Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Overshadowed Neputa Festival of Hirosaki

Overshadowed Neputa Festival Shines With an Artistic Light
Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival Presents Finely Painted Floats of War and Peace

A Traditional Fan-Shaped Neputa Float

The Neputa Festival of Hirosaki, in northern Japan, suffers from being overshadowed by its more famous sister festival, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori City. Even many Japanese have never heard of it. Many think the word “Neputa” is just another word for “Nebuta” or a slip of the tongue. This is unfortunate because the Neputa festival is worthy of recognition in its own right.

A Kagami-e Fighting Scene

The first recorded Neputa festival goes back to 1722 but the festival itself is no doubt older. The Neputa festival has been named an important intangible national cultural heritage custom.

The traditional floats of Neputa are not the three-dimensional ones like those of the Nebuta Festival, though some of those type floats are used in the procession. The Neputa floats are two-dimensional large flat fan-shaped floats with paintings on both front and back surfaces. Like Nebuta, the floats are illuminated by light bulbs within the structure.

The floats range in size from small ones carried by one to six people to enormous ones pulled along by a team of people. In the larger ones, two or three people will ride on a platform inside the float in order to lower the top portion of the float so that it can pass under street lights and telephone wires.

The Demon and the Samurai
A Demon grabs a Samurai

In the Heian Period of Japan (794-1132), Rashomon Gate was said to be haunted by the demon Ibaraki Doji. Once it had been the grandest and largest of the gates of Kyoto but in the decline of Heian society, Rashomon Gate fell into ruin and became the haunt of human devils such as thieves and corpse despoilers. Unwanted dead were often left at Rashomon. In these details perhaps lay the origin behind the demon Ibaraki’s haunting of the Gate.

In the late 10th century, a brave samurai Watanabe no Tsuna went to Rashomon Gate to confront the demon. As he waited he grew drowsy and nearly fell asleep. He was rudely awakened before dawn by the hand of Ibaraki which grabbed him roughly from the back of his head. Tsuna cut the demon’s arm from its body and the demon swiftly fled leaving Tsuna with a unique and enviable battle trophy.

Tsuna put the arm in a box for safe keeping. Some days later his old nurse and aunt came to visit him. She was most curious to see her former charge’s souvenir. Tsuna could not refuse her request and promptly showed her the demon’s severed arm. All at once the countenance of his old nurse changed into the hideous demon Ibaraki. The demon quickly snatched its arm and flew off never to trouble Kyoto again.

A visitor will soon notice that the paintings of the Neputa floats have a distinct warlike theme to them. Like Nebuta many of the themes are based on historical and mythical characters from Japanese and Chinese stories.

Neputa’s themes appear more violent in depicting bloody swords, grisly baskets of severed heads, brutal beheadings, swallowing of eyeballs, and so forth. On the other side of the Neputa float, however, one often finds a beautiful portrait of a Chinese or Japanese lady in a gorgeous costume. The ladies often appear somewhat melancholy.


At certain times during the procession, the Neputa floats are rotated to show both sides rapidly. The larger floats are rotated by use of ropes pulled by four to six people while the bottom base remains stationary. The kagami-e is the heroic fighting side and the miokuri-e is the peaceful side often of sad women who are seeing off their brave menfolk.

A “miokuri-e” (seeing-off scene)

The reason for these contrasting images of war and sad beautiful women has to do with the nature of the Neputa Festival and its difference to the Nebuta Festival. Neputa is said to represent a war procession of warriors going off to battle. The fighting scenes are to steel their hearts and prepare them for the grim task of fighting ahead. The forlorn women on the opposite side represent their wives and lovers seeing them off.

The music of the Neputa also has a somewhat sadder more somber tone to it than the Nebuta Festival.

Chinese Hero Devours His Own Eye

A story of desperate culinary consumption

Eyeball anyone?

