By Peter Sidell
It's all about the bells. They're just so shiny and jangly: they're the cherry on top of my Nebuta Matsuri costume. Authentically speaking, the hanagasa hat should be the cherry, but it's heavy and falls into my face, so I forego it, as does my boyfriend Hisashi, an apparent faux-pas of which a huge number of us haneto (dancers) are guilty. Regardless, dressed in my blue and white yukata, with its fancy red sash tied around my shoulders, yellow obi knotted at my waist, and pink underskirt, I feel supremely authentic.
The blue and white yukata are patterned: white background with blue images of the larger-than-life faces of kabuki actors, as well as a few other patterns that don't make nearly the same impression. Mine was purchased from a small kimono shop that also helps haneto get dressed. There are myriad shops in the area that sell or rent haneto costumes, though not all will help you get dressed, from small shops like ours to large department stores like Sakurano. For a smaller shop, it's probably a good idea to make a reservation well in advance, while at Sakurano at least, as long as you show up early the day of, you'll likely be able to rent a costume. But beware: everything necessary for the Nebuta experience disappears fast, and if you fail to prepare, you could end up crying on the sidelines as costume-less dancers are ダメ ("dame" - not allowed).
The kabuki actor-like print of the yukata mirrors the style of the floats: huge kabuki faces, demons - dragons even - staring down menacingly at dancer and spectator alike, daring us not to become caught up in the shouts of "rasse ra" (pronounced "lasse la") and the tumult of cymbals, flutes and drums. This music is called Nebuta bayashi, and entangled with the tintinnabulation of the aforementioned bells, it creates an auditory pandemonium that whips the crowd into a frenzy of Nebuta madness. Being no different, Hisashi and I, too, find ourselves hopping along to the shouts, happily oblivious to the calf muscle pain that will leave us hobbling the next morning.
The Nebuta Matsuri, held yearly August 2 to August 7, is an old festival whose origins, not unlike most old festivals, are murky. It appears to have at least two possible antecedents: lantern offerings of the Tanabata Festival, or a large lantern built for the Lantern Festival. The size of that possible first "large" lantern? 360cm on each side - quite a far cry from the current 9m-wide-by-7m-long-by-5m-high floats. Size isn't the only thing that's changed, though. Candles have been replaced by lightbulbs, while bamboo frames have been abandoned in favour of wire. What's stayed the same is the paper used to cover the wire - thousands of sheets of housho (mulberry wood) paper, painted in brilliant colours. This causes me some needless worry while I get ready for the festival - it looks like rain, and I fear that the festival might be cancelled for the day, rain and paper not being good friends. But after making my way down to Rasse Land, where floats are kept until the parade starts, my worries are assuaged - all the floats are being carefully encased in huge sheets of clear plastic. Mesmerized by the covering process, and suffering from a new set of misgivings (Will the floats be torn by the large sticks being used to cover them? Will they get covered before the mist becomes drops?), I spend much of the remaining time warily watching my favourites. Happily, all my distress is for naught - the floats survive their ordeal with nary a scratch. The float handlers are pros - apparently, the parade is never cancelled.
For those wanting to experience the Nebuta Matsuri, but who find themselves in Aomori in the wrong season, or for those who just can't get enough, there is the Nebuta-no-Sato museum. Located roughly 30 minutes by car from Aomori station, the museum, which includes a large park, holds various events throughout the year, not just related to the festival. More information can be found here (Japanese). While you might not get the full haneto experience by visiting the museum alone, you will avoid the searing calf pain of the morning after.
As for my Nebuta Matsuri experience, sadly, it was several years ago. But the memories linger and I eagerly await a future visit to Aomori. As for my then-boyfriend, well, he is my now-husband and father of our beautiful seven-month-old baby girl. I live happiness everyday. I'm not saying it was the bells, but they couldn't have hurt.
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