A long time ago Kitakami (北上) was part of the Mutsu
Province, but there has been evidence of settlement from
the Jomon period. In the late Heian period the Northern
Fujiwara clan ruled the area, but during the Sengoku
period the land was fought over by various samurai
clans. Kitakami was divided in the Edo period between
the Nanbu Clan of Morioka and the Date Clan of Sendai.
The main attraction to Kitakami is the 10,000 cherry
blossom trees and 100,000 azaleas planted along the
Kitakami River. Before these trees were planted,
Kitakami was going through a severe case of
deforestation in the early Taisho era.
The mayor of Kurosawajiri, which is now part of Kitakami, Kouji Sawafuji created the Waga Tenshochi Plan and hired two people to head the project. The plan was to create a cherry blossom spot that was not only a beautiful place in the region, but nationwide. Most other scenic spots have one species of cherry blossoms, but they decided to plant a variety of seeds along the bank of Kitakami River. This resulted in over 150 species of cherry blossoms blooming in 1921 when the Tenshochi Park officially opened to the public. It is said the view from the nearby small hill called Jingaoka inspired the name. In 1990, Tenshochi Park was listed as one of the top 100 famous cherry blossom spots in Japan.
Kitakami is the place for the famed Michinoku Geino Festival where 100s of people perform folk art traditions. Patrons will have the chance to see the Shishi Odori (deer dance), kagura (god entertainment), and Onikenbai (demon sword dance). The Shishi Odori has many stories pertaining to the origin of the dance like it was created to mimic the movements of a wild deer or a prayer to a deer that was killed. Kagura is a form of theatrical Shinto dancing that has existed for over 500 years. The two most famous styles in Iwate are Take and Otsugunai Kagura. Together the styles are known as Hayachine Kagura. In 2009, Kagura was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Onikenbai translates to demon sword dance and is traditional folk art from Kitakami. The history of the dance dates back over 1,300 years ago and has been continually performed by the locals. In 1993 it was listed as a national important intangible folk cultural property. Even though the word Oni (demon) is used, the masks for the performance do not have horns thus resembles Buddha instead. The colors of the masks are red, black, green and white. The person who wears the white mask is the leader of the group and is referred to as ichikenbai (first sword dance). In addition to the dance, taiko drums and flutists accompany the group. The Onikenbai is meant to purify the land and appease the vengeful spirits by performing the henbai, which is a unique step in the dance. Kitakami keeps this tradition alive by teaching the dance in elementary and junior high schools.