The Nebuta Festival has been going on for so long that no one knows for sure its origins. Some say that it may have connections to the ancient Chinese Tanabata festival. The traditions of Aomori have been blended with even more ancient traditions for a festival with lanterns at the center.
Here is one story: Shinto traditions tell of the Kami. Kami are spirits who exert a direct effect on humans. Some spirits give energy. Some give food. Some provide music. Some play tricks. A Kami can be both good and bad at the same time. All things are influenced by spirits and spirts are everywhere. Aomori is a region where the land meets the sea. The fishermen go out to catch food for the people and the farmers produce food from the land. Both sources of food are important to the local economy and to the health and well being of the people. Both involve long hours and hard work. The sleep Kami were causing a problem with the farmers. Farmers need to rise early and work long days, but the Kami were making the farmers sleepy and they weren’t getting their work done. After much consideration it was decided that if the people lit many lanterns as the sun went down and played loud music, especially lots of drum music with the biggest drums available, they might be able to chase away the sleep Kami and the farmers could get the harvest completed. So a festival was declared and the people marched in the streets with lanterns and drums.
This has evolved into a week-long festival held the first week of August each year. Since we come from a place where we celebrate motorcycles and the people who ride them with a festival during the first week of August each year, we decided that we should take in the Aomori Nebuta Festival. Aomori is an hour and half by train from Misawa and we got on the little Misawa train and headed north to the seacoast town of Aomori. By the time we arrived the train was brimming with over a hundred people in each car, most of whom were standing. We got off the train and followed the crowd.
We knew a little bit about the festival because we visited Aomori last year and toured the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum. We heard a performance by drummers and flute players and we saw some of the floats from the previous year’s festival and a host of masks.
Master Craftsperson create Nebuta artists. They begin designing the floats as soon as the festival ends and spend an entire year crafting a new float for the next year’s festival.
The parade is spectacular! Tens of thousands of people line the parade route. There are some seats which can be reserved. Others put mats down on the ground. The rest stand. Each float is preceded by a band. The band has several large taiko drums with drummers who beat in rhythm. They are followed by flute players providing the melody and rows of musicians with hand cymbals. Then come the dancers. A float may have as many as 200 or more dancers, chanting as they follow along. Anyone can dance in the festival as long as they have a traditional costume. Costumes can be purchased or rented at several locations around the city.
The floats themselves range from large rickshaws to enormous lighted floats. All floats are moved down the street by human power, with teams of strong persons lifting and pulling on the wooden beams that support the floats. The teams who pull the floats are directed by conductors who indicate when and where to turn and set the pace for the float to move down the street.
Moving in and out of the crowds of dancers and musicians and floats are the jokers of the festival - baketo in Japanese - who amuse the crowds with bright costumes and masks. We saw animal masks such as elephants and giraffes as well as masks of warriors and other traditional Japanese characters. Some baketo wore makeup.
The dancers and musicians and baketo wear large hats covered with all kinds of flowers and birds and brightly colored ornaments. Bells are worn by the dancers to add even more sound to the parade.
The parade course goes around a rectangle in the center of the city and fills up the entire route so that once the parade starts it goes for two hours or more with continual floats and bands and dancers.
Standing there watching the parade, immersed in the loud rhythms of the drums and the tunes of the flutes it was easy to know that we are in a culture that is very different from our home. We have parades, and we even have lighted parades held after dark, but nothing like the Nebuta Festival. I’m sure that the people who attend the festival each year would be equally amazed at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Each culture has its own special events and activities.
Among the surprises of the festival for us was the large number of infants and children, all dressed in traditional costumes, participating in the parade. Entire families, some with strollers, some carrying their young children, danced along with the festival floats and bands.
The hard work of playing, dancing, and moving the huge floats requires a lot of water. Special carts with barrels of water and dippers follow each of the floats and runners take water to those who are participating. Baketo drummers get regular breaks during which they go back to the water carts and are refreshed before returning to replace other drummers. The music never takes a break, but individual players get a moment for refreshment.
My initial reaction is that I’m just glad I was there to see it. Having previously seen the floats and read about the festival, even heard some of the drums and flutes, was a bit of a foretaste, but the actual festival was much grander, brighter, louder and amazing than I expected. They do this every night for a week and the last night is ended with a huge fireworks display.
How fortunate we are to be able to witness such a celebration.