Overshadowed Neputa Festival Shines With an Artistic Light
Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival Presents Finely Painted Floats of War and Peace
|A Traditional Fan-Shaped Neputa Float|
The Neputa Festival of Hirosaki, in northern Japan, suffers from being overshadowed by its more famous sister festival, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori City. Even many Japanese 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.
|A Kagami-e Fighting Scene |
The first recorded Neputa festival goes back to 1722 but the festival itself is no doubt older. The Neputa festival has been named an important intangible national cultural heritage custom.
The traditional floats of Neputa are not the three-dimensional ones like those of the Nebuta Festival, though some of those type 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 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.
A visitor will soon notice that the paintings of the Neputa floats have a distinct warlike theme to them. Like Nebuta many of the themes are based on historical and mythical characters from Japanese and Chinese stories.
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 often appear somewhat melancholy.
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. 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.
|A “miokuri-e” (seeing-off scene) |
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 steel 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 music of the Neputa also has a somewhat sadder more somber tone to it than the Nebuta Festival.
|A shocking display of unlady-like behavior |
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.
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 marched together carrying the long deadly naginata — which is like a combination of spear and sword.
|A Ghastly Ghost Haunts a Lady|
Though 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.
In fact, while Aomori was for a long time just a sleepy port town, Hirosaki had been the official capital of the Tsugura clan’s domain from 1603 to 1868. When the Emperor Meiji came to power, he reorganized the area making Aomori City the capital. Being a landlocked city of no military value, Hirosaki was fortunate to be spared the dreadful bombing that Aomori City received during WWII.
Ordinarily it might be difficult for visitors to choose which festival to attend but fortunately both festivals last for nearly a week — the first week of August. It’s quite possible and definitely recommendable to see both.