Xiahou Dun was a general during China’s Three Kingdoms period (180 AD – 260 AD). In the course of one the countless battles of that time period, Xiahou Dun was struck in the left eye with an arrow. He dramatically yanked the arrow from his eye with it still attached at the end and preceded to swallow it. He shouted: “The essence of my parents cannot be thrown away!” He then promptly killed the warrior responsible for the deed.

Xiahou Dun is highly admired to this day for his bravery, his loyalty and devotion to family. His master Cao Cao is not remembered so favorably, however.

A shocking display of unlady-like behavior

In contrast, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori represents the triumphant return from battle. The music has a more upbeat and merry melody to it. During Japan’s Sengoku Period (Warring States) in the 16th Century, no doubt people witnessed many such processions.

Typifying such a war procession, the Japanese Self Defense Force puts in an apt appearance by performing a sword and fan dance. A group of women marched together carrying the long deadly naginata — which is like a combination of spear and sword.

A Ghastly Ghost Haunts a Lady

Though Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri tends to hog the limelight, Hirosaki’s Neputa Matsuri deserves accolades for its impressively beautiful artwork, particularly on the rear section of the floats. The exquisite artwork of the floats is quite fitting because Hirosaki is after all the capital for culture and education in Aomori Prefecture.

In fact, while Aomori was for a long time just a sleepy port town, Hirosaki had been the official capital of the Tsugura clan’s domain from 1603 to 1868. When the Emperor Meiji came to power, he reorganized the area making Aomori City the capital. Being a landlocked city of no military value, Hirosaki was fortunate to be spared the dreadful bombing that Aomori City received during WWII.

Ordinarily it might be difficult for visitors to choose which festival to attend but fortunately both festivals last for nearly a week — the first week of August. It’s quite possible and definitely recommendable to see both.

Vampire Cat of Nabeshima

Dastardly cat thwarted by resourceful footman



Bad Kitty!

The tale of the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima is aptly ghastly addition to the grimmer aspects of the war-like Neputa Matsuri. Long ago the young lord of the Nabeshima clan fell ill under mysterious circumstances. He grew weak and listless. No remedy could cure him and he suffered nightly from terrible dreams. His family decided to appoint a samurai guard to watch over him. Yet every night against their will, the samurai fell asleep while the young lord got weaker and weaker. One day a lowly foot-soldier offered his services to guard the stricken lord. As the high-ranking samurai guard continually failed to remain awake, the foot-soldier was given the chance to prove himself.

When the unnatural sleep stole over the other guards, the foot-soldier resisted the pull by an extreme measure. He drove a knife into his leg and twisted it whenever his senses began to slacken. He was awake to see the lord’s mistress enter the room to check on the condition of her love. She was surprised to see the lowly foot-soldier still awake.

Soon after, the mistress stopped her nightly visits and immediately the mysterious illness of the young lord and the unnatural drowsiness of the guards dissipated. The foot-soldier now knew who was behind it all and he confronted the culprit in her room. What he did not expect to discover was that the mistress was actually a vampire cat creature which had disposed of the lord’s mistress sometime ago and assumed her image in order to drain the energy from the young lord. The cat creature escaped but was later hunted down and killed. The young lord recovered his health and the lowly foot-soldier was well-rewarded.

October 7, 2006 Posted by | aomori, aomori prefecture, Blogroll, dance, entertainment, festival, floats, hirosaki, japan, matsuri, nebuta, neputa, parade, samurai, three kingoms, tohoku, travel, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Japan’s Nebuta Matsuri – Giant Floats Frighten and Delight

Fujin the Japanese God of Wind

“Dragons, griffins, reptiles, fishes, birds there are, all dancing, waving fans, shouting, howling, singing, noising, in one form or another, in chorus perfectly bewildering.”
– Amy Michael-Carmichael, American Missionary to Japan, 1895.

Every summer, Aomori City’s Nebuta Festival brings in flocks of tourists from all over to gaze and wonder at the festival’s huge illuminated floats. Nebuta’s giant floats are the stuff of fantasy and nightmare depicting historical and legendary characters some of whom were of demonic origins.

