Let yourself be swept away by the giant, whimsical folklore floats that light up the night at Aomori’s famous Nebuta Matsuri.
Aomori Prefecture’s Nebuta Festival is considered one of the three great festivals of the Tohoku region. Held from August 2 to 7, the festival’s main attraction is the jaw-dropping collection of 20 nebuta, parade floats with enormous washi paper lantern figures which are handmade to resemble mythical figures, spirits and gods, kabuki actors, and TV characters from popular historical dramas. Sometimes you can even see familiar characters from Western popular culture, like a super-sized version of Yoda from Star Wars.
Nebuta are locally built by a team of experts, who are given around ¥4 million to build each one. Most of that money goes toward the cost of materials and labour, and the process can take anywhere from three months to a full year to complete. Though they’re made of just wood, wire and paper, these colourful beasts can rise up to 5 metres, with widths of up to 9 metres, and usually weigh several tons. Once constructed, the nebuta are completely illuminated inside with up to a thousand lightbulbs, which are strategically attached to the thick wood beams of the nebuta frame to minimize shadows and maximize the wow factor. The result is a visual spectacle that is truly one of the most impressive sights around. Each year over three million visitors travel to participate in the festivities. No one knows for sure how the festival first began, but it was probably inspired by the Buddhist ritual of sending lanterns downstream to honour ancestral spirits. Just like the religious tradition, the festival’s nebuta are carried out to sea, and a whole new set are made for the following year.
During festival week, the nebuta parade the night streets, pulled by teams of up to 50 people. The handlers spin the mammoth floats around at each intersection, bringing the nebuta closest to the crowds of onlookers that cheer the loudest. They’re accompanied by cymbals, flutes,taiko drumming and hundreds of dancers, who bounce around chanting, “Rassera, rassera!” All dancers are brightly wrapped in haneto, a special summer yukata (robe), often paired with an elaborately decorated straw hat. The dancers are just as iconic to this festival as the floats themselves—but unlike the nebuta artisans, anybody can become a festival dancer, no training or advance notice required. All you need is a haneto costume, which is widely available for around ¥4,000 ($45–50 CAD) for rental, and ¥10,000 ($110–120 CAD) for purchase. On the final day, the nebuta embark on a daylight parade before they’re sent out to sea, and the festival closes with a spectacular two-hour firework show.
How to get into beast (lantern) mode
Want to try out this exciting, interactive nebuta festival experience? Here are some simple tips to help you make the most of your visit.
DO dance the night away
Shops will help you put on the haneto, and fellow dancers will teach you the simple steps.
DO NOT forget a light jacket
Summer evenings in Tohoku can get a bit chilly, so come prepared if you plan to party like a night owl.
DO seafood and eat it
Many festival food stalls offer fresh munchies from the sea, so dive in and prepare for waves of flavour.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe