In the far northern regions of Tohoku, Aomori’s Nebuta Festival with its giant illuminated action scene floats gets all the glory and attention and while this is well deserved another festival just next door tends to get overlooked which deserves more attention. The Neputa Festival of Hirosaki suffers from being overshadowed by its more famous sister festival, the Nebuta Festival. Even many Japanese outside of Aomori Prefecture have never heard of it. Many think the word “Neputa” is just another word for “Nebuta” or a slip of the tongue. This is unfortunate because the Neputa festival is worthy of recognition in its own right.
The traditional floats of Neputa are not the three-dimensional ones like those of the Nebuta Festival, though some of those type of floats are used in the procession. The Neputa floats are two-dimensional large flat fan-shaped floats with paintings on both front and back surfaces. Like Nebuta, the floats are made of washi (Japanese paper) with a bamboo framework and they are illuminated by light bulbs within the structure.
The floats range in size from small ones carried by one to six people to enormous ones pulled along by a team of people. In the larger ones, two or three people will ride on a platform inside the float in order to lower the top portion of the float so that it can pass under street lights and telephone wires.
At certain times during the procession, the Neputa floats are rotated to show both sides rapidly. The larger floats are rotated by use of ropes pulled by four to six people while the bottom base remains stationary.
As with the Nebuta Festival many of the floats’ themes are based on historical and mythical characters from Japanese and Chinese stories as well as kabuki. Some of the most popular recurring themes are the Chinese stories of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh.
A visitor will soon notice that the paintings of the Neputa floats have a distinct warlike theme to them. Neputa’s themes appear more violent in depicting bloody swords, grisly baskets of severed heads, brutal beheadings, swallowing of eyeballs, and so forth. On the other side of the Neputa float, however, one often finds a beautiful portrait of a Chinese or Japanese lady in a gorgeous costume. The ladies usually appear somewhat melancholy.
The reason for these contrasting images of war and sad beautiful women has to do with the nature of the Neputa Festival and its difference to the Nebuta Festival. Neputa is said to represent a war procession of warriors going off to battle. The fighting scenes are to steal their hearts and prepare them for the grim task of fighting ahead. The forlorn women on the opposite side represent their wives and lovers seeing them off. The kagami-e is the heroic fighting side and the miokuri-e is the peaceful side often of sad women who are seeing off their brave menfolk.
The music of the Neputa also has a somewhat sadder more somber tone to it than the Nebuta Festival.
In contrast, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori represents the triumphant return from battle. The music has a more upbeat and merry melody to it. During Japan’s Sengoku Period (Warring States) in the 16th Century, no doubt people witnessed many such processions of leaving and returning to and from battle.
Typifying such a war procession, the Japanese Self Defense Force puts in an apt appearance by performing a sword and fan dance. A group of women march together carrying the long deadly naginata — which is like a combination of spear and sword.
Although Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri tends to hog the limelight, Hirosaki’s Neputa Matsuri deserves accolades for its impressively beautiful artwork, particularly on the rear section of the floats. The exquisite artwork of the floats is quite fitting because Hirosaki is after all the capital for culture and education in Aomori Prefecture. The Neputa festival has been named an important intangible national cultural heritage custom.
The Neputa Festival usually runs from August 1st to the 7th starting at 7pm and going till about 9 or 10. The last day is a day parade from 10 to 12 so you should go before that to really see Neputa in its artistic glory. Since the Nebuta Festival of Aomori is running at the same time, it’s easy to go to both festivals if you have the time along with a few other festivals in the Aomori and Tohoku area.
Hirosaki is about 30-40 minutes away from Aomori on the JR Ou Line.