A samurai fights the Shuten Doji devil who once troubled Kyoto

Visages of snarling faces of humans, animals, monsters, and demons of enormous proportions locked in grisly combat assail the eyes of visitors in a seemingly pagan-like splendor. If a 19th century Christian missionary had ever witnessed the Nebuta Matsuri, they would have probably thought that they had stumbled upon the heart of darkest heathendom. But Nebuta is not about worshipping the forces of darkness or warding away evil spirits. The festival is yet another creative and elaborate way for Japanese to ward away the sleepiness brought on by the summer’s heat through massive quantities of alcohol and gigantically terrifying floats.

Aomori City is the capital of Aomori Prefecture. It is a port city which was founded in the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1867) by the second lord of the Tsugaru clan. The city’s history had been rather quiet over the centuries until WWII when the Americans bombed it practically flat. Aomori rebuilt itself and in recent years discovered buried in its outskirts an ancient city inhabited over 7,000 years ago.

While the city has had a relatively uneventful existence – save for WWII bombings and one earlier fire – it hosts one of the most spectacular and unique festivals in all of Japan: the Nebuta Matsuri.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Ancient Chinese Story A Favorite Nebuta Theme
Chinese Hero Zhang Fei fighting one of his countless foes

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a popular re-occurring theme at Nebuta. The Three Kingdoms is ancient Chinese story based on historical events of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries when the Han Empire collapsed. China fell into three separate kingdoms that warred continuously with one another. Lui Bei is one of the prinicipal heroes of the Romance. He and his two brothers fought to restore the Han Dynasty but were unsuccessful. Instead they established the short-lived Shu-Han Dynasty, one of the three kingdoms in the Romance. Zhang Fei was not Lui Bei’s brother through blood but through the swearing of an oath of loyalty. He was great general but sometimes given over to strong drink which affected his judgment at times.

The origin of the festival is one that invites debate among those who care to debate such things rather than spending their time simply gawking at the enormous floats and dancing the nebuta odori dance in an inebriated haze. One theory is that the festival goes far, far back long when much of Tohoku represented a kind of Wild West frontier of hardy settlers and indignant natives.

Nitta Yoshisada a 14th Century Samurai Leader who fought for the Emperor Go-Daigo

In the 8th Century Shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro,* led an expedition into the northern regions of Tohoku to subdue the indigenous Emishi inhabitants and increase the territory of imperial Japan. According to legend – but not fact – Tamuramaro built nebuta floats to lure the Emishi into an ambush. Legend states that this occurred in the area that is now Aomori City but in reality Tamuramaro’s campaign only reached as far as modern day Iwate Prefecture.

Suikoden – Outlaws of the Marsh
Another Chinese Classic – Another Popular Nebuta Theme
Heroes of Suikoden

The Outlaws of the Marsh or Suikoden in Japanese is another Chinese classic (Shuihu Zhuan in Chinese) that has received widespread popularity in Japan. Suikoden is a story based on historical outlaws during the Song Dynasty of the 12th Century who resisted corrupt government leaders. The story was set down officially in writing in the 14th century by Shi Nai-an. The story was later translated and adapted into Japanese in the early 19th Century. It became a huge sensation. The story was particularly popular with the lower class who admired the heroes of Suikoden for their defiance of the authorities. Tattoo art based on Suikoden became immensely popular as well.

Another theory is that Nebuta is an adaptation of the Chinese Tanabata festival. Tanabata comes from an ancient Chinese legend about two starred-crossed lovers forever destined to be apart save for a brief time every summer. The custom was to set a toro – a candle placed on a wooden plate covered with Japanese paper – adrift on the water. Nebuta’s floats grew in size and shape over time till they became the unique hulking structures they are today.

Tsugaru Tamenobu – First Lord of the Tsugaru clan

The third theory is a bit more mundane. Nebuta was believed to have come about as a way of warding off the drowsiness that comes with the summer heat. Some servants of the Tsugura lord began walking about in the summer evenings with lanterns. Others began to copy their habit. The word “nebuta” is thought to have been derived from the world “Nenpute” which means sleepy in the local dialect.

