Walking through the streets overlain with sunset hues, the distant rumble of drums could be heard. I spied out an empty lot and shared the steps leading up to it with a few local residents, camera at the ready. The procession made its way through the narrow road toward us in waves. The first wave was of children dressed in traditional clothes; a few were pulling a small paper float of a cartoon character. After them, the assault began. Older men with lanterns lead the way. In their wake was a float 10 feet or so high and 10-20 feet wide, being pulled by volunteers from the various neighborhoods or organizations that sponsored the float. Each float that passed by was a depiction of various gods, samurai and other historical figures, demons, and the occasional cutesy animal. They were made out of paper (the same kind you find in the paper walls and sliding doors here) with a skeletal frame of wire, lit up from the inside so as to cast an iridescent glow of color. My favorite one was of a samurai standing in the waves of the ocean, sword drawn against a cyclops and demon samurai wrapped in blue fire. At various points the men would spin the float around in a frenzy to impress onlookers, narrowly missing clipping homes and people in the narrow streets. Immediately behind the floats were taiko drums being beaten upon in rhythmic fury, with dancers of various sorts in their trail. This is Ominato Nebuta.
It seemed like everyone from Ominato was there. Ominato was its own town back in the day, but has now been fused together with other towns to become Mutsu, the biggest town in the Shimokita Peninsula in Northern Aomori. Hundreds of people lined the streets, had BBQs set up, would jump in and out of helping pull the floats, pass out free sake and beer, providing an overall joyful atmosphere. I felt like an actual reporter as practically everyone in the parade either posed for me or had their leader come over and talk to me. The actual meaning of the festival itself is slightly unclear to me, and probably too many Japanese people as well. From what I’ve gathered, explanations for the origin of Nebuta range from a celebration of crops to a linkage with the last dynasty of northern Japan and their defeat by Kyoto. Whatever the origin, it is a festival worth taking part in. Much smaller in scale compared with the Aomori city Nebuta, but precisely because of that fact, much more intimate and easy to get to be a part of.
When? The first weekend of August ( Fri- Sun ). Friday: The floats are lined up by the water's edge next to the Mutsu Wellness Park for viewing. It begins around 6 PM, but you can show up earlier to chat with the float makers or partake of the food stalls. Shortly after nightfall, a fireworks show is held. Note: There is no actual parade on Friday, just a viewing and the fireworks. Saturday and Sunday : The procession begins around 6 PM ( they sometimes start early or late ) and lasts until 8 PM, but revelers remain in the streets well past 8.
Ominato Nebuta is a fun way to experience a unique local festival right in people's backyards. A great way to get to know Japan.
The map pinned to this article will give you directions to Ominato Train Station, which is right next to the event on Saturday and Sunday. The procession's starting point is at Ominato Elementary school, but this is located in the maze of back streets and things don't really get going until the procession gets closer to Ominato Station. If you are coming by train, get off at Ominato station, take a left onto the street in front of the station and walk for five minutes. This may sound vague, but there will be hundreds of people all walking in the same direction and Ominato is very small, it would be very hard to miss the parade. Warning: If you intend to drive down on Saturday or Sunday, arrive early and park at McDonald's or Tsutaya (the only ones in town, at the intersection of highways 338 and 279) and walk the ten minutes to Ominato Station festival since most roads in Ominato will be closed or have mobs of people in them. There is no actual parking provided so this can be a challenge. If you are staying in Mutsu, the easiest way to get there would be to take a taxi and just say "Nebuta". Friday's event is held at Mutu's Wellness Park ( a gym housed in a giant dome ). Parking is provided right next to dome's waterfront on the lawn.
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