Lighting up the summer nights: Aomori’s Nebuta and Neputa Festivals
You may have heard of the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), but did you know that there are over 40 Nebuta Festivals in the entire prefecture? Festivals are a fun and fantastic way to discover more about another country’s unique culture and traditions, so it is no surprise that many visitors flock to Japan to experience a matsuri (祭り festival).
In particular, summer festivals are some of Japan’s most vibrant and exciting. The north-eastern region of Tohoku (東北地方 Tо̄hoku chihо̄) is especially known for its summer festivals, with the big three (東北三大夏祭り Tо̄hoku sandai natsumatsuri) being the Sendai Tanabata Festival, the Akita Kanto Festival, and the Aomori Nebuta Festival.
I had the opportunity to experience the former two in August 2011, while I was on a volunteer program for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (東日本大震災 higashinihon daishinsai). These were my first ever matsuri experiences, and since then, I had been longing to experience the Aomori Nebuta Festival. Finally, in 2019 I was able to experience this awe-inspiring festival!
Some of Aomori Prefecture’s more well-known Nebuta and Neputa Festivals. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
You might ask, Nebuta and Neputa, what’s the difference? They refer to the same thing, but Nebuta is more commonly used in the eastern parts of Aomori, whereas regions in the western part (the Tsugaru region) mostly call it Neputa.
In this article, I will introduce not just the Aomori Nebuta Festival, but also some of the other regional Nebuta and Neputa festivals in Aomori Prefecture that you can visit in summer.
Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り)
Festival dates: 02–07 August annually
Nearest station: JR Aomori Station (青森駅)
The Aomori Nebuta Festival is famed for its large, elaborate floats. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
The most famous of all Nebuta Festivals, and drawing crowds of over 3 million in recent years, the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り Aomori Nebuta Matsuri) awes visitors with its stunning giant floats, often depicting historical and mythical figures and creatures. The floats are like giant lanterns illuminated from within, and the detailed images almost seem to pop out! Of the festival’s approximately 80 floats, only about 20 are the gigantic type. These enormous 3D floats are hand-crafted by master craftsmen, and require months to make.
Held in the prefectural capital of Aomori City from 02–07 August each year, the Aomori Nebuta Festival starts off small, with only 2/3 of the floats (mostly the smaller ones) paraded in the evenings on 02–03 August. On 04–06 August, all floats are paraded in the evenings, including the larger and more elaborate floats. The paraded floats are accompanied with musicians and dancers, who create a lively atmosphere. Rounding off the festival, the final day—07 August—features a day-time parade on the streets, while the night-time has a special event: the fireworks and boat parade.
Fireworks are set off while the winning floats are paraded around the bay on boats. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
The Aomori Nebuta Festival is easily one of Japan's most recognisable festivals, but for something so well-known, its true origins remain a mystery. Some say that it has roots from the Chinese Tanabata Festival (七夕 qīxī), although this cannot be confirmed. It is said that the Chinese Qixi traditions were blended with local customs of making lanterns with paper and bamboo, which over the years grew in shape and size to eventually become the large nebuta floats of today.
Tanabata traditions of the past included sending lanterns down a river to appease the souls of the dead, and in a way, this is what the boat parade on the final day symbolises. On the evening of 07 August, the final day of the festival, floats which have won prizes in that year’s festival are put on boats and paraded around Aomori Bay. There is also a fireworks display, for a grand finale to this stunning festival.
The day-time float procession lets you see the participants more clearly. This float won the third prize in 2019. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
During my trip, I visited five of Tohoku’s summer festivals over 4 days. Due to time limits and geographic constraints, I could go for the Aomori Nebuta Festival on only one day, so I chose to visit on the final day, 07 August, to see the day-time parade, the evening boat parade, and the fireworks.
This float won the second prize in 2019. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Aomori Nebuta Festival is best known for its night-time parades, so seeing the parade during the day-time was very different from the image I had in mind. Nevertheless, since it was bright and sunny, I could clearly see the design, colours and paintwork of the meticulously crafted floats, as well as the excitement and energy on the participants’ faces.
If you are in Aomori during the Nebuta Festival, try joining the parade by becoming a haneto dancer. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Other than the impressive floats, another thing that will catch your eye is the energetic haneto (ハネト) dancers, who jump to the beat of the taiko drums and chant “Rassera, rassera! Rasse, rasse, rassera!” enthusiastically. Equipped with uchiwa (fans) and bells, haneto dancers bring lots of energy and vibrance to the festival.