The giant decorative floats of today grew out of those lanterns used during the early beginnings of the festival. The making of the Nebuta floats is a community project. Many people will labor to create new floats every year. The principle artwork and design is handled by professional Nebuta artist known as Nebuta-Shi. Some of them have been designing Nebuta floats for decades.

The floats are made of tough Japanese paper placed over a framework of wood and metal. The floats can be up to 9 meters wide, 5 meters high, and can weigh up to 4 tons. They take about three months to construct though the whole process from design to last-minute touches can stretch from the end of one festival to the beginning of the next years. The cost of some of these floats can run upwards to $200,000.

Despite their ponderous weight and size, the Nebuta floats are not “floated” about by motorized vehicles. Good old fashion manual labor is employed to push and pull these massive floats through the city’s streets for nearly two hours. The float handlers will occasionally rush at the crowd as though they planned to ram them. Seemingly at the last moment the reckless advance is halted to the relief of those in the front. The handlers will then show off their skills by twirling their huge burden around. After the parade, the handlers celebrate their release from festive drudgery by feasting and drinking – lots of drinking.

11th Century Samurai Hero Minamoto-no-Yorimasa with retainer killing the Nue, a mythical beast, which had been troubling the Emperor

In the past the Nebuta Matsuri was a wilder affair attracting a rough crowd looking to drink and fight. Men of various districts of Aomori City and Prefecture would gang together and get into fights with other groups. All of them would wear black clothing generally of traditional wear. They were dubbed the Karasu Hanto – crow dancers. When travel to Aomori became more available to the rest of Japan, the number of tourists to Nebuta grew as did fears that the Karasu Hanto would be detrimental to tourism. Nowadays, the police are out in force to keep a tight rein on things. For adventurous types this may take some of the fun out of it.

The Nebuta Matsuri runs through the first week of August for a nearly a full week. At the end of the festival, all the large floats are taken out to bay and “floated” along like their tiny cousin, the toro lantern. However, the Nebuta Floats are not allowed to simply drift off out to sea. They’re brought back and later either taken apart or sent around to other cities and countries for display. Those chosen as the best floats of the festival will reside in the Nebuta Matsuri Museum for the next few years before they eventually deteriorate.

Don’t Just Watch – Join In!
At Nebuta visitors can dress up and join in
Nebuta Dave and friend

Visitors to Nebuta have the option of actually becoming a part of the festival procession if they wish. Fortunately, they won’t be made to push one of those massive floats but they can join in with the groups of dancers. Some dancing groups allow visitors to dance with them. Willing visitors need to rent or buy a Nebuta Odori costume in order to participate.

The Nebuta costume is not an easy thing to put on as I found out. I didn’t realize how bloody complicated it was to put on so the shop staff led me to a small ryokan (hotel) where someone would assist me. Before I knew it, I was down to only my boxers and socks in some strange woman’s living room. I was wondering if I was going to have to pay extra for this.

As she was getting close to grandma years, I relaxed my concern and my beer gut. With the robe, I got an underskirt in a very masculine shade of pink, a yellow sash, a red bow tied on the back, a polka dot head band, and it also came with bells – oh, yes! I removed most of them shortly afterwards as they started to get really annoying very quickly. 

The end of Nebuta can bring a sad sigh to the citizens of Aomori with the promise of coming Winter – it sometimes snows as early as late September. And yet with each festival’s ending there lies the hope of another Nebuta Matsuri just as grand and magnificent as the last.

*At this time the office of Shogun was temporary and was bestowed by the Emperor. Shogun means “Eastern-barbarian queller” referring to the original inhabitants of Northeastern Japan. From the late 12th Century to 1867, the office of shogun became a permant one which the emperor had little say in the matter.

September 18, 2006 Posted by | aomori, Blogroll, festival, japan, matsuri, nebuta, samurai, travel | 5 Comments