Festival Focus: Neputa Matsuri (Hirosaki)

Whew, I’ve been neglecting the blog quite a bit as of late. The move to Tokyo went as well as could be expected but with the lack of furniture following quickly after, we high-tailed it to Tohoku late last week to escape some of the heat and see some of the summer festivals. I’m still here, wrapping up a few final days in Akita Prefecture. The humidity is nearly as bad as down in the Tokyo area but at least we’ve had the festivals to look forward to.

Aomori Prefecture – the prefecture that curls around the top of the island of Honshu (the big one) is known for its summertime Nebuta (or Neputa) celebrations. A nebuta is a large float, typically representing a fierce warrior or mythical battle scene, that is lit from within and paraded through the streets of Aomori’s cities at night over the course of several days. The origins of the festival are murky. Some claim it is reminiscent of the methods – drums, flutes and dancing – one Japanese lord used to draw enemy forces to attack. Others say it may have something to do with how the Japanese themselves were perceived by the native inhabitants of the north when the former invaded and conquered the land.

Detailed look at a Neputa float
Detailed look at a Neputa float

Over 80 communities host a Nebuta festival, so you have a great chance of catching at least one of you are in the region during the first week of August. While I was extremely excited to see the Aomori Nebuta (the spelling different is simply a regional thing), I actually ended up loving the Hirosaki version even more.

Hirosaki, a castle town south of Aomori, boasts special fan-shaped Neputa floats. They are pulled through the streets by teams of up to several dozen participants, accompanied by drummers and flute players and the constant chant of “yaaaaa, ya GA!”. The fan part of the float is designed to spin so every so many meters, the float pullers would drop to their knees and a team of men would spin the float both clockwise and counterclockwise, often with a few guys looking on from the top of the spinning float.

Hirosaki's fan-shaped Neputa
Hirosaki’s fan-shaped Neputa

The front of the float is always painted with a fierce battle scene or the vicious countenance of a samurai, while the opposite side is often of a beautiful women in traditional kimono, possibly – according to some – showing both the martial nature of war and what is left behind (and worth returning to) by the warriors.

The front side of the float always depicts a battle scene or a warrior
The front side of the float always depicts a battle scene or a warrior
The reverse side of a float
The reverse side of a float

The parade in Hirosaki starts at 7pm, right near Hirosaki Castle grounds, and the beating of the massive taiko drum starts the parade off. The entire parade lasts around two hours, and floats come in all sizes. The route does change a bit throughout the seven days (August 1st-7th) that the event is held and on the final day, it’s a daytime event held near the train station.

The massive O-daiko (big taiko) that starts the Hirosaki Neputa parade
The massive O-daiko (big taiko) that starts the Hirosaki Neputa parade

Check in with the tourism office when you get to town on where the floats will run that day. Not all floats parade on all days but I doubt you’ll be disappointed no matter when you come.

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