Aomori’s largest festival “Nebuta Matsuri”
“Rassera, Rassera!” The call from the crowd echoes through the area. A large mass of light, heat, and energy follows the voice calling out and those standing by the road seem to be swallowed into the evening sky.
My peaceful sleep in the quiet afternoon, as if disturbed by the roar of thunder that arrives suddenly and cuts through the sky, startles me in my room. The howling invades my world with peremptory force. This palpable power on the one hand to protect all, on the other hand seems to symbolize the absolute power to destroy.
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I’m at the prefectural capital of the northernmost Honshu, Aomori City in Aomori Prefecture. The six-day festival that takes place in the northern city of 300,000 population (August 2nd through the 7th) attracts more than 3 million total visitors. This is the famous “Aomori Nebuta Festival,” Giant statues on floats, some with a width of 9 meters, five meters tall, eight meters deep, and weighing up to 4 tons are paraded around the city streets.
Mounted with 600 to 800 fluorescents light bulbs these massive displays of power float down busy streets flinging light from inside of their giant bodies. In front and behind these powerful statues are drums and other musical instruments. On the ground below are the Haneto, the dancers that follow the floats with their carefully choreographed movements.
“Rassera, Rassera!” Once you hear this voice, the rhythmic ringing cry it will stay with you for a while. There are several theories about the origin and meaning. Legend suggests and the leading theory states the sound of “Dase (come down with) ” morphed into rasera. This Nebuta Matsuri, an extension of the Tanabata Matsuri where lanterns are sent down a river to appease the souls of the dead, turned into one where giant works of art float down city streets. When these floats reach homes (especially those of the better known in town), those in attendance would ask the spectators for candy, sake, candles, or donations. The word “dase” can also be construed as “give more” and the repeated calls of “dase, dase” are said to have turned into “rassera, rassera.”
Another legend states the term “dase” refers to “catch them” or “don’t kill them” or “take them away” as Sakanoueno Tamuramaro was captured. The definition behind these words may be direct, aggressive, and combative, or they may be peaceful, calling out to those nearby. Whatever the history behind the words called out to the spectators, they are hard to forget and personify what one will hear at the Nebuta Matsuri.
The origin of the word “Nebuta” is also unclear. Scholars, historians and Nebuta followers all have their own claim. Some may be familiar with the nebuta from Aomori City, while others may be more familiar with neputa from Kozen City. Their historical origin is the same. During the Edo Period, these words were written as nebuta, neputa, nefuta, or nemuta. With time two words remained. By the 1940s, Aomori had chosen Nebuta while Kozen stayed with Neputa. Newspapers from both cities going back into the 1940s show these words being used.
What exactly is a nebuta? In short, it is a giant lantern. Today, light bulbs are used inside the giant statues but in the past, they were lit by candlelight. The lanterns sent down rivers during the Tanabata Festival, combined with the word “sleepy” (“nemutai”) also are said to have led to the history behind how these massive lights came to be used in this now famous Nebuta Matsuri. During the Tanabata Festival, dolls and tree branches meant to personify individuals were put into rivers and the ocean as a symbol of expelling bad omens before harvest time. In Toyama Prefecture, there is now a Nebuta Nagashi” where people pray for long life, good health and protection from evil. Larger than life sized dolls are decorated and then set on fire as they are case into the ocean, taking prayers with them. Designated as a nationally recognized cultural ceremony, it is appreciated for its historical importance. There are many festivals and ceremonies using the word nebuta.
Other theories about the origin of nebuta abound. Some say there’s a link to the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. It is interesting to note a similar festival took place on the coast of the Sea of Japan, well known as a route traveled by boats carrying people up and down the coast. Perhaps traditions surrounding nature, illness traveled along with these boats. Living among significantly less material goods than the people of today, it is possible ideas and culture flowed through Japan by word-of-mouth, nebuta among them.
While the shape, size, and technology used in today’s festival may have changed, the spirit and intent of those involved surely have not. We all want happiness for ourselves, families, loved ones, and friends. We pray for health. In our youth we enjoy our vitality. In our old age, we appreciate our maturity and serenity. We take, absorb, and give back energy. It is this energy that flows down the streets of Aomori today as life. Hear the calls of “rassera” as you visit the Nebuta Matsuri and know that you are alive.
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Aomori Nebuta matsuri（あおもりねぶたまつり） DATA
- Location： Central Aomori
- Transportation (public transportation)： Walk from JR Aomori Station
- Transport (by car)： 15 minutes from Tohoku Expressway Aomori Chuo IC. (During the festival, some may be closed to traffic throughout the city.)
- parking： Coin parking available. However, during the period are often held in places that FULL
- Date： August 2 to 7
- Hours： 19:10 to 21:00 August 2 to 6 / 13:00 to 15:00 August 7 19:15 to 21:00 August 7 Bay Parade and Fireworks
- dmission： Free (sidewalk seating) / 2500 yen (reserved seating)
- Phone： 017-723-7211
- Number of Visitors:3 million
- Official site： Aomori Nebuta matsuri official website | Aomori Nebuta matsuri official website (Japanese)
Aomori Nebuta matsuri