If you wear the proper haneto costume, you can participate in the festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa)
If you are travelling with a group of friends, I definitely recommend joining as haneto dancers with your friends for a memorable travel experience. As long as you are wearing the proper haneto costumes, anyone and everyone, including tourists and visitors, can participate in the float parade as haneto dancers. The bright and colourful costumes can be purchased around the city during the festival period, and rental costumes are also available along the parade procession route.
Ticketed seats give you a great view of the fireworks and floats as they pass by. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For the finale fireworks and boat parade, ticketed seats are available at the wharf. These seats directly face the bay, and provide an up-close, unobstructed view of the fireworks and the floats as they pass by. Thanks to my wonderful colleagues from Morioka, I snagged a seat for this area!
Early birds reserving prime viewing spots. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Of course, the fireworks and float parade can be enjoyed for free as well. Just be sure to come early to get a good spot. The evening show started at 19:00, but by 15:00 I already saw dozens of people saving their spots around the bay area.
The boats coming close to the seating area. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The floats being paraded on boats around the bay. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For me, the highlight and what I was most looking forward to was definitely evening boat parade. Despite the boats being out on the bay, the chants of the participants could be heard, loud and clear. The reflections of the brightly illuminated floats and dazzling fireworks in the water was also very beautiful to watch.
2019’s winning floats. Clockwise from top left, first prize to fifth prize. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The floats that appear during this segment are floats which have won prizes, so perhaps the elation of winning a prize added to the high energy of the participants.
The Nebuta Museum WA RASSE lets you experience the Aomori Nebuta Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you cannot make it to Aomori during the festival days, fret not. The Nebuta Museum WA RASSE (ねぶたの家 ワ・ラッセ) is a stone’s throw from JR Aomori Station, and showcases Nebuta floats from previous years. Here you can learn more about the festival, and even experience the festival atmosphere through their haneto experience (at 11:00, 13:00 and 15:00), where visitors can try doing the haneto dance, banging cymbals, and beating the taiko drum.
Taking part in the haneto and taiko drum experiences at the Nebuta Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In addition to the haneto experience, you can also partake in the Nebuta Papering Experience (at 10:00 and 14:00), during which you can learn about the structure and construction process of the floats.
Other than the sheer size, what makes the Aomori Nebuta Festival floats special is the 3D appearance of the figures. The Nebuta floats are made of wood (for the internal structure and support), wire (for the detailed shaping), and washi paper (to coat the wire frames).
Nebuta Museum WA RASSE (ねぶたの家 ワ・ラッセ)
Address: 1-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori-shi, Aomori 030-0803
Access: 1-minute walk from JR Aomori Station
Opening hours: 9:00–18:00 (September–April), 9:00–19:00 (May–August)
Closed: 31 December, 01 January, 09–10 August
Admission fee: ¥620/adult
Hirosaki Neputa Festival (弘前ねぷた祭り)
Festival dates: 01–07 August annually
Nearest station: JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅)
The Hirosaki Neputa Festival is the largest festival in the Tsugaru region. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
One of the Tohoku region's most culturally rich cities, Hirosaki City (弘前市) is castle town located in the western part of Aomori Prefecture. Aomori City may be the present-day capital of Aomori Prefecture, but before that, Hirosaki City was for a long time the cultural and economic capital of the Tsugaru region—the old name for western Aomori. It is here in this city that the second largest Nebuta Festival is held, the Hirosaki Neputa Festival (弘前ねぷた祭りHirosaki Neputa Matsuri).
Dynamic front pictures vs. elegant back pictures. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Unlike the more three-dimensional human-form (人形型 ningyо̄gata) Aomori Nebuta Festival floats, the floats for the Hirosaki Neputa Festival are mostly fan-shaped (扇型 о̄gigata), with the designs painted on the surfaces. Other than the unique fan-shape, another key feature of the Hirosaki Neputa Festival’s floats is the contrast between the dynamic and fierce images of warriors on the front picture (鏡絵 kagamie) with the elegant portraits of beautiful ladies on the back picture (見送り絵 miokurie).
The Hirosaki Neputa Festival floats have a distinct fan-shape. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
The float procession of about 80 floats is done over two routes—the Dotemachi Route and the Ekimae Route. On the evenings of 01–03 August, the parade procession plies the Dotemachi Route, while the Ekimae Route is done on evenings of 04–06 August. A daytime Dotemachi Route is also done on 07 August, the final day of the festival.
