All of the Lights: Tanabata and Nebuta

by Wataru Yonaiyama-Jackson

Let’s Get Matsuri In Here

When one hears “tradition” they can’t help but feel a sense of stiffness and monotony. Traditions don’t always have to be outdated though, and can continue to be relevant. After all, history repeats itself, right? Japan has many lively traditions, and what better one than the matsuri (祭り). Matsuri, meaning festival or holiday, are celebratory occasions. These festivals bring with them a palette of booths, offering a variety of foodie favorites, games, karaoke and much more entertainment -- all while beautiful, meticulously constructed floats are carried through the streets. There are many matsuri throughout the year, rain or shine, no matter what season (Hokkaido, Aomori and Akita have Snow Festivals in the freezing cold!). The most popular matsuri, however, occur during the beginning of spring, summer and early autumn, celebrating a myriad events like sakura blooming, rice harvests and even the stars. Today, we’ll be gazing at two in particular that really brighten things up: Tanabata (七夕祭り) and Nebuta (ねぶた祭り).

Can You Meet Me Halfway?

Tanabata, the star festival, is one of the oldest traditional festivals, having originated from China and introduced to Japan during the Nara period (710–94). The festival marks the annual meeting of the stars Orihime (Vega), and Hikoboshi (Altair). The legend goes as follows: Orihime was a talented weaver and upon meeting Hikoboshi, a hard-working cow herder, fell head over heels in love. As they wed, and celebrated their love, their duties were left neglected. This sparked a rage inside of Tentei, not only the emperor of heaven, but Orihime’s father himself, and he exiled them to separate ends of the Milky Way. All hope was not lost for these star-crossed lovers, as they were permitted to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month, so long as they had fulfilled their duties each year.

Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair)

Orihime (Vega), and Hikoboshi (Altair)

When You Wish Upon a Star

It wasn’t until the Edo period (1603–1868), that the festival gained popularity and was celebrated on a larger scale. Beforehand, aristocrats would gaze at the stars while writing poetry. Over time, that tradition evolved into writing wishes and dreams on tanzaku (短冊, long, narrow card for vertical writing) and hanging them from branches of bamboo. Due to its straight, and tall growth, bamboo represents the wishes being carried up into the heavens, riding on the wind. Other traditional decorations on display are:

  • Fukinagashi (吹き流し): colorful streamers symbolize threads for those aiming to be better weavers.
  • Amikazari (あみ飾り): are the wishes by fishermen for full nets.
  • Kinchaku (巾着): are little bags of prosperity.
  • Orizuru (折鶴): these folded cranes represent longevity.

Tanzaku hanging from bamboo

Tanzaku hanging from bamboo

    Aomori Borealis

    Now, I wouldn’t be an Aomori boy if I didn’t take the time to direct you guys to a different set of Northern Lights. Up on the tip of the Tohoku region sits the birthplace of the Fuji apple, Aomori Prefecture. Aomori is also home to one of the most popular festivals: Nebuta, boasting over 3 million visitors from all over Japan. Nebuta (ねぶた祭り), literally, means drowsiness, but in this case refers to the floats that are carried through the festival, waking up the soul.

    Its origins are largely unknown and hugely debated, with some claiming it is an offspring of the Tanabata festival, while others insist it's rooted in the darker origins of the word’s kanji.

    Nebuta, traditionally written "根蓋" in kanji (though now written in kana) tells the story of Aterui, a general who was known for uniting the Emishi (Ainu/ Indigenous Japanese people). Aterui and his followers attempted to reclaim their indigenous land and marched South to Fuji, Shizuoka to battle Sakanoue no Tamuramaro and his army. After an arduous twelve years, Aterui and his followers were defeated. As punishment, they were beheaded and sent “back” to the world of the dead (根), covered in dirt (蓋). This story also serves as the roots for the matsuri dancers’ stomping on the ground, paying homage to Sanakoue’s victory as they carry the float of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro on their shoulders.

    nebuta float
    Nebuta float

    Despite its dark origins, Nebuta nevertheless remains a bright, joyous occasion. Giant floats are constructed by all the village folk -- traditionally made from bamboo and wire and illuminated by candles. Since its rise in popularity and to ensure the safety of everyone involved (Oh, Japan!), nowadays these floats are constructed by local businesses with wire and electrically powered lights. Nebuta also refers to the float of a brave warrior-figure which is carried through the center of the city, as dancers wear a unique type of costume called haneto (ハネト). In the local dialect, irasshai, (いらっしゃい, inviting visitors and participants to watch or join) becomes rasserā (ラッセラー) and is chanted throughout the streets. So long as they are wearing haneto, anyone is welcome to join the parade. As the sun sets, the floats continue to illuminate the streets while people dance, drink and eat playfully.

    nebuta festival
    Locals wearing haneto

    These two festivals are a prime example of how old traditions can still be invigorating, refreshing and youthful. There’s nothing quite like grabbing some takoyaki, washed down with some Asahi at a Tanabata, or strapping on a haneto and dancing with the locals at Nebuta. At the end of the night, you will find yourself looking up at the stars (and lights), feeling warm and fuzzy as the past, present and future coalesce.

    What’re you waiting for? Time to purchase that haneto and grab that Asahi. We know we will.

    Want to learn more about Japanese Festivals? Check out the festivals tag on our blog.

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