travelers especially by those in Japan for the first time. Tokyo and Kyoto and the surrounding areas tend to lure visitors to them and use up much of their time leaving little if any time to explore the hinterlands. It’s a shame because Tohoku has a lot to offer, Geibikei being one such place.




I had only seen the name Geibikei in passing in one of my guidebooks. I had no intention of going there until I stumbled upon a poster of it in Hiraizumi, a town we were visiting at the time. The picture was enough for me to decide to schedule it into our itinerary.




Although close to Hiraizumi, like much of Tohoku, Geibikei isn’t easy to reach. Trains don’t run so regularly as they do further south. We took the southbound train which runs about twice an hour to the little city of Ichinoseki where we transferred to the sometimes-once-hour-sometimes-less train to Geibikei station.



Not much there but there was a convenient store, ever the bastion of civilization in the woolly wilds of the hinterlands or the concrete jungle of Tokyo.




The boats can fit up to 60 people but we were fortunate not to need its full capacity. Instead we had plenty of space to have a picnic and more importantly, drink beer. Like Japanese fashion on land, we had to remove our shoes before boarding.




We passed other boats filled to the gills with giggling school kids from junior high. My folks got a kick out of watching kids just being kids despite being in school uniforms. The kids were laughing and joking and some girls had their feet in the water.




One boat of school kids, however, was quiet and somber. We found out why as it passed us – the school teacher was on that one. The kids on that boat were well-mannered and a little glum, no doubt cursing their luck to have wound up on the same boat as the teacher.




For those adventurous types on the loose in the northern country, Geibikei is certainly worth a visit. Geibikei can be reached in about 30 minutes by train or bus – neither of which run frequently – from Ichinoseki in southern Iwate.




October 3, 2009 Posted by | Blogroll, boating, boats, geibikei, iwate, japan, japanese culture, nature, photographs, photography, tohoku, travel | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Funekko Nagashi – Japanese Boat-Burning Festival Video

Here’s a video on a Japanese Boat-Burning festival known as Funekko Nagashi which takes place in the northern city of Morioka. The festival is part of the Obon tradition, a time when many Japanese travel to their hometowns to pray at their ancestors’ graves.

Here they contruct makeshift boats, pack them with fireworks, and set fire to them as they float down the river.

September 10, 2009 Posted by | festival, fireworks, Funekko Nagashi, iwate, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, morioka, Obon, Only in Japan, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, youtube | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Funekko Nagashi Matsuri – Japanese Boat Burning Festival

Funekko Nagashi Matsuri
Japanese Boat-Burning Festival

Boats burning on the river in Morioka

Obon is the time for honoring the dead and praying to the ancestral spirits in Japan. Traditionally it is believed that the souls of the departed return to the world of the living and later return at the end of Obon. Many Japanese head to their home towns in mid-August to pray at their ancestors’ graves.

Numerous communities put on dances known as Bon Odori. The most common feature of Obon is the lighted paper lantern floating on the water. People placed lanterns with the names of the departed written on them in waterways. These lanterns represent the souls returning to the underworld, the other world.

The city of Morioka in northern Japan sends the spirits off in style by burning makeshift boats stuffed with fireworks.

Makeshift boats are created specifically for the festival then burnt


The boats are packed with fireworks













Beowulf and the Vikings would have loved this festival















September 9, 2009 Posted by | culture, event, festival, fire, fireworks, Funekko Nagashi, iwate, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, morioka, Obon, tohoku, travel | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Look at the Northern Japanese City of Morioka

Morioka in northern Japan is the capital of the Iwate Prefecture. I went there recently for a festival where they burn makeshift boats for Obon – the festival for honoring their ancestors’ spirits.

In this video I take a look at the city of Morioka itself and talk a little about its past and some of its sites.

September 9, 2009 Posted by | history, iwate, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, morioka, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment

Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review: Travels, Festivals, and Events

Another year has come and gone and in soppy melodramatic fashion, it’s time to look back on all we’ve done and didn’t do. Instead of focusing on love or lack there of or personal growth, I’ve look back through the magic of film and video on all the places and things I saw in 2007.