The Tsugaru-han Neputa Village lets you get a glimpse of the Hirosaki Neputa Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you cannot make it to Hirosaki during the festival dates, there is also a facility where you can view previous years’ floats, see videos of past festivals and even try out taiko drum beating. The Tsugaru-han Neputa Village (津軽藩ねぷた村 Tsugaruhan Neputamura) showcases and lets you experience a wide array of Tsugaru culture, including Neputa.
Visitors can try out a variety of local crafts at Tsugaru-han Neputa Village. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
As the culture-rich Tsugaru region is famous for shamisen (三味線), a traditional Japanese string instrument, the facility also has shamisen performances about once per hour for visitors to enjoy. At the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village, you can also try out a variety of Tsugaru cultural crafts like kite-painting, making mini Neputa fan stands, painting wooden apples and wooden dolls, Tsugaru pottery, Tsugaru lacquerware, and more.
Tsugaru-han Neputa Village (津軽藩ねぷた村)
Address: 61 Kamenoko-cho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8332
Access: 30-minute walk from JR Hirosaki Station, or take a 15-minute bus ride from Hirosaki Station to Tsugaruhan Neputamura Bus Stop.
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥550/adult
Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival (五所川原立佞武多祭り)
Festival dates: 04–08 August annually
Nearest station: JR Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅)
The Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival floats are tall and high. (Image credit: 五所川原観光協会)
Located in the Tsugaru region, Goshogawara City (五所川原市) is a small city to the west of Aomori and to the north of Hirosaki. Held annually between 04–08 August, the Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival (五所川原立佞武多祭り Goshogawara Tachineputa Matsuri) is known for its large and tall tachineputa floats, which can be up to a whopping 23m or seven storeys-high—much taller than the floats of the Aomori and Hirosaki Festivals. Tachi (立ち) means “standing”, and these floats are certainly striking when standing at their towering heights. During the festival, there are about 15 floats paraded, of which three are giant floats. Accompanying dancers shout “Yattemare! Yattemare!” throughout the procession, with taiko drums beating in the background.
Floats can be up to seven storeys or 23m high. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
To many people, Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival’s floats are some of the most impressive. It is also due to the passion of the local community that the festival could continue at its soaring heights. In the past, wealthy merchants made Tachineputa floats as a display of wealth, competing on who could build them higher. After modernisation during the Taisho Period (1912–1926), heights of the floats were limited by the electrical wires built around the city. Passionate locals formed a group to deliberate on how to bring back the old, tall floats, and due to their efforts, from 1998 electric wires along the parade route were buried underground, so that the floats could once again stand high.
A stunning fireworks display is held on 03 August. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
To start off the festival, a fireworks show, the Goshogawara Fireworks Festival (五所川原花火大会Goshogawara Hanabi Taikai), is held on the night of 03 August, before the float parades are held on the evenings of 04–08 August. Dubbed the “Fireworks festival of water, light and sound”, around 5,000 fireworks are launched in synchronisation with background music, and accompanied by waterworks and lighting. The highlight of this pyrotechnic show is the multiple Star Mines, which go up to 300m across.
Experience the Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival at the Tachineputa no Yakata. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
If you are unable to visit during the festival period, you can still view the magnificent Tachineputa floats year-round at the Tachineputa no Yakata (立佞武多の館), a museum only a 5-minute walk from JR Goshogawara Station. During the actual festival, the procession sets off from this facility before making its rounds across the city.
Tachineputa no Yakata (立佞武多の館)
Address: 506-10, Omachi, Goshogawara-shi, Aomori 037-0063
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Goshogawara Station
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥650/adult
Tel: +81- 173-38-3232
Kuroishi Neputa Festival (黒石ねぷた祭り)
Festival dates: 30 July–05 August annually
Nearest station: Kо̄nan Railway Kuroishi Station (黒石駅)
The Kuroishi Neputa Festival features around 50 floats. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Kuroishi (黒石市) is a small city neighbouring Hirosaki. Usually, each Nebuta Festival features only one type of Nebuta floats, but at the Kuroishi Neputa Festival (黒石ねぷた祭り Kuroishi Neputa Matsuri), you can experience both the fan-shaped type (like Hirosaki’s) and the three-dimensional type (like Aomori’s). While they might not be as large as that of Aomori or Hirosaki, the floats at this festival still number at around 50.
