During these dog days of summer the stifling heat and heavy air makes most of us feel listless and even sleepy. Even farmers in the field feel it.
In the area around Hirosaki, once the center of feudal government for the top end of Honshu island, common folk have, for centuries, had a late summer festival to banish the drowsiness wrought by the weather. Originally called “nemuri nagashi” (driving away sleepiness), over the years the festival became a night-time parade of elaborate illuminated floats that energized participants. And this became known as the Neputa Festival, usually held over several days at the end of the first week of August (alas, not in 2021; curse you, COVID-19!).
Less than 50 kilometers up the road, the coastal city of Aomori borrowed the Hirosaki festival but made some modifications, particularly to the style of the floats. This festival came to be known as the Nebuta Festival and it is also held around the same time.
The two words have basically the same meaning; the difference in pronunciation is due to general differences in spoken dialect.
In addition to Hirosaki and Aomori, many other communities across Aomori Prefecture, and even in other parts of Japan, also host Neputa or Nebuta festivals around this time of year.
Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival
As mentioned, Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival is the older of the two. Neputa floats are distinctive because most of them are semi-circular, roughly the shape of a hand-held fan (only three dimensional and usually over 5 meters tall).
These floats consist of a wooden frame on which paper has been glued. The paper is them decorated with various colorful images, often depictions of mythical, legendary or historical figures. Being a night-time parade, the floats are lit from inside. Before the advent of portable generators, candlelight was common.
The fan-shaped frame is often affixed to a base that allows it to be rotated and the entire structure is set on wheels and pulled along the parade route by revellers.
Centuries ago, each village or neighborhood prepared its own float and paraded through its own area. Apparently at times, different groups would run into each other and, being energized by their parading, altercations would ensue over who had right of way. Fortunately, now every village or neighborhood enters its float into a collective parade and there is no longer any need for in-fighting.
Even without the festival itself, visitors to Hirosaki can learn about the Neputa Festival and make a close examination of past festival floats at Tsugaru-Han Neputa Village, a museum/display complex near Hirosaki Castle. Throughout the day there are regular shamisen performances of local tunes associated with the festival.
As an added bonus, the “village” includes the Tsugaru Craft Center, a gallery of local artisans demonstrating their prowess at local crafts (also available for sale, of course). Textiles and woodcraft are prevalent with the latter ranging from fine chopsticks and kokeshi dolls to an amazing variety of spinning tops. For a small fee, visitors can also try their hand and producing some of these crafts, or even take a shamisen lesson.
Snacks like soft-serve ice cream and even a nice bowl of noodles are available in the small “market street” that is part of the complex.
Tsugaru-Han Neputa Village is open daily 9:00-17:00. The shopping and dining areas are free to enter; museum entry is JPY550.
Aomori’s Nebuta Festival
Although a more recently developed festival, inspired by Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival, the Aomori’s Nebuta Festival is possibly better known. It features even bigger illuminated floats that are arguably much more complex that their Neputa counterparts.
Also made of wood and wire frames covered with paper and colorfully painted, the primary difference is that Nebuta floats are three dimensional renditions of the characters they are depicting.
Somehow, these three dimensional characters make the floats much more vivid.
Every year a theme is set for the festival and float entries must depict images or scenes on that theme. Similar to the Neputa Festival, the themes often center on myth and legend. Many teams spend the entire year designing and buildings their floats. Winning floats are then displayed at Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse, near Aomori station for the following year (or longer when, as is currently the case, the festival is cancelled).
The museum also has displays on the historical development of the festival, a film of past festivals and several performances of Nebuta festival music, which focusses more on drums and a wooden flute.
Hours: 9:00-18:00 (19:00 May-August) (closed December 31 and January 1)
Of course, nothing can compare to the sights and sounds of actual Neputa or Nebuta parades, but the wonderful thing about these museums is that visitors can learn about the festivals and get a “taste” of them any time of year, even during these times when any travel or sightseeing requires extra caution.
© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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