Summer of Festivals

Let’s festival! I know it’s summer here because 1. it is hot and 2. festivals (matsuri |祭り|まつり)  everywhere. In Japan in July and August, there are usually many festivals going on.  Some of the summer festivals feature fireworks, music, dancing, flowers, stars, warriors, and/or…floats! I kid you not, I was awoken at 7am Sunday morning by the sound of beating taiko drums and children pulling a float while shouting “Ya-ya-do~!” over and over…and over…

I went to my first summer festival when I stayed with my host family in 2005. We went to a Tanabata matsuri near Ueno (Tokyo), because my host sister and brother’s dance team was participating in the parade. Their type of dancing was (and still is) Awa-odori, a type of dance that comes from Tokushima… where two of my close friends now live, incidentally. I recently stumbled upon pictures from my first festival, so I figured I might share a few I really liked.
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Now… About Neputa!

neputaAccording to my research, Neputa is a huge fan-shaped lantern painted with images of warlords or legendary heroines, set upon a carriage. About 80 carriages of Neputa are pulled along the main streets of the city to the sound of drums and flutes from 7 pm to 9:30 pm daily. I may be wrong, but I think the floats being pulled symbolize going off to war. The festival lasts one week, during or around the first week of August. After the week is through, they burn three of the floats. My friend attended the burning of the float and someone explained to her that it was like a cremation ceremony for those who died in battle.

At my welcome enkai party with my co-workers, K-kachou (the section manager of the Paperwork Division) asked me if I wanted to see Neputa. I said, yes, of course! He then invited me to participate in the procession with his group. He warned me that his group actually carried their float on their shoulders for a good deal of the way, but I said that wasn’t a problem. I’m strong! It would be crazy not to take every opportunity here to get to know my new city and the culture.

So then time passed.. and my Neputa debut grew closer. I was also allowed to invite a friend, so I invited my fellow new JET friend Kimberly at my apartment complex. She and I both were ecstatic to go! We met at 6:30pm on Thursday, August 4th at my office, waiting for K-kachou to pick us up. A little late, he arrived and presented us with brand new costumes to wear! He gave us both a navy blue coat, yellow obi, and a head-tie with his group’s name in kanji (Chinese characters). We then were shuffled off to the meeting spot. All of the neputa floats were, by then, in line for the parade, all lit up. K-kachou’s wife met us and seemed very excited. She told us a little about herself and there was one word I could not understand… “Mitsugo.” She kept on mentioning to her stomach and holding up three fingers. I thought, oh, she has three children. So I asked her how old they were and how many boys/girls she had. But no, she shook her head enthusiastically and kept motioning to her stomach. “Mitsugo!” Finally it clicked in my head! Futago was twins, so Mitsugo must be… triplets! Wowza. I had never met a Japanese woman with triplets before.

After I understood that, we chatted a bit, we were given drinks, and K-kachou’s wife dressed us in our Neputa outfits. She showed us how to roll up our sleeves and wear our obis slung low around our hips so that we were stylin’. By then we were feeling pretty darn awesome. We were in the parade and we looked the part! We got to try out the taiko drums near the rear of our group’s float, my first time to do so in Japan. It took me a few minutes to get the rhythm (I am kind of beat-challenged) but I eventually got the hang of it.

A little past 8pm, the parade started. Our float was lit not by electricity, but by candles! So there was actual smoke coming out from the top of the fan-shaped thing. It had wheels so that it could be transported easily, but I also saw the huge long poles for carrying it on our shoulders. We alternated pushing the float and carrying it. I had received a tip to bring an extra towel to put on my shoulder for padding and boy was I grateful for that. It was exhilarating to get to carry such a huge float, but at the end of the night I had a proper bruise.

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Pushing Time!
(Photo by Tori)

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Knees-bent! Hard work!!
(Photo by Tori)

Kimberly and I were only moving with the procession from 8-8:50pm. I sweat a ton… People kept asking me if I was okay and if my shoulder hurt. It was fine, of course, and Kimberly said she was fine too. Although… I would look in front of me and see that the pole wasn’t touching her shoulder at all! This is one instance where height is not an advantage! I was the tallest and in the center, so I felt the weight of the float first. I still have a bit of a mark on my shoulder! But after it was all said and done, I wasn’t that tired. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment from helping the group carry the Neputa float. What an amazing experience, to be a participant and not just a spectator.

The night after, Kimberly and I went downtown to actually watch Neputa because I had never seen it before. I managed to take some okay pictures and a couple videos. The floats are really incredible and the workmanship is first-rate!

