The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is the most lively summer festival of the year in the city of Aomori. Held August 2–7, it attracts some three million visitors each year.
The highlight of the festival is the massive floats called nebuta, which are in the shape of brave warriors and lit by lanterns. The brilliantly colored nebuta are electrically lit from within, and hand-carried in a procession that winds through the city streets at night. Not only does the Nebuta Matsuri give you a chance to experience Japan’s rich festival culture, it is also a stunning display of artistic achievement.
The combination of the Nebuta, music, and dancing creates an irresistible binding force that adds even more excitement and energy to the festival
As the sun sets over the city, a feverish enthusiasm ignites Aomori as the brightly illuminated nebuta appear. Nearly nine meters wide and five meters tall, the nebuta floats are a display of overwhelming beauty and intensity. They feature multiple design motifs, many of them classic scenes from ancient Chinese and Japanese literature or images taken from traditional Japanese folk entertainment and kabuki. The sight of the nebuta has the power to make even non-Japanese feel a sense of intimacy with the country’s cultural heritage.
The nebuta were once the skillful handiwork of local residents, but over time have been turned over to professional artists. The enormous size and varied forms are now crafted by expert hands. Each float takes around three months to make, and everything is done by hand. Because the nebuta are dismantled every year after the festival, they are rare works of art that can only be seen that year.
As you’re delighting in the beauty and power of the nebuta, you can’t help but be drawn in by the enchanting sound of the festival musicians playing taiko drums, flutes, and gongs. Festival-goers also cry out a feisty rassera! to a distinctive rhythm that elevates the spirit. Between five hundred and a thousand people crowd in front of each float doing the haneto dance, moving forward to the rhythm with energetic, bouncing movements. The combination of the nebuta, music, and dancing creates an irresistible binding force that brings everyone together in a profound sense of community—a feeling that is an important part of the festival experience. So get out there and jump into the haneto dance! Watching is one thing, but there is nothing like the joy of diving in.
So get out there and jump into the haneto dance! Watching is one thing, but there is nothing like the joy of diving in.
Getting the most out of the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri means going beyond simply watching and listening. You can also jump in and participate! There’s only one requirement—you’ve got to wear proper haneto dress. Put on a cotton kimono with a shortened hem, tie back the sleeves with a bright red or pink ribbon, then don a straw hat decorated with flowers. Your official haneto outfit is now complete!
There is no need to register or sign up in advance to participate. Once you’re dressed properly, just wait in line in front of the path of a nebuta and you’re part of the festival crowd. The only thing left to do is start jumping around and calling out rassera! to the rhythm!
here are plenty of shops where you can rent haneto outfits in the area around the festival venue, so you don’t need to worry about buying anything. Every year more and more people return to re-experience the magic of the haneto dance.
Make sure to partake of the delicious local food as you learn fascinating history and enjoy the many wonders of the Nebuta Matsuri!
No one is exactly sure where the nebuta originally came from, but they’re thought to be derived from the ritual floating of lanterns that takes place during Japan’s classic Tanabata festivals in July to pray for good health and freedom from illness. As various events merged over the years, they gradually evolved into the grand festival we see today. These developments proceeded in unique ways in the various parts of Aomori Prefecture, giving rise to distinctive local traditions in addition to the main Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. Visiting the various locales allows you a fascinating look at the diverse features of each community.
In Hirosaki, for example, they refer to the floats as neputa rather than nebuta. And unlike the rowdy Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, the Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri is a somber, quiet affair. There’s no boisterous haneto dancing either; the neputa are simply carried in an orderly procession. At the head of each line is the incredible sight of performers beating a massive taiko drum some three meters in diameter.
At the Tachi Neputa Matsuri that takes place in Goshogawara, neputa more than twenty meters high appear in the streets. The city has even changed its landscape as a result, burying all of the utility lines along their route so they don’t get caught as they travel by.
If you want to take more time to see nebuta up close or are interested in getting a deeper understanding of the historical context for these events, visit the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum in Aomori City. The facility has typical nebuta floats on display that visitors can see outside of the festival dates. There is also an interactive haneto experience that lets you get a taste of the mood of the festival year-round.
While you’re in town for the nebuta, make sure to get your fill of the delicious local cuisine as well. In Hirosaki, home of the quieter neputa festival, there is a famous Italian restaurant called Osteria Enoteca da Sasino. Almost everything here is home-grown and homemade—from the fresh garden vegetables to the wine, uncured ham, and cheese. Every dish is unique with a flavor that can’t be found anywhere outside of Hirosaki.
This is an exceptional travel package that promises to go far beyond a simple event experience as you immerse yourself in a warm, welcoming festival and delight in the rich flavors of one of Japan’s most charming destinations.