Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival in Hirosaki

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival
Brightening up the Winter Sky

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Snow Lantern Festival of Hirosaki

Winters are long in Tohoku, the northern region of mainland Japan. Snow and ice are common fare there. A skier’s boon but a common man’s burden. In ages past before sports skiing and winter fashion, winter was something to be dreaded and suffered through. It is no wonder that a multitude of snow festivals dot the Tohoku region. These festivals are the locals’ way of making Winter seem little less unfriendly and little less bleak.

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Hirosaki Castle

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One such festival takes place in the city of Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture which is the northernmost area of the Japanese mainland. Capitalizing on the beauty of winter, residents of Hirosaki create lanterns made completely made of snow in early February.

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The lanterns for the most part resemble the type of lantern found in Japanese gardens and shrines. There are hundreds of these spread through the grounds of Hirosaki Castle. Some of the snow lanterns however are rather avant-garde shaped with just a hint of the essence of a traditional stone lantern.

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Avant-Garde Snow Lantern

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Mickey Mouse Snow Lantern Shows Off Japanese Obsessive Love for all Things Disney

Where in the stone lanterns there would be empty spaces for the placing of candles, painted portraits are set. The portraits resemble closely that of Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival in Early August. The Neputa Festival consists of large oval shaped floats with painted scenes from Japanese and Chinese stories.

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Snow Lantern with Mt. Iwaki

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The Snow Lantern Festival’s portraits depict the faces of Japanese women, samurai, and legendary Chinese heroes from the works of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh. In the evening, they are illuminated from within much in the same way the Neputa floats are.

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While the Neputa Festival goes back centuries, the Snow Lantern Festival goes back only decades – three to be exact. The Festival started in 1977 as a way to bring the community together during the long cold winter. It has since become one of the five biggest snow festivals in the Tohoku area.

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One of the few non-lantern structures to be seen at the festival

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Throughout the Festival, local volunteers patrol the grounds looking to repair the lanterns and clearing the pathways. They place the portraits on the lanterns and fasten them in place with short bamboo sticks. Across the old moat, dozens of small kamakura – or snow huts – are set up each with an individual candle.

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A Volunteer Repairs a Snow Lantern

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Three hundred miniature Kamakura snow huts dot the the bank of the castle moat

Hirosaki’s Snow Lantern Festival may not be a major extravaganza like the Snow Festival a little further north in Sapporo but it has a pleasant charm of its own. The Snow Lantern Festival in this respect represents the Japanese character best – simple but elegant; the quintessential concept of Japanese wabi-sabi.

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The only drawback to all this charm and elegance, however, is the music they choose to play in the background. Instead of playing traditional Japanese music particularly the guitar-like shamisen which Hirosaki is known for, they play less than quality modern music that is a cross between old style enka and modern pop music from mediocre artist without financial clout to sue the city for playing their music.

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Music aside, the illuminated snow lanterns and the miniature kamakura snow huts with Hirosaki Castle as a backdrop make for a winter fairy-tale land.

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February 22, 2009 Posted by | culture, event, festival, hirosaki, history, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, snow, snow festival, snow lantern festival, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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