The joint parades are held on 30 July and 02 August. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Although festivities go on between 30 July and 05 August each year, the joint float parade is only on 30 July and 02 August, so be sure to drop by on these dates if you want to catch the all the floats. On these days, all the floats will gather at Miyuki Park before parading around the streets of Kuroishi. The route information can be found here.
Other Nebuta and Neputa Festivals
Clockwise from top left: Hirakawa Neputa Festival, Ominato Nebuta Festival, Asamushi Onsen Nebuta Festival, Tsugaru City Nebuta Festival. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
While there are also some variants of the Nebuta Festivals in the Kanto region, Nebuta is still symbolic of Aomori Prefecture, with over 40 regional Nebuta Festivals across the prefecture. If you want to experience something more intimate, why not check out one of the smaller, regional festivals?
Tsugaru City Nebuta Festival (つがる市ネブタまつり)
Festival dates: 26–28 July annually
Nearest station: JR Kizukuri Station (木造駅)
Ominato Nebuta Festival (大湊ネブタ祭り)
Festival dates: 01–03 August annually
Nearest station: JR О̄minato Station (大湊駅)
Hirakawa Neputa Festival (平川ねぷた祭り)
Festival dates: 02–03 August annually
Nearest station: Konan Railway Hiraka Station (平賀駅)
Asamushi Onsen Nebuta Festival (浅虫温泉ねぶた祭り)
Festival dates: Varies annually, usually two days in mid-July and one day in mid-August
Nearest station: Aoimori Railway Asamushi Onsen Station (浅虫温泉駅)
Tohoku's Five Great Summer Festivals
Clockwise from top left: Akita Kanto Festival, Morioka Sanda Odori, Sendai Tanabata Festival, Yamagata Hanagasa Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you can, I highly recommend visiting Tohoku in summer when the cities come alive with their festivals! Other than the various Nebuta Festivals, Tohoku has a plethora of stunning summer festivals in the same week (the first week of August) that are equally grand and enjoyable.
Calendar of major Tohoku summer festivals. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
These include the Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈祭り), the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り), the Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り), and the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠祭り), which together with the Aomori Nebuta Festival make up the Five Great Summer Festivals of Tohoku (東北五大夏祭り Tо̄hoku Godai Natsumatsuri).
If you are thinking of doing a summer festival trip around Tohoku, it’s totally possible to visit a different festival every day. In 2019, I had a blast checking out Tohoku’s Five Great Summer Festivals plus Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (長岡花火大会) on the same trip, and you can visit even more if you squeeze in the other regional festivals. In fact, festival-hopping something the local Japanese tourists do too, though perhaps more commonly two to three festivals over a 3-day weekend.
For reference, this was my 2019 itinerary:
03 August | Nagaoka Fireworks Festival
04 August | Morioka Sansa Odori
05 August | Akita Kanto Festival
06 August | Sendai Tanabata Festival (AM) and Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (PM)
07 August | Aomori Nebuta Festival (AM float parade, PM boat parade + fireworks)
JR Shin-Aomori Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
JR Shin-Aomori Station (新青森駅) is a 190-minute bullet train ride from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅) via the Tōhoku Shinkansen Line.
Getting to Aomori:
- Aomori Station (青森駅) is a 5-minute train ride from Shin-Aomori Station on the JR Ou Main Line.
Getting to Hirosaki:
- Hirosaki Station (弘前駅) is a 35-minute train ride from Shin-Aomori Station on the JR Ou Main Line.
Getting to Goshogawara:
- From Shin-Aomori Station, take a 30-minute train ride on the JR Ou Main Line and transfer at Kawabe Station to the JR Gono Line. Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅) is a 30-minute train ride from Kawabe Station on the JR Gono Line.
Getting to Kuroishi:
- Kuroishi Station (黒石駅) is a 36-minute ride on the Konan Railway Konan Line from Hirosaki Station.
The Resort Shirakami Joyful Train. (Image credit: JR East (top) and Carissa Loh (bottom))
One of the first Joyful Trains to be launched, the Resort Shirakami plies the Gono Line along the coast of the Sea of Japan, offering breathtaking views of both the sapphire sea and the verdant green fields. This train runs between Akita and Aomori almost every day, with up to three trains per direction per day. The Resort Shirakami passes by Aomori, Shin-Aomori, Hirosaki and Goshogawara, so why not check it out the next time you visit Aomori? The train is free to ride if you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting Aomori and the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥35,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass. After exploring Aomori, you can also use the pass to visit the nearby prefectures of Akita, Iwate, and more!
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: Aomori Prefecture