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A Neputa float that also spins! (Video taken with my iPhone)

Goshogawara Tachi-Neputa

Next we travel to… Goshogawara! Goshogawara is a smaller town due north of Hirosaki, famous for its Tachi-Neputa Festival. In English, this is called “Standing Neputa” because the floats are easily 22m/72ft high. Like the Neputa in Hirosaki, they are also made out of painted rice paper around wooden frames. Instead of fan shaped, these are actual figures of legendary heroes/samurai. There are less floats (about 15), but I’ll be the first one to tell you that you spend too much time looking at the sheer size of these things to notice.

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They have an entire building dedicated to these massive things.

I had the opportunity to go to this festival because Tori (my “big sister” here in Hirosaki, a 2nd-year JET who is also Regional Representative) invited me to come along with Kimberly and her friend Chiharu. Apparently Chiharu knew some people in the festival (with an actual group) and invited Tori and friends to come along. Tori and Chiharu got amazingly awesome outfits for the festival and I had my yukata with me, so I decided to wear that. After much trial and sweat, we got my yukata on AND my obi tied properly. YouTube videos helped also. Oh, and Chiharu is also a hair stylist magician! She did her own, Tori’s, Kimberly’s, and my hairstyles. Everyone else was rocking an updo-semi-ponytail-mohawk thing and I got to have a messy dango-bun on top of my head (it suited my outfit better). Oh, how I wished I could wear my hair like that every day!

Chiharu drove us all to Goshogawara in her car, where the city was flooded with people. People, people, people everywhere! We wandered around trying to find Chiharu’s people and got a taste of the festival air. The style for the Goshogawara festival is… different. And I loved it. It was kind of a punk rock take on traditional Japanese styles. Even little girls had their hair in cornrows. Take a look for yourself! (I had a camera this time.)

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Our little group (Chiharu, Kimberly, myself, Tori)

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Tori and I!

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Tori’s rockin’ hair from the side! (She totally blended in with everyone else. All the girls were rockin’ it in Goshogawara!)

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Just having fun waiting for the festival to start!

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Looking up at the huge float we were about to push…

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This is the float that was behind us, coming out of the Tachi-neputa building

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The figure, up close
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Another float! There was a bunny on it! I took this as we were walking.

Another video by iPhone! (Please watch in HQ)

I helped push a bit at first, but then I realized that I wasn’t really dressed properly to push for too long (yukata and flip flops). I also had a few wardrobe malfunctions… silly obi. So we mostly just walked with the float and the rest of the group. The only bad thing that happened was that there was this guy blowing a whistle right next to my ears. For half an hour. I swear by the end of the night, my ears were ringing! I did see many parents just carrying their children through the parade, amidst the musicians, dancers, drumming, whistles, yells… And the children were either as calm as they could be or asleep. Amazing!

Getting our float back in the building was the hardest part. I pulled and pulled and pulled on the ropes, helping the team turn it to get into position. We got it inside, onto a turntable, where it then was repositioned safely in the building. The Tachi-Neputa building is also a museum, so I suppose a few of the floats are preserved there for tourism purposes.

After the festival ended, everyone went crazy! Hundreds of people rushing around in the streets, yelling, cheering, having a good time. I even saw some Japanese girls take off their shirts and run around in their bras. Chiharu, Kimberly, and I elected to keep our clothing on, however! We wandered around looking for food and drinks to replenish our energy. I never thought tea could taste so good! Kimberly and I opted to get a ride back with Chiharu since she was leaving right away. Good choice on my part because I was beat. Wearing a yukata and obi is exhausting enough, but being in a parade too and helping push/pull a huge float is another thing altogether.

It was an experience I won’t soon forget. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen two amazing festivals up close and personal.

Oh, and I managed to keep my hair looking nice enough to wear to work on Monday. All of my coworkers were talking about the heat (no air-conditioning in my entire office building) and my section manager actually complimented me on my hairstyle. I loved the top-bun because it got all of my hair up and away from my neck. I had been a little concerned that it was a little too fashion-forward for my type of office, but nope! A compliment from the manager certainly encourages me to ask Chiharu to teach me how to do it myself… :)

Till next time!

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2 Comments to “Summer of Festivals”

  1. Stacy,
    This was amazing! What a privilege you had in being able to attend both festivals. You sure look like you were working hard in the first pics. You look so cute in your short jeans and that kimono or whatever it was. Did you get to keep it?
    One time height wasn’t an advantage…so cute. Anyway, enjoyed it immensely as did your Nana. She called yesterday and said she had such a good time talking with you. That means so much to her and to me and your DDY. I wish you could call my mom sometime too. All for now. Great POST!

    • Wah, thank you for your comment, MMY! No, I didn’t get to keep the outfit from the first festival. But that’s okay, I bet the group will use it for someone else who comes in and joins next time!
      About ten minutes ago I was just turning on the old US cell phone to get some phone numbers off of it. I will get around to making the calls I need to make~! :)

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