I rang in the New Year between the traditional area of Asakusa and the sleazy area of Roppongi. Needlessly to say the 1st of January did not see me until much later in the day, in fact it was evening. My first activity of the New Year then was the following day after sleeping off an all-nighter in Roppongi. I went to the Imperial Palace on January 2nd to hear the Emperor’s New Year address. Didn’t understand a word he said (my New Year’s Resolution is to fix that problem by next year).

A week later I went to Meiji Shrine for Seijin-no-hi (Coming of Age Day) to see kimono-clad girls strut their stuff.

That weekend I went to Kanda Shrine to watch Shinto adherents prove their mettle by drenching themselves in freezing cold water. However given the unusual warmth that month, the normally chill-inducing spectactle looked rather refreshing.

The next week I went out to a temple in east part of Tokyo – Kameido. There they had a type of Noh performance. This was the first time for me to see Noh but by the end of the year while I would be no expert in Noh, I would at least know Noh much better than before.

The 3rd of February is one of my favorite times of the year. This is Setsubun which is like a mix of New Years, Groundhog Day, and Halloween rolled up togther. Every year I attend the mami-maki (bean-tossing) at different temples. This time I hit three temples – Senso-ji in Asakusa, Zojo-ji in Hammatscho, and Kichibojin in Ikebukuro. I always enjoy watching old ladies knocking people over for thrown washcloths, beans, and other trinkets.

I mainly stayed in Tokyo and when I wasn’t killing zombies and Nazis on my Playstation I was visiting gardens such as Hama-rikyu.

The end of February brings out the plum blossoms, the heralds of Spring. To see them I took daytrips to Kamakura which due to the warm winter had already shed its plum blossoms and I went to Mito in the Ibaraki Prefecture to see Kairaku-en Garden with its hundreds of plum blossoms.

February was a good month for armor. I got the chance to wear samurai armor twice. Once in Odawara in front of the castle for 200 Yen and another time in Ikebukuro at a store’s opening week for free. My inner geek was pleasantly sated.

I took another daytrip out to Chiba to watch another type of Shinto ritual where half-naked men wrestled in a cold muddy pond to ensure good fortune for all – its a Shinto thing.

The next day I embarked on an ardous journey into the heart of the urban jungle of Tokyo. Along with my comrade, Zen Master Jeff, I hiked around the Yamanote Line for five days. We stayed at an ryokan, an internet cafe, a karaoke box, and a capsule hotel. Our outfits were a mix of samurai, old style Yakuza, pilgrim, and backpacker. We met quite a few people and had several interesting adventures because of these costumes.

In March I went to Nagoya where the year before I had attended one of the most amusing festivals – the fertility festival of Tagata Shrine. Once again I saw that huge wooden phallus hove into sight admist the awes and chuckles of the spectators.

The next day I went to reconstructed castle whose original structure once belonged to warlord Oda Nobunaga.

Two days later I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish Pub with some co-workers where we listened to a kickass Irish band who were all Japanese.

The next day I went to Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple to watch the Kinryu-no-Mai – Golden Dragon Dance.

Showing the spirit of union solidarity I attended the annual March in March, a gathering of foriegn and japanese union members. It rained during the march but the sun came out at the end – The Man can now control the weather!

In April, I made my yearly Cherry Blossom pilgrimage to Kyoto where I enjoyed the Sakura both day and night thanks to nighttime illuminations.

On the second day of my trip, I went to Nara, the first official capital of Japan, to feed the semi-tame persistant deer and see the Diabutsu – Great Buddha.

The third day, I went to Yoshino which was an Imperial capital for some decades when there were two rival Imperial Courts for a time.

As it was there was a Geisha performance going on back in Kyoto at the same time in the Gion Quarter – the Miyako Odori. Luckily I was able to get a last minute ticket on my last day.

Though laden with controversy (and with good reason) Yasakuni Shrine hosts an outdoor sumo event in mid-April. While the blossoms fall, sumo wrestlers toss each other around for our free amusement.

