No one can agree on the origin of the Nebuta Matsuri. However, some believe the nebuta floats were invented by General Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro in the 800’s, when his army created these gruesome creatures from cloth and bamboo to scare away the enemy. As time passed, the size, shapes, and colors of the lanterns evolved into what’s seen at the present day Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. However, while historians cannot agree on the origins of the festival, no one can argue with the fact it is one of the most memorable and visually impressive festivals in Japan.
Locals in Aomori will spend the entire year constructing the enormous nebuta floats. Unlike typical parade floats, the Nebuta Matsuri floats are 15 to 30 feet tall, made of fragile washi paper, hand-designed wire and a bamboo frame. Floats typically depict Japanese gods, historical figures, kabuki actors, and mythological beings. As a finishing touch, hundreds of light bulbs are weaved throughout the floats, illuminating the parade with amazing colors. The Nebuta Matsuri is lit up with every color imaginable. By day the nebuta floats are impressive, but by night they are absolutely breathtaking.
The best part of this festival is not necessarily the intricate floats, nor the taiko drums, dancers, or musicians. It is the audience participation. Onlookers, regardless of their age or ability, are allowed to participate in the festival, dancing around the hand-pulled floats and chanting “rassera,” a nonsensical phrase only seen during the Nebuta Matsuri. Anyone who is wearing a traditional haneto dancing costume is invited to join in the parade. Some costumes are passed from generation to generation, but they can also be purchased throughout the prefecture for 10,000 yen or rented along the processional route during the parades for 4,000 yen.
There are three types of nebuta floats listed in order of grandeur; the children’s nebuta, the regional nebuta, and the local organization’s nebuta. For the first two days of the festival, from August 2nd to 3rd, only the smaller nebuta, often pulled by children, are paraded throughout the city. Because of their size, it is impractical to showcase the largest nebuta floats for the full seven days. These multistory creations require immense strength to move, and therefore are only displayed from August 4th to 7th.
While it is a festival drawing an average of 3 million people, the Nebuta Matsuri is also a competition. Each year the best floats are recognized, and on the evening of the sixth day, the top three floats are transported to ships in Aomori harbor to cruise along the bay.
However, as a tourist, you do not need to worry about the competition. You can just enjoy the festival food, haunting flute music, dancing, and brilliantly lit floats. Try getting some close-up pictures of the gorgeous, three dimensional nebuta floats. Also, if you are feeling adventuresome, trying renting out a costume and dancing alongside your favorite float. Very few other festivals in Japan allow this level of audience participation.