“Dragons, griffins, reptiles, fishes, birds there are, all dancing, waving fans, shouting, howling, singing, noising, in one form or another, in chorus perfectly bewildering.”
– Amy Michael-Carmichael, American Missionary to Japan, 1895.
Each August, Aomori City’s Nebuta Festival brings in flocks of tourists from all over Japan and abroad to gaze and wonder at the festival’s huge illuminated and animated paper lanterns. Nebuta’s giant floats are a combination of fantasy and nightmare depicting historical and legendary characters some of whom are heroes and some of demonic origin.
The floats are made of Japanese paper stretched over formed wire on a wood framework and illuminated by thousands of incandescent light bulbs. They can be up to 9 meters wide, 5 meters high, and can weigh up to 4 tons, and the cost can run upwards of $200,000. They take about three months to construct and the process of design begins almost immediately after the previous festival finishes, directed by a professional Nebuta artist known as a Nebuta-shi.
Huge and menacing animals, monsters, and demons are locked in combat to the death with their human counterparts and assail the eyes of visitors in a pagan-like splendor. However, Nebuta is not about worship or warding away evil spirits. The festival is a creative and elaborate way for the people in Aomori to ward away the sleepiness brought on by summer heat.
A Nebuta artist immortalized
Aomori City is the capital of Aomori Prefecture. It is a port city which was founded in the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1867) by the second lord of the Tsugaru clan. The city’s history had been rather quiet over the centuries until WWII when it was completely fire bombed. Aomori rebuilt itself and in doing so also discovered, buried in its outskirts, an ancient culture – the Jomon – up to 12,000 years old.
The origin of the Nebuta festival is one that invites debate but likely has multiple influences. One theory is that the festival goes back to a time when Tohoku (region of Northern Japan – including Aomori prefecture) represented a kind of Wild West frontier of outlaws: hardy settlers and indignant indigenous people. An 8th Century Shogun led an expedition to this area to subdue the people and increase the territory of imperial Japan. According to legend the expedition party built large colourful paper lanterns to lure the locals into an ambush. Another theory is that Nebuta is an adaptation of the Chinese Tanabata festival. Tanabata comes from an ancient Chinese legend about two lovers forever destined to be apart save for a brief time every summer. The custom was to set a toro – a candle placed on a wooden board covered with Japanese paper – adrift on the water. The third theory is simple and practical. Nebuta is also believed to have come about as a way of warding off the drowsiness that comes with the summer heat in order to energize for the coming harvest. The word “nebuta” is thought to have been derived from the world “Nenpute” which means sleepy in the local dialect.
The huge Nebuta floats are moved by teams who have trained for months. The better teams are quite athletic and will occasionally rush at the crowd as if to run through it. Seemingly at the last moment the reckless advance is halted to the relief of those in the front. The team will also show off their skills by spinning their huge burden around and make it dip and buck. This animation of the floats, along with thumping drums and chanting haneto dancers, brings them completely to life. Visitors to Nebuta have the option of actually becoming a part of the festival procession itself. They can borrow, rent or buy a haneto outfit and join in with the groups of dancers.
Haneto dancers gather before the festival
Dancers along the festival route
Dancers keep in time with the beat of large Taiko (太鼓) drums
Onlookers are invited to participate lured by the sounds of the Nebuta drums and bamboo flutes
Not too long ago the Nebuta Matsuri was an even wilder affair attracting some rough crowds looking to drink and fight. Men of various districts of Aomori City and Prefecture would gang together and get into fights with other groups; some wearing all black clothing and dubbed the Karasu Hanto – crow dancers. When travel to Aomori became more available to the rest of Japan, the number of tourists to Nebuta grew as did fears that the Karasu Hanto would be detrimental to tourism. Today, the police are out in force keeping things relatively under control without interfering in the wild fun.
molo has designed a permanent home for the Nebuta, and following the opening of the Nebuta House on January 5, 2011 – one week after the arrival of the newly constructed Bullet train – Aomori City will enjoy its first ever winter Nebuta festival in February. It will most likely be a Nebuta festival in the snow and a celebration of winter.
Images from this year’s Nebuta Festival from d/dt Arch.