A few days later I went to Kamakura to see Cherry Blossoms and watch a display of Yabusame – mounted archery. I injured my knee scrambling up a small tree for a better view. This injury would come back to haunt later in the summer when I was limping about.

Next Saturday, I went to Sumida Park in Asakusa to see another demonstration of Yabusame. It was here were I first saw it performed years ago and I go back to Sumida almost every year.

I went to Harajuku Park one Sunday to see the goth lolita anime folks. While I was there I was interviewed for a French cable TV channel called French Wave or something like that. It was suppose to air sometime in July but I had no way of seeing it.

That particularly Sunday in Harajuku I stumbled the remnants of the group that used to dominate Harajuku – the dancing rockabilly gangs. Don’t know why the cops drove them off 10 years ago.

Usually in May during Japan’s Golden Week, I stay put in Tokyo either working or killing people – on my Playstation, of course. Although I get 3-4 days off and sometimes more depending on my schedule, I don’t like to travel at this time because everyone is traveling. Prices are high and accomodations hard to come by. Still this year, I went up to Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture to see the re-enactment of Kawanakajima, one of the famous samurai battles of the Sengoku (Warring States) Period. The re-enactment was more like a high school play with a fair size budget but that was ok as it added a surreal element of watching smiling schoolgirl samurai swinging swords about.

I also try a bit of Yonezawa’s famous beef – which was a damn good (and expensive!) steak.

From Yonezawa I went north to Sendai and then to Hiraizumi where another festival was taking place. I watched Noh performed on a 300 year old outdoor Noh stage and drummers dressed in bizarre deer costumes. As for accomodations, I stayed for three nights in true backpacking style -at the Chateau de Internet Cafe.

The following week I was off again – back to Kyoto for 6 days. In Kyoto I went to the Silver Pavalion – Ginkakuji – named so even though it actually doesn’t have any silver. A grim jest of financial destitution or a tourist scam, you decide. Still, lovely building, silver or no.

I attended this year’s Kamogawa Odori geisha performance in Pontocho which had a story set during the civil war which burnt much of Kyoto and explained why Ginkakuji was silver-less.

That evening I went to Gion Corner to get a crash course in traditonal Japanese arts from Tea Ceremony, kodo playing (japanese harp), gagaku (court music and dance), geisha dancing, ikebana (flower-arranging), kyogen (the amusing plays inbetween the serious Noh dramas) finally to bunraku (puppet drama), All of this in under an hour.

I took the second part of the program and learned a bit on how to do make tea in the traditional tea ceremony way. My tea was a bit strong I’m afraid.

The following day I went outside of Nara to see the site of the oldest Buddhist temple – Horyuji. The current buildings do not date back to the 6th century, though.

In Nara for two nights I watched Noh by torchlight. There’s no Noh like torchlight Noh.

On Sunday I went to Iga-Ueno which was the hometown of some of Japan’s original Ninja. There I saw a short demonstration of Ninja fighting which basically means fighting dirty.

Monday I went to Ise famed for its shrines which are the number one shrines in the Shinto faith. However, instead of going to these cultural meccas since I had been culturing it up anyhow, I went to a samurai theme park. Ise has one of the Edo Wonderland themepark chains this one based on the later half of the Sengoku Period. I watched a samurai stage drama which I didn’t understand but the plot was simple enough to follow – bad samurai wants precious sword that good samurai guards. Good guy won. Dammit! Gave away the ending – sorry!

On Tuesday, I watched one of Japan’s oldest festivals, the Aoi Matsuri which was my main purpose for my trip.

My knee had troubled me a bit at first but by the end of the trip, I was fine. However my knee injury would re-surface during the rainy season next month. Before that occurred I still had some weeks with a trouble-free knee and so two days back from my Kyoto trip off I went to Nikko to catch the tail end of the festival procession honoring Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I caught a bit of Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri as well. I was really still tired from my Kyoto trip to gave these last two as much time and energy. But I watched people carrying around Mikoshi -portable shrines – and had a good time. I aslo caught another bit of Noh (it was definately becoming a Noh year for me).

