Friday, August 22, 2008


Anyone Can Join the Fun at Aomori's Nebuta Festival (July 22, 2003)

Nebuta Festival
Top: Nebuta; Above: Haneto (Aomori Tourism and Convention Association)
The Nebuta Festival in the northern city of Aomori is in a class by itself. From August 2 to 7 every year, the city comes alive as huge illuminated floats are paraded through the streets accompanied by thousands of haneto (jumping) dancers chanting, "Rasse-Rah, Rasse-Rah!"

Aomori is a city of 290,000. But for one week in early August, it swells to 3.5 million as sightseers from around the country gather at the northern tip of Japan's main island, Honshu, to experience the explosion of energy during the height of the city's short summer. Visitors hoping to reserve a room at a local hotel or inn during the festival must do so more than 10 months in advance.

The floats, called nebuta, are huge colorful lanterns in the shape of famous samurai warriors and kabuki characters. Some 20 floats are built each year from bamboo and wire frames and covered with washi paper. When the approximately 800 light bulbs inside each nebuta are lit as evening approaches, the floats become a dazzling spectacle.

As darkness deepens and the brightness of the floats intensifies, a drum is sounded, stirring the milling dancers into action. Young people begin jumping as shouts of "Rasse-Rah!" fill the streets, sweeping spectators into the excitement.

Hakkoda Mountains
Hiking in the Hakkoda Mountains (Aomori Tourism and Convention Association)

Anyone can become a haneto. All that is required is a costume consisting of a woven hat decorated with flowers and a yukata (summer kimono) whose sleeves have been tucked up with cord. The outfit sells for about ¥10,000 ($83 at ¥120 to the dollar) at local department stores, or it can be rented for around ¥4,000 ($33). Another important condition is that one be healthy enough to jump continuously for the length of the 3-kilometer course.

Honshu's Northernmost Prefecture
Aomori has historically prospered as a regional transportation hub. Ferry service between Aomori and Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaido began in 1873, and Aomori Station opened in 1891 to link the city by rail to other parts of Honshu. As the northernmost outpost on Honshu, Aomori was a key relay point for traffic with Hokkaido. The Seikan Tunnel - the world's longest - opened to traffic in 1988 after undergoing more than 20 years of construction, and the ferry service consequently was terminated after an illustrious 80-year history.

A recent addition to Aomori's many attractions is the prehistoric ruins at Sannai Maruyama. The large-scale ruins, dating back 4,000 to 5,500 years to the Jomon period, were discovered during construction of a sports park in 1992. Of particular archeological significance were the remnants of six huge pillars, suggesting the existence of a mammoth structure. The site is believed to have been a locus of power during the early and middle Jomon period. Today, it is a popular park featuring restored prehistoric homes and artifacts.

The Sukayu hot spring resort (Aomori Tourism and Convention Association)

The Shirakami Mountains spanning southwestern Aomori Prefecture and northwestern Akita Prefecture were designated a World Natural Heritage site in 1993 for the district's highly unique ecosystem. The area contains one of the world's largest virgin beech forests, calling to mind the kind of life the hunting tribes of the Jomon period must have led.

Aomori Prefecture is blessed with rich and unspoiled nature. Lake Towada in the south was created some 200,000 years ago by volcanic activity. The lake boasts one of the highest degrees of transparency in Japan, and its color is a hauntingly shimmering blue. In deep autumn, the reflection of the surrounding foliage makes for a grand symphony of brilliant colors.

The Oirase River that flows out of Lake Towada through a picturesque gorge is at times very gentle and at others very dynamic. There is a hiking trail along the 15-kilometer length of the river allowing visitors to enjoy the scenic beauty without climbing gear. The variety of terrain is another treat, as there are 14 waterfalls along the way, including the Kumoi Falls measuring over 20 meters high.

To the north of Lake Towada are the Hakkoda Mountains comprising some 16 peaks, the largest of which is the 1,585-meter Odake. Being a volcanic region, there are many renowned and venerable hot spring resorts as well, including those at Sukayu and Sarukura. The Tashirotai Marsh is a rich repository of swampland plants, which can be viewed by following a looping footpath that takes one hour to complete.

The Shimokita Peninsula that juts out into Mutsu Bay to the north of Aomori City is home to virgin forests and other natural treasures. Near the tip of the peninsula is Osorezan, a sulfur-fuming mountain where the souls of the dead are believed to congregate. There, female shamans called itako serve as mediums enabling people to communicate with deceased family members. The "channeling" takes place only during the grand festival from July 20 to 24 each year and an autumnal observance, which will be held on October 11 to 13 this year.

Last but not least of Aomori's attractions is the traditional folk music of the Tsugaru district. The Tsugaru jamisen was originally performed by strolling musicians who played door to door soliciting money. The shamisen used is larger than that for other musical styles, and a great deal of improvisation is required. The Tsugaru jamisen has a bluesy feel and is becoming very popular around the nation among young people. While there are live performances in Tokyo in clubs and concert halls, the Tsugaru jamisen is best heard on its home ground in Aomori Prefecture.

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