Airmen Adventures: Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri
AOMORI, Japan -- "Airmen Adventures" is a 6-month print series to accompany Misawa Air Base's "Another Day Wasted?" alcohol awareness campaign. Each story will detail a young Airman's travels to various cities in Japan with transportation, attraction and cost details. This initiative is implemented in hopes of giving Airmen at Misawa a guide to travel outside the gate and explore Japan -- instead of spending #anotherdaywasted.
During the week, I write stories that highlight Airmen, airpower and the advancements to quality of life for Airmen at Misawa Air Base. As a junior-enlisted member, my weekends and any free time are very important, so once the weekend comes, I high-tail it off base to explore new and interesting parts of Japan.
This time, I'm taking a short hop over to Aomori City, to experience their week-long Nebuta Matsuri.
Baiting my friend into accompanying me with the allure of beautiful girls, intricate floats and a wild selection of food, the two of us headed northwest to see just how "big" this festival was.
August marks an important time here in Japan, specifically in the Tohoku region - - it signifies a humid summer, barbecues at the beach, tourist-packed restaurants and most importantly, a time for festivals, beginning with Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri- one of Japan's Three Big Fire Festivals.
With a scenic hour-and-change drive to Aomori, it gave us ample time to discuss our own personal experiences with parades and like events. Growing up on the East coast and West coast respectively, we concluded there was no way this festival had anything on Macy's Christmas Day parade, or any street fest in California.
We were surprisingly (and humbly) proven wrong.
Upon arriving in central Aomori, we were greeted by hordes of people of all ages frantically searching for parking, hungrily crowding various food vendors, and most commonly, people stopping for quick peace-sign "selfies" in front of the massive floats.
With the search of parking taking forever, I highly suggest taking the 2000 yen, one hour train ride from Misawa station to Aomori. Not only does it spit you out right into the center of the parade, but the train runs back and forth to Misawa until 10:51 p.m.
Arriving downtown by 3 p.m. and being somewhat unfamiliar with the area, the two of us were confined to taking laps around the central parade route before the event, but it didn't stop us from sightseeing a live music group, sampling various foods like freshly grilled yakitori, or purchasing some of Aomori's famous apple products.
As sunset approached, a policeman holding a megaphone barked a command. Almost as if the Earth came to a stop, thousands dropped what they were doing and rushed to the central street, placing mats, creating a colorful barricade of wide-eyed on-lookers.
Silence descended over the multi-block main street.
The booming sounds of Taiko drums and the shouting of dancing participants erupted from nowhere heralding the parade's beginning.
"RASSERA, RASSERA, RASSE-RASSE-RASSE-RA!"
Looming from around the corner, a samurai entwined in battle with a demon emerged, illuminated with vibrant blues, reds and yellows, supported by a team of eager Japanese men and women pushing the towering float from underneath.
Escorting these floats were thousands of Japanese garbed in traditional Haneto, seen as flashes of white and red bouncing up and down, echoing their mantra as they made their way down central Aomori's streets.
At each street, the procession would come to a halt, allowing the monstrous floats to be shown to on-lookers, celebrated with cheering and chanting.
Clamoring for advantageous photo spots, my friend and I exchanged numerous "sumimasen!" (excuse me) and "gomenasai!" (sorry) as we elbowed and climbed over the masses, hoping for a chance to see the amazing display.
With a count of over 30 different floats and approximately 1000 dancers, flute players and drum-beaters, the Nebuta festival's nightly show lasted approximately two and a half hours. This grand event happens every night for one week, ultimately ending on August 7th with a massive fireworks show while the floats are set on fire and cast out to sea.
Ending at roughly 10 p.m., the mass exodus began as parking lots emptied, packed trains departed and streets turned barren, washing the slate for the next night's events to start over again. Another successful trip in my rear-view mirror, my friend and I set off back to Misawa, glad to have experienced such an amazing cultural phenomenon, already planning the next adventure to embark on.
Although my friend and I didn't wear the traditional dress or participate in the procession, we definitely intend to next summer after witnessing the fun and energy the crowds provided.
Participation in the Nebuta festival's parade is not only accepted, but encouraged and is a great way to establish ties with both the Japanese people and culture while you're here.
As always, I encourage everyone to be a good ambassador and to get out and explore the country of Japan. Step outside your comfort zone. Whether you're embarrassed to hit that high note on a karaoke song, or find yourself bouncing and shouting in a sea of Japanese people during a parade, Nihon has a lot of opportunities to take advantage of and all it takes is stepping outside the gate.