I was rested enough towards the end of the month to take in sumo. I was fortunate to be there the day Yokozuna (champion) Asashoryu lost a pivotal match which paved the way for a new Yokozuna. Well, fortunate for me not for him, I guess.

Two days later I was in an area known as Miura, a beach area 2 hours south of Tokyo, where I watched another form of Yabusame – Kasagake. Similar to Yabusame, kasagake has a more military practicality. The targets are placed in front and are lower down at the same height as a dismounted enemy.

June is the rainy season so I planned to take it easy for a change and just stay put but as luck would have it during the Sanja Matsuri I chanced upon a poster for a festival in some town I never of before. The festival was honoring a samurai family from long ago who fled to the village of Yunishigawa. I was intrigued so off I went. To my dismay I missed the procession of warriors in 12th century armor by a day but I caught something even better – women in colorful robes dancing in the street and an incredible performance on a biwa – a type of lute.

Biwa Performance

I injured my knee by putting too much stress on it running to work one day. I ended up limping into class. Through mid-June to mid-July I spent most of my days off at home but I did go to Harajuku park again one Sunday to see the inhabitants there.

In mid-July, I was back down in Kyoto once again. This time for the Gion Festival. Two-story floats filled with musicians and covered with old tapestries were pulled through the streets. Today the floats are dwarfed by tall modern buildings but back in the day, those floats must have really seemed gigantic.

I also went into the mountains behind Kyoto to Enryaku-ji which was once a huge temple compound with thousands of subtemples until the aforementioned Oda Nobunaga who apparently wasn’t much of a temple-going man burned many of the temples and killed a great number of priests. The priests, however, weren’t terribly temple-going types either has they maintained an army and used it to fight other temples and bully the capital.

There was a sumo tournament in Nagoya so I headed up there and spent the whole day at the sumo tournament where I watched the various ranks of sumo wrestlers from the lowest to the highest compete. I aslo got the chance to visit one of the sumo houses but it was after their dinner so I missed all the “big” sumo wrestlers. Only the “little” guys were there cleaning up.

I basically took it easy this trip though since the weather wasn’t all that great and my knee was bothering me. The last day I went on a type of fishing excursion known as ukai where cormorant birds are used to catch fish. It was dark and rainy and my camera kept fogging up.

Next week I was at it again – this time the Soma Nomaoi, a festival I went to 2 years ago. I saw again the armored samurai in the best historical procession I’ve seen. This time I stayed for the last day’s festivities of the 3-day festival. I watched pensioners round up semi-wild horses at a shrine.

August was a crazy month for me which made all the previous months pale in comparison. Starting Aug 2 I went on an 8-day 6-festival trip throughout Tohoku. I started with the drumming festival of Sansa Odori in Morioka.

Then I went to Akita City where I watched people balance huge bamboo poles with lanterns on their palms, hips, and heads.

South of Morioka, I spent two days at a festival where they had all kinds of dance performances but the best one and the one that brought me here in the first place was the Oni Kembai or devil dance.

I spent two refreshing nights in a business hotel during the Oni Kembai festival – this after two nights in two uncomfortable internet cafes – before going to Hirosaki to see Neputa.

then off to Aomori to see the last night of Nebuta in which they put some of the best floats in harbor while fireworks go off overhead.

The last festival was similar to Aomori’s Nebuta except that the floats were much taller – 3 of them clocked in at 22 meters high! This was Tachi Neputa, the tiny town of Goshogowara’s claim to fame. My knee bothered me so much at times I could barely walk.

A week later I was in Niigata on Sado Island to see once again the Kodo Taiko drum group’s 3-day concert. It was here I met with some sexy japanese belly dancers. I finally got myself a knee brace before going out to the island which helped me hobble about a bit better.

Near the end of the month, I was back in Asakusa to catch the Asakusa Samba Festival. Lots of cameras were clicking away as scantily-clad samba girls pranced about to a Latin beat.

The next evening I went to Kameido Temple to see another Noh performance this one by torchlight too.

September – typhoon season – I really did take easy though I still went to sumo on one of my days off.

In my neighborhood, I caught a festival. Though I missed the mikoshi, I saw a cool drum band.

