Warasse: The Aomori Nebuta Museum
The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is one of the most famous festivals in the Tōhoku region, if not all of Japan. What exactly is “nebuta,” you ask? Well, it’s a kind of lighted parade float painted with striking traditional designs. I’ve never been lucky enough to attend the Nebuta Matsuri myself, but when I traveled to Aomori-ken last year, I experienced a bit of it through a wonderful museum called the Warasse Nebuta House.
The Warasse Nebuta Museum opened in Aomori City relatively recently, in January 2011, and is located right by Aomori Station. Warasse is “a modern celebration of Aomori City’s Nebuta Festival,” providing visitors like me with a chance to learn more about and even somewhat experience the festival year-round. The building itself, encased in a red metal shell, is a striking addition to the Aomori-shi waterfront.
Once inside, visitors can read about the festival’s history, watch videos of past festivals, and see some floats up close. Many Aomori citizens are involved in the construction of these floats. The Nebuta designers pattern their designs after historical people or themes; they begin exploring new themes immediately after the previous year’s festival ends. Many nebuta floats tend to depict battles between warriors, demons, and mythical creatures, making for quite dramatic imagery. There are many theories about the origin of the Nebuta Festival. One is that the large creations were designed to frighten enemies away. Another is that the nebuta had their start as toro, little wooden frame boxes lit with candles that used to be floated on the river at Chinese festivals.
Modern Nebuta floats are made of Japanese paper supported by a wire frame, lighted from the inside with hundreds of light bulbs. The paper is beautifully and painstakingly hand-painted. The colors and the detail are amazing; you can really see the craftsmanship that goes into each and every piece. The interior of the museum is dimly lit so you can appreciate the full splendor of the floats.
While the vast majority of floats seemed to involve male figures, a few floats depicted women as well. The one above was a particularly feminine example, with a kimono-clad damsel and butterflies in front of a red rising sun. In the actual festival, the floats are pushed along by people. Each float is accompanied by teams of taiko drummers, flute and hand cymbals players, and dacers called haneto who follow the procession chanting “Rassera, Rassera” while performing a dance that looks a little bit like skipping.
I particularly enjoyed looking at some of the different faces that they had lined up with descriptions of the artists who made them. Unsurprisingly, many of the artists were older, but there were also a few quite young folks as well, which suggests that the nebuta craft is being passed on to new generations.
There was also an area where you could design your own nebuta face and they projected your design onto a blank face above you:
If you make it out to Aomori City and it’s not festival time, you should take an hour or two to stop by the Warasse Nebuta Museum. And if you have a chance to go in August for the actual festival, it looks like a really cool event. You can also see nebuta at some other festivals in Japan, such as the Mitama Matsuri in Tokyo.