In August of 2011, I visited my home town, Hakodate (函館), Hokkaido (北海道) to see the family members. With my husband and my brother, we decided to go to do some sight-seeing on one Sunday, and went to the Hakodate port area where the famous fish market was located. We were delight to discover that a street dancing festival called Yosakoi Soran Festival was being performed. It was a competition of choreographed team street dance with colorful costumes and props, such as flags and fans.
Different teams march through the street with synchronized dance routines with movements influenced by Japanese traditional folk dance and martial arts. Some teams were performing acrobatics like cheerleading. The costumes were mostly influenced by Japanese traditional kimono or happi (a festival coat), and were very colorful and creative. Some teams came with huge flags and banners. I could only imagine it is a hard work to dance with big props throughout the street. I thought some costumes were inspired by anime (manga) like Dragon Ball Z.
Some teams looked very well practiced and rehearsed with synchronized choreography, and some teams were there more for the fun of it. Some parents dressed the kids in matching costume as a part of their team and they were having a great fun on the street.
I was not familiar with Yosakoi Soran Dance while I was growing up in Japan in 60s and 70s, so I did some research on the history of the festival. The first festival started in 1992 in Sapporo, Hokkaido with the different universities competing against each other. A university student, who later became a politician representing Hokkaido, had a vision to combine 2 types of Japanese folk dance. One is Soran dance native to Hokkaido, and the other is Yosakoi dance native to the island of Shikoku. Soran Bushi (ソーラン節) is a traditional folk song typically sang by fishermen as a labor song. The outdoor street festival rapidly grew since then to a larger scale, and spread to different cities in Hokkaido and beyond. Participants are usually university students, Japanese folk dance clubs, or some company workers forming teams. The festival web site mentioned that overseas groups from Taiwan, Brazil, Russia and USA have participated in the event recently. Here is the English link to the festival site for 2016.
The main and the largest festival is in Sapporo in early June each year. The main festival site in Odori Park (大通公園) is the same site as the famous Snow Festival (February every year). According to the festival web site, 28,000 people participated in the festival in 2016 with about 2 million spectators.
In my opinion, June is the perfect time to visit Hokkaido. The weather is sunny and absolutely beautiful, but the heat is not intense like July or August. For the rest of Japan, June is a rainy season, and it is a miserable time. It rains and rains every day for a month, and you can get not only wet but depressed. If you are visiting Japan in June, consider heading up to Hokkaido for the nice balmy weather, and big blue sky. Hokkaido, with its young history, didn’t have a traditional large summer festival typical to other Japanese prefectures to attract the tourists in the past. This new festival just fits the niche to bring in more people to come and see gorgeous Hokkaido in summer time.
In Hakodate, a smaller scale festival is held in early August on a scenic street near the port popular with the sight-seeing visitors. I was very lucky to visit there on the right day at the right time to see the street festival.