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Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, Japan

Japan is notorious for their epic and impressive festivals. And the Nebuta Matsuri did not disappoint.

Designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan in 1980, the Nebuta Matsuri is a Tanabata, a summer-related festival (or matsuri in Japanese), that is held in the Tohoku, the northern region of the main island of Honshu. Towns in Aomori Prefecture all have their own version of the festival, but the largest is held in Aomori City which is held annually from August 2 to 7. During the festival, giant floats showcasing warriors from plays and myths are paraded down the street while hundreds of dancers dressed in costumes called haneto and shouting the chant “Rassera!!” and inviting others to join in.

It’s not entirely known how the festival came to be but it likely originated from Shinto ceremonies like the Tanabata festival. One explanation, which has turned into some sort of a legend, is that the festival came from the use of flutes and the taiko drums Japanese general and shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro used when going into battle. However, it is unlikely these military operations were conducted in what is now Aomori Prefecture.

Carrying large lantern floats like the Nebuta were banned during the Edo and Meiji periods since they were a fire hazard. This ban was also implemented during World War II but was lifted in 1944 to help with morale. The floats were made by residents of different towns and passed down from generation to generation yet businesses and corporations started designing their own floats which is what can be seen in this current age. Originally made with washi paper and bamboo frames, the floats were lit with candles, thus categorizing the Nebuta Matsuri as a fire festival. Nowadays, the floats are made with wire and the light source is a light bulb and are powered by generators and batteries.

When planning a trip to Aomori during the festival season, you’ll want to start planning early! Hotels were fully booked and many festival goers had reserved seats along the parade route for the best and unobstructed views of the giant floats. If you plan on taking the train, the route is only a five-minute walk from JR Aomori Station. To say it was crowded is a huge understatement. Between people gathering around food vendors, purchasing souveniers at the A-Factory, and camping out on the sidewalks along the parade route…you get the picture.

Living only a little over an hour away, I drove to Aomori for the day to enjoy the festivities. The parade wasn’t due to start until 7 pm and since I had arrived just around 10 am, I had plenty of time to spare and enjoy the food. Parking wasn’t too much of a hassle since I got there early, but it wasn’t cheap: I think I paid about ¥2500 for about 12 hours but it was worth it.

I was originally planning on walking throughout the city, but the weather proved to be a lot warmer than I had anticipated to the point where I bought a change of clothes and opted to stay either indoors or in the shade. Near the bay, there’s the Aomori Prefectural Center for Tourism and Industry (ASPAM), which was packed with food and merchandise vendors selling local goods. The floats that were being showcased that year were parked behind the visitors center, and festival goers were able to get up close to them and see the tiny details in the broad daylight. Each float was created by a different organization or group. The train station and surrounding restaurants and shops were filled with festival goers trying to snag some souvenirs. The A-Factory, a popular shop that specializes in everything apple related the prefecture has to offer, was so packed, that I decided returning on a less busy day would be best.

You couldn’t beat the food, however. Practically all Japanese festival food is the same, from takoyaki (octopus balls), to dango (dumplings made from rice flour), to ikayaki (grilled squid on a stick). But they’re all so good! Because Aomori is famous for its apples, many vendors had apple pastries and drinks available; my favorite was the apple vinegar and soda water, which was incredibly refreshing in the heat. Adults were also able to participate in an apple cider tasting and for ¥500, you could taste ten different ciders from ten different breweries all over the prefecture and vote for your favorite.

When I had my fill of food, I started making my way to find a seat to watch the floats. I found a spot by some commercial businesses that gave me a great view of the street. Alas, not the best location for photographs, but a great view none the less. Teenaged girls in haneto were selling bells and trinkets for good luck and those participating were running around in large groups, getting a final meal in before the festivities began. The sun started to set and hundreds…if not thousands…of people wearing these costumes filled the streets. To the tune of flutes and the beat of taiko drums, participates shouted and sang “Rassera!” over and over again. I can’t even begin to describe the energy among the locals, both old and young, awed by the giant floats as they are carried through the streets. It was a truly a sight to see!

If you’re unable to attend the Nebuta Matsuri in August, Aomori does have a museum dedicated to the history of the festival. In the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE, older floats are on display in dark rooms and visitors can don the headdresses and touch the floats. The sounds of taiko drums and flutes fill the rooms, and it feels like you’re actually at the festival.

What is your favorite summer festival in Japan? Please share!

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