Nebuta Fever: The Origins of Aomori’s Most Thrilling Festival

  • When summer peaks into a boil in the northernmost prefecture of the Land of the Rising Sun in August it marks yet again the annual celebration of the Nebuta Matsuri festival on August 2-7. Millions of crowds gather every year to see the colorful floats parade on the street. But unlike many other famous festivals in Japan, the Nebuta Matsuri has no connection at all to temples or any rituals.

    The Beginnings of the Nebuta Fever Festival

    The origin of the festival goes like this. In the old days, there was a tradition of purifying the spirits by passing the spoils into dolls and paper lanterns. Around summer time, the Buddhist Bon festival is held at the time when the spirits of the dead return to the earth according to a religious belief. However, in the northern region of Tohoku, the tradition not only focuses on spiritual cleansing but also to keep people active and shaking off listlessness and physical fatigue every summer. Thus came the tradition of nemuri nagashi. According to some theories, the word “Nebuta” is a corruption of “nemuri nagashi”.

    While historians dispute the origins of the festival some theories include Nebuta simply originating from flutes and drums of old armies used to intimidate enemies, or more gruesome tales of defeated clans.

    Tohoku then became known for festivals featuring paper lanterns in various shapes and sizes such as Aomori’s Nebuta (human form), Hirosaki’s Nebuta Matsuri (fan-shaped lanterns) and Goshowara’s Tachi-Nebuta (taller and narrower lanterns).

    From the End of WWII to the Present

    By the end of the Second World War, Aomori’s Nebuta became bigger and bigger with lanterns measuring five meters tall by nine meters wide. Each lantern has a solid wooden skeletal framework that serves as the base for the wire frames covered in washi. Today, there are about 1,000 light bulbs used bringing the lanterns to life as they parade through the city at night. Electrical generators weighing about four tons power the light bulbs of about 20-22 floats—the main highlight of the festival. Later, the term “Nebuta Baka” (Nebuta Fever) was coined to describe the passion of the locals for their festival.

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