During that time there was an Oktoberfest celebration going on near Tokyo station at Hibiya Park. I spent two nights there drinking German and Japanese beers eating sausages and watching German and Japanese girls prance about in leiderhosen – or whatever german girls wear – to German oompah music.

I had meant to go to a festival that month up in Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture but this time my laziness finally said no and I stayed home the whole time and killed zombies on Resident Evil/Biohazard 4.

October was another busy month as I took off to Europe to meet up with my parents, my sister and her husband, my cousin, and my uncle in a small family renunion in italy. I headed off first to catch the last two days of Oktoberfest in Munich. The last Saturday of Oktoberfest was so packed I was in mortal danger of going beerless at the world’s largest beer festival. Fortunately, the gods of beer smiled upn me and I was able to partake of the holy elixir.

Then I spent a week beer-guzzling while taking in the castles of Bavaria’s mad king, Ludwig II and listening to some really talented street musicians.

An overnight bus brought me to Zagreb where I spent the morning wandering around the old town admiring the rampant grafitti. At noon, I had my eardrums shattered by their noonday chime which is delivered by a WWII howitizer cannon.

From Zagreb I proceeded to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia, a country which tires of being mistaken for Slovakia.

I spent a night there then spent a day at beautiful Lake Bled.

An overnight train brought me into Venice – well not at first since in my exhaustion I got off at the first station before Venice and had to wait half-an-hour till the next one. I spent the day wandering about the city which was all I could afford to do as admission prices are stupidly high and the lines were stupidly long too. That night I arrived in Florence and spent much of the next day there.

I met my family at a villa that was part of a small castle complex outside of Florence. Wasn’t use to this luxury – I had slept in a locker for two nights in the train station in Munich during Oktoberfest. From then on it was smooth sailing – except when we got lost on the winding roads of the Tuscan Hills which was often.

I went to several medieval walled towns that week in Tuscany and Umbria. Ah, the bloodshed and paranioa of past centuries left some wonderful sites to see throughout the area. My favorite was Monteriggiono outside of Siena.

I returned home to Tokyo just in time to catch a ride on the notorious Yamanote Halloween Train. Little did I know till later of all the controversy that had been swarming around the event. As it was, the killjoys helped to kill one Halloween Train but they knew nothing about the Halloween Train I was on – the killjoys left some amusingly angry comments on the Youtube video I made about the event.

After the Halloween Train, I went into Roppongi for a bit fun and sleaze. I also went there on Weds, Halloween proper but it was dead and not int he Halloween sense. However, I did get a bit of grind action from a she-devil and her playboy playmate pal.

November was another quiet month. On Culture Day, Nov 3, I went to a small pocket in Tokyo’s urban sprawl to see a small demonstration of a Japanese lord’s procession from several centuries ago and to see one of my student’s samba group perform.

I went home for Thanksgiving where I got fat on some good southern grub such as fried catfish, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread. Also got to pet my doggies.

December was also a quiet one for traveling. I went to Sengaku-ji Temple in Shinagawa to see the festival honoring the 47 Ronin who 300 years earlier arrived on a snowy morning with the head of the lord’s enemy to lay at their masters’ grave.

Then on the 23rd I went to the Imperial Palace again. This time to hear the Emperor give a birthday address. Since 2002, I’ve always gone to the Palace on the Emperor’s birthday. Last year I missed the address though I was still able to go inside. This year I got to see and hear some welldressed Japanese rightwingers (and possible yakuza) get really into wishing the Emperor a happy birthday.

And the last 5 minutes of 2007 were spent at Zojo-ji Temple where hundreds of balloons flew off.

Whew! Well that’s that for 2007! Look out 2008! Actually, I think might just take the year off.

