Aomori's Nebuta Festival and its Shiny Floats

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Category : Monzurul Huq

festi01The colourful image and warrior motif’s that give Nebuta floats their distinct character.
Monzurul Huq
Japan’s Aomori prefecture, situated at the northern end of the country’s main Honshu Island, is known as the ‘snow country’. The areas of prefecture’s eastern part facing the Sea of Japan is covered by snow almost a third of the year, thus making Aomori one of the snowiest regions of the country. The arrival of summer thus turns out to be the time for celebration and outdoor enjoyment for the people of the snow covered land, where long winters also mean regular extra work of shoveling snow away from their doors and rooftops.

The drummer playing his hands on a Taiko drum.

No wonder that Aomori’s most famous cultural events, the Nebuta Festival in Aomori City and the Neputa Festival in Hirosaki City, fall in the mid summer when after long hot and humid days evenings provide ample opportunity for people to move around in a relaxed mood. Both of these festivals are held in early August and among the two, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori City is considered to be the biggest and brightest of all summer festivals in Japan.

During the festival time Dashi, large colourful floats, glide slowly through the streets of the city to the beat of Taiko drums and wooden flutes. The Nebuta Festival is also well known as one of Japan’s foremost fire festivals, and in 1980 the event was designated as a national intangible cultural asset. Large colourful floating dolls, each of which takes almost a year to take the complete shape from original conception to actual construction, are one of the most integral parts of the festival. A recent press tour to Aomori allowed a group of Tokyo-based foreign journalists to watch the process of making the Nebuta floats and also attend a briefing on the making of the floats by a master creator of those colourful figures made of paper and wires.

The festival, which is held annually from 2 to August 7, has its root in Japan’s ancient history. There are various explanations for the origin of the Nebuta Festival, but the one most often cited traces back to the beginning of the Heian period or the era of peace and tranquility that lasted from the end of the eighth century to the late twelfth century. It was the great period of classic aristocratic culture in Japan.

The tradition of displaying Nebuta floats in summer festivals is said to have originated after the subjugation of a rebellion in the northern part of Honshu by a general named Tamuramoro Sakanoue, who ordered his army to create large artificial creatures to frighten the enemy. Tamuramoro also tricked his enemy by hiding soldiers inside large paper dolls depicting creatures and ferocious warlords. A second interpretation gives the credit of introducing the huge paper dolls to the folklore tradition and holds the view that the purpose of their introduction was to give people physical and mental inspiration and invigoration. Yet another view is that the special illuminated effigies have Buddhist significance. But whatever the origin, the Nebuta Festival has become an integral part of the rich cultural heritage of Japan’s Aomori prefecture.

In recent days information about Nebuta and the festival has spread throughout Japan and beyond, resulting in streams of tourists to Aomori City during the six days of festival. Moreover, troupes of musicians, designers and their Nebuta floats have traveled around Japan and to many countries of the world carrying the message about these wonderful creations and their origins. A special exhibition of Nebuta floats held in London’s British Museum during 2001-2002 attracted a large audience who has appreciated the refined artistic beauty of those huge paper dolls.

Unlike many of Japan’s traditional forms of art, Nebuta dolls do not have a direct link with any religious shrine or divine power. As it frequently happens with shoulder-carried deities in Japan’s numerous summer festivals known as Matsuri, Nebuta floats do not end up in any shrine or temple once the festival is over. Most of them are simply dismantled and some of the best floats these days find their way to ‘Nebuta-no-Sato’ or the house of Nebuta, which is a permanent display museum for such paper made artistic creations.

As the master artisan of Nebuta floats, Kosei Akihito guided the foreign press members to show the various stages of creating the dolls, it became clear why it takes almost a year to complete the process of making one single unit of those paper dolls. The whole work is painstakingly done by hand, thus demanding masterful skill from all who are involved in the process. The designers or the creators of Nebuta floats are responsible for making the initial designs and guiding others in the process of giving the dolls their concrete shapes. Metal wires and pieces of wood are what hold the structure where specially made paper is pasted and then coloured to give the dolls their distinct images.

During the Nebuta festival, the whole city of Aomori comes out on the streets where the floats are carried in the evening as haneto dancers cry out the melodic sound “rassera” with their dancing beat. The time is also the peak of tourism for the region as almost 400,000 visitors flood to Aomori city during the six days of festival. This also makes the festival time the most important part of city life with sales picking up to the record height for the whole year.

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