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Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (ねぶた祭)
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is perhaps the most intricate summer festival that we attended in Japan. But don’t just take our word for it, this epic summer event brings in over 3 million people annually making it one of the great three festivals of Tohoku including Akita Kanto Matsuri and Sendai Tanabata Matsuri.
Each year, local residents of Aomori design, create, and construct around 24 enormous floats with wireframing and painted washi paper. These carefully built floats depict different stories or meanings including figures from notable Japanese folktales, historical kabuki figures, or gods and are paraded through the city of Aomori during the festival.
In this post we’ll cover everything you need to know about Aomori Nebuta Matsuri including how to get to Aomori, where to stay, the history behind this unique festival, and everything you need to know about attending Aomori Nebuta Festival.
Author’s Note: The Aomori Nebuta Festival has been canceled for 2020. But since this festival happens annually you can still use this information to plan for future travel!
How to Get to Aomori City
Aomori City is located in the Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku Region on the northernmost part of Japan’s main island.
The best way to get to Aomori City is by bullet train. From Tokyo, it is about 5 hours by shinkansen and from Sendi it is about 3 hours. For both of these routes you would take the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori Station. Then from Shin-Aomori Station you’d take the JR Ou Line to Aomori Station.
Where to Stay in Aomori City
Because of the Aomori Nebuta Festival, it can be hard to get a hotel in Aomori City, and the prices of hotels drastically increase as well. Because of this I suggest booking a hotel at least 8 months in advance to ensure you have a place to stay.
We looked for hotels in Aomori City a year in advance but noticed that many of the hotels weren’t available. At first, I thought it was due to the fact that our event was a year away but when I checked again at 8 months every hotel was still unavailable. Then again at 6 months, I noticed the same thing.
Because of this, we booked an Airbnb in Misawa, a town that is almost 3 hours away by train. I know what you’re thinking, three hours!? But that’s what we had to work with at the time.
Fortunately for us, Japan was going through a time of transition with Airbnb and our reservation was canceled (I know, it doesn’t seem fortunate but just wait). Due to the cancelation, Airbnb told us that they would cover the cost of another Airbnb or if one was not available, they’d cover the cost of a hotel room.
Well, no other Airbnb was available within a 3-hour radius of Aomori so we checked for hotels again. As luck would have it, ONE room was available in Aomori City and Airbnb footed the bill for us (THANK YOU AIRBNB!).
Basically I tell you this story because you MIGHT have to be creative and less picky about where you stay. There were some nearby towns that had ryokan with rooms available but the only way to access them was by car which we didn’t book in advance and was going to cost us an arm and a leg as well.
Because of the fiasco, we ended up staying at the Hotel Sunroute Aomori which was PERFECT for Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. It was close to the main festival area, decently close to Aomori Station, and had extremely comfortable rooms with breakfast available. But not just any breakfast, a really fancy breakfast that felt like you were dining at a nice restaurant. We really lucked out with our stay here and would consider staying here again when we revisit Aomori!
If you are having trouble finding a hotel in Aomori I also recommend looking at Airbnb. Just keep in mind that when booking an Airbnb make sure they have an official government license number and check reviews as well!
The History Behind Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
The historical roots of Aomori Nebuta Matsuri are actually somewhat of a mystery – thus I don’t have much to share about its origin. Although, from my research, I did discover that the most popular origin theory is that it could have originated from the Tanabata (star) festival because of the similarities in the uses of washi paper and the custom of “Nemuri Nagashi.” Nemuri Nagashi was once seen as a national practiced custom to ward off sleep demons, the enemies of farmwork. They were said to cause drowsiness during the busy farming season causing injuries and work difficulties.
Attending Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
During Aomori Nebuta Matsuri local businesses team up with local residents to create intricate floats with wire and colorful washi paper. Each float is different from one another and tells a unique story.
The floats also range in size but can be up to 16 ft (5 m) tall and 30 ft (9 m) wide – almost taking up the width of the street that they are paraded down! After the initial design and construction take place they are strategically placed on a stand for the festival’s parade.
Like other summer festivals, there are free and paid reserved seating areas to watch the parade. However, the reserved seating goes fast so be sure to get tickets in advance! They are available at most convenience stores and at Ticket Pia.
As for free seating, we suggest purchasing a tarp and some tape at a local 100 yen shop or convenience store to save a spot to view the parade from on Hakko-dori or National Route 4, the main streets for the parade. Just make sure you put down a tarp early in the day to ensure you have a spot! I also recommend saving a pin on Google Maps to mark where you placed your tarp because it gets a little crazy and it can be hard to find where you were. 😉
If you’re trying to decide where to save a spot I’d say that anywhere you can find a place on Hakko-dori or Route 4 or is good! But the area where the 2nd turn and 3rd turns are located was the busiest – at least, from our experience.
Because we arrived in Aomori on the first day of the festival we weren’t able to grab a close spot by the 2nd or 3rd turn so we made our way down towards the area where the 1st turn is located and found that it was less crowded than the other areas. Here is the pin for the exact spot we watched from.
After you have secured your viewing spot make sure to walk around the festival area by the Nebuta Museum and Aomori Station to enjoy some entertainment and festival street food.
Aomori is known for its apples so there are a lot of apple-themed desserts to purchase, we got a yummy hot apple pie from one stand. As for entertainment, we saw local schools perform singing and dance numbers and a couple of well-known shamisen players perform too!
On the evenings of the festival, the floats are wheeled onto the streets of downtown Aomori. As the parade procession begins, the illuminated floats are pushed down the streets moving back and forth towards the crowd to create an entertaining display.
Alongside the floats are a procession of taiko drummers, flute and hand cymbal places, and hundreds of dancers dressed in what’s known as a haneto costume. The haneto dancers involved in the festival perform a traditional dance in front and behind the floats while chanting “rassera, rassera.”
Something unique to this summer festival is that it is open to outside participants. Meaning, if you want to participate in the dancing portion, you can! You just have to rent or buy a haneto costume that is available at a number of different stores in the city. A haneto rental usually costs around 4,000 yen and it is around 7,000 yen to purchase it.
When we attended Aomori Nebuta Matsuri we were struck with some bad weather and it rained nearly the entire time we were there. Because of this the floats had to be covered with thick, clear plastic tarps to keep them from being damaged. However, the show continued on! Just make sure you have some rain gear on you just in case. 😉
On the last day of the festival, some of the floats are put on boats and rowed onto Mutsu Bay from Aoiumi Park. After that, the event ends with a two-hour fireworks display!
Now, if you aren’t able to attend the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, you can still see the floats! The previous years’ floats are all on display in the Nebuta Matsuri Museum also located in Aomori City.
Basic Information About Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
Where: Aomori City, Japan
When: August 2-7
Times: August 2-6: 7:10pm-9pm (August 2-6), August 7: 1pm-3pm & 7:15pm-9pm (bay parade and fireworks)
Cost: Free to attend, some paid seating for 3,000 yen