The float teams follow the dancers, bringing their huge sculptures to life by dipping, spinning and weaving between the cheering crowds that line the streets
Chris Viney encourages you to join the throng at Aomori’s Nebuta Festival
An oriental proverb says ‘you can’t wrap fire in paper’, but the artists who create the magnificent floats for the annual Nebuta festival seem to have done just that. Each August, the city of Aomori in northern Honshu becomes a blaze of light and colour.
The massive sculptures that are illuminated from within, jockey through the streets on truck-sized wheeled platforms that are pushed and pulled by teams of up to 50 hard-working men and women. The Nebuta floats take inspiration from Japanese history, Kabuki theatre, manga comics and even popular television programmes.
I’m wearing the traditional clothing of haneto dancers – a kimono with coloured bows and tinkling bells; and a tall straw bonnet, extravagantly-decorated with bunches of fruit and flowers – and I’m in the thick of the Nebuta parade. I’m hopping from foot to foot, doing the haneto two-step to the music of flutes, cymbals and drums, as the floats roll.
Earlier that evening, I’d shuffled along in a patient queue on an empty floor of a department store, waiting my turn to be fitted into the elaborate costume. Female dancers branch off behind a screening tarpaulin to the left, males go to the right. But behind our screen is a gaggle of giggling elderly ladies. When we’ve stripped to our underwear, they help us into the various layers of coloured material, tugging at the sashes, tying the bows and fluffing up the flounces. I’m offered a pair of toe socks and straw sandals, but I opt for my own footwear, knowing that I’m in for a strenuous evening.
And indeed it is. I’ve been invited to join the Aomori Municipal Office haneto team and we’re lined up behind a hand-held rope barrier, waiting for the starting signal. Our 100-strong group is headed by excited children and their parents who are civil servants and are clearly enjoying this annual opportunity to swap their daytime office suits and ties for the bright Nebuta rig.
The moment has come! Our team leader steps forward, fan in one hand, microphone in the other, to begin the call-and-response Nebuta chant that energises the dancers.
‘Rassera! Rassera!’ he shouts.
‘Rassera, sera, sera!’ we yell back.
And on we go, double-hopping in time to the call, which I’m told means something like a combination of ‘Here we are, come and see, let’s go, join us!’
Guided by their own fan-waving leaders, the float teams follow the dancers, bringing their huge sculptures to life by dipping, spinning and weaving between the cheering crowds that line the streets. Samurai warriors glare fiercely into the night; gripped by mighty hands, swords of light clash; fanged serpents writhe, coil and spit lightning; the foaming crests of breaking sea-waves engulf demons dancing among tongues of flame.
After one circuit of the central city blocks I’ve done enough dancing, so I slip out of the parade and find a good vantage point to watch the procession pass by. I see my team make a second circuit, then a third – the kids in the front row show no sign of slowing down and the ‘rassera, rassera’ chanting of the leaders is just as loud and enthusiastic as ever, although I’m footsore and ready to call it a night.
Walking back towards the department store to return my haneto dancer’s costume, I pass a side street where a cluster of restaurants and bars announce their presence with neon lights and brightly-coloured cotton banners over the doorways. Dancing is thirsty and hungry work and the thought of a crisp local draft beer and some of northern Honshu’s wonderful seafood draws me towards them.
I push through the banners of a friendly-looking izakaya, with plastic models of the bill of fare displayed in the window – pubs in Japan are always places to eat as well as drink. I’m not alone in my haneto regalia, although like the other customers who have been in the parade, I’ve chosen to ditch my flower and fruit-filled bonnet, so that I can navigate my way through the bar door more easily. I take a seat and order a Sapporo beer (it’s from Hokkaido, just across the Tsugaru Strait, so I guess that’s local enough) and point politely to the photo of a sashimi platter.
It comes on a wooden tray, each piece a separate little jewel of colour and flavour. There are slices of tuna, the different cuts ranging from deep ruby to pale pink. Squid is sliced so thinly that it’s almost translucent. There are coin-sized disks of white seafood, each perched on its lozenge of rice. The taste and texture are familiar, but I can’t place it until the chef says ‘hotate, scallop!’ It’s a specialty of the cold seas around northern Honshu and Hokkaido.
But the dish that almost brings tears to my eyes comes in a lacquered bowl, miso clouds forming and reforming in the scalding, seaweedy broth. Floating islands of sea urchin roe dot the surface and tender slices of abalone lie beneath.
‘Ichigo-ni’, the chef tells me proudly. I learn later that this soup, unique to the region, is named because the roe resembles strawberries, ‘ichigo’. I can’t quite see the resemblance, but it’s a dish to dream of.
After my sashimi feast, I return to the dress-up room to be disrobed by the same ladies who performed the honours earlier. Conventionally-clad once again, I head for my accommodation on the far side of the port, away from the city centre. The parade is still continuing, and as I walk away, the tattoo of drums, the clash of cymbals, the tootling of flutes and the chants of the dancers fade in the evening air.
Tomorrow I’ll be on the shinkansen, hurtling at 320 kilometres per hour towards Tokyo, where the neon cliffs of Shinjuku echo the blazing colours of Nebuta, far away in the deep north.