Nebuta Matsuri: The heartbeat of Aomori

23 Aug

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nebutaThere are two things Aomori is known for: Apples and Nebuta Matsuri (Festival).  Aomori is the northern most prefecture of Honshu, a faraway land even to most Japanese.  People from Tokyo, my hometown, love Aomori apples, but they wouldn’t consider it as a travel destination except for one occasion: Nebuta Matsuri (masturi = festival), one of the largest summer festivals in the country.

Nebuta Matsuri takes place in various cities throughout the prefecture in the beginning of August each year.  The most well-known ones are “Aomori Nebuta” in Aomori City and “Hirosaki Neputa” in Hirosaki City.  When I visited Hirosaki last month, I liked the city so much that I thought about coming back for Neputa in August.  But when I asked the locals whether to go to Aomori Nebuta or Hirosaki Neputa, they all said, “You should see Aomori Nebuta at least once.”  So I took their advice.

I drove to Aomori City on the first day of the festival, a humid summer day.  When I arrived there shortly before 7 pm, Nebuta parade was just getting ready to start.  Nebuta refers to the colorful lantern floats made of wires and washi (Japanese paper).  A group of young men paraded them through the city streets, each of them accompanied by taiko (Japanese traditional drum) players, flutist, and dancers.  I had never seen anything like it.  The floats were bright and intricate, glowing in the dark streets filled with people.  The music was simple and repetitive yet powerful, eliciting my childhood memories of summer festivals.

What really came alive was the people.  Normally quiet and reserved Japanese became very lively and expressive: Children danced in yukata, the casual summer kimono; high school students paraded their float featuring their school; Men and women played taiko with great energy and joy; the elderly sat in chairs along the streets, clapping as the floats spun in front of them.

The parade lasted for over 2 hours.  As I headed home, the sound of taiko could still be heard miles away.  It was as if the whole city was wrapped in the spirit of Nebuta.  I reflected on the uniqueness of the festival and the beauty of Japanese culture.

Nebuta Matsuri is what Aomori is known for, and people here are proud of it as they should be.  I hope you’ll get to experience it one day.  Nebuta is the heartbeat of Aomori.

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