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A Devil's Flight, a City's Delight
Drums of Tohoku, Japan: The Sansa Odori Festival
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-20 16:06 (KST)   
VODThe Sansa Odori Festival / David Michael Weber

Young girls give a drum demonstration before Tohoku station.
©2006 D.Weber
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
©2006 D.Weber
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
©2006 D.Weber
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
©2006 D.Weber
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 쐓tone-hand.

©2006 D.Weber
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.

©2006 D.Weber
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 쏶ansa! Sansa! and something like 쏶akkora 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.

©2006 D.Weber
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.

©2006 D.Weber
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.
©2006 D.Weber
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.
©2006 D.Weber
Sociology aside, Morioka's Sansa Odori is a worthy addition to anyone셲 festival schedule while they are in Tohoku in August.

©2006 D.Weber
©2006 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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