January 2, 2008 Posted by | 2007, 47 Ronin, akihito, belly dancing, cosplay, culture, dance, entertainment, event, festival, geisha, Gion, heike monogatari, iwate, japan, japanese emperor, japanese history, Kyoto, life, martial arts, matsuri, misogi, morioka, Mudslinging, Munchen, Munich, music, Naked Festival, nebuta, neputa, New Year's Eve, New Years, ninja, Oktoberfest, parade, party, plum blossom, purification, ronin, Sado Island, sakura, samba, samurai, sansa odori, seijin-no-hi, sengakuji, sengoku, Setsubun, sexy, Shinto, soma nomaoi, Sport, spring, sumo, taiko, tohoku, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, travel, video, Yabusame, yamanote halloween train, Yamanote Train, yokozuna, youtube | 5 Comments

The Drums of Tohoku – the Sansa Odori Festival

Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival rolls out the Drums

A Devil’s Flight – A City’s Delight


Young Girls Give a Drum Demonstration before the Station

Tohoku – the northern region of mainland Japan – likes its summer festivals (matsuri). The whole area in the first week of August seems to erupt with big and grandiose festivals – each one apparently trying to outdo each other in extravagance. It’s like a keeping up with the Joneses (or the Tanakas) affair with each city vying for attention and visitors.


Traditional Sansa Odori Dancer

For visitors to Tohoku in August, they have their pick of festivals to attend. With a bit of luck and transportation fiddling, they can almost do all of them or at least a good number.


One of the 600 Flute Players of Sansa Odori

Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival has some stiff competition from Aomori’s famous Nebuta Matsuri with its gigantic floats to the North, Akita’s Kanto Festival with its tall, tall lantern poles to the west, and Sendai’s colorful Tanabata Festival to the south. Even many Japanese are not familiar with the Sansa Odori but the festival boasts a procession of 20,000 participants in colorful robes, 5,000 drums, and 600 flutes. Definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Power Rangers on Parade

Morioka is the capital of the Iwate Prefecture and was founded in 1597. It was a castle town administrated by the Nambu clan during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The origin of name of Iwate and the Sansa Odori are linked to the same legendary event.

Sometime in the distant past, a devil terrorized the area around Morioka. The people prayed to a local god for deliverance. The god answered their prayers and defeated the devil. He made the devil swear never to bother the people of the region again. As a sign of his pledge, the god had the devil place his hand upon one of three stones. The handprint remained and the name Iwate was born which means “stone-hand.”

The people were so relieved that they put on a festival – the Sansa Odori – to celebrate the devil’s departure. Sansa Odori is held throughout the first week of August. During the day near the train station several dance demonstrations are held. In the evening a long procession is made involving 20,000 people in various colorful attire. Some are dancing, others are playing the flute, but the largest contingent is the drummers.

The drummers carry a miniature taiko drum on their chest with the drum heads facing left and right. The drummers range in ages from grandmothers to toddlers. One would fear that the noise of all these drums would make a horrendous un-rhythmic catastrophe of music. Fortunately, the procession had a pleasant rhythm that was unbroken and quite catchy.

The participants chant “Sansa! Sansa!” and something like “Sakkora Cholwa Yasse” which most Japanese can’t even understand. The phrase the participants chant is a linguistic soup mix of the local dialect and old Japanese with a bit of Emishi for flavoring. The Emishi were the original inhabitants of the Iwate area before they were absorbed after much effort a thousand years ago.

I was passing through Iwate on my way to Aomori and the Nebuta Festival. I knew nothing about the Sansa Odori when I arrive in Morioka. When I saw pretty young girls in flowing dresses near the station, I thought to myself that this bore further investigation. I was not disappointed.

In the evening I watched a two hour long parade of drumming, dancing, and fluting(?). Along with the pretty girls, I saw a number of unique displays of individuality in the shape of Power Rangers, walking vegetables, a group of monkeys that seemed to have materialized from some drug-induced nightmare, and some very unconvincing drag queens.

She’s not a natural blonde but she drums well

I heard from witnesses that the Sansa Odori in the past was more uniform in appearance but is now evolving (some say de-evolving) as Japanese society itself changes with the times.


A disturbing Monkey – what nightmares are made of

Sociology aside, Morioka’s Sansa Odori is a worthy addition to anyone’s festival schedule while they are in Tohoku in August.

August 18, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, dance, devils, entertainment, festival, folklore, iwate, japan, matsuri, morioka, oni, sansa odori, tohoku, travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments