I’ve never been one of those people who truly love summer. When I was in high school and college, it meant working twelve- or fifteen-hour days. At W&J, I was (and still am) enough of a nerd that I actually genuinely enjoyed academia, so three months away from lectures about British Romanticism and the like seemed to last forever. The thing that most strongly contributes to my dislike of summer, though, is the heat. Hot weather and I don’t get along so well; I tend to turn a nice shade of radioactive lobster red after being out in the sun for any extended period of time. I’d be perfectly content living somewhere that has nine months of fall, thanks very much. A month of the other seasons – most importantly, summer – would be just fine in my book.
In Aomori, though, I have to admit that I’ve become fonder of summer in the past few years. (Despite the overwhelming lack of air conditioning.) And it’s because of one thing: ねぶた (Nebuta).
Nebuta is Aomori’s summer festival, one of the most famous in Japan. Every year, from August 2nd through the 7th, Aomori, usually most infamous because of its winters, turns into a giant street party. Basically, Nebuta works like this: every night, there’s a two-hour parade throughout the main part of town. Many of the larger companies in Aomori sponsor the construction of massive floats. Anyone who wants to can join in the parade with a certain float.
For those two hours, we jump (or for a more accurate translation from the Japanese, “bounce”) through the main streets, shouting the traditional phrase “ラッセラ, ラッセラ!” (Rassera, rassera!)
To hear it explained without actually seeing it in action, it sounds a bit silly. “What, you…jump for two hours? And yell? Is that it?” But in all honesty, it’s hands down my favorite event in Aomori. The atmosphere is incredible. For those of us who live in Aomori, we don traditional yukata and take to the streets to jump and dance our way through the nightly parades. And the music – piercing flutes, pounding taiko drums, and crashing cymbals – is nothing short of intoxicating. I swear, I was hearing it in my sleep by the end of the festival.
The floats are amazing to behold, as well. They become even more impressive once you realize that they’re man-powered, not motorized. A highlight of this year’s festival was jumping with one of the floats…and then looking back to realize that it was being manned by a group of my male students. It gave me a new level of respect for them, because I can only guess at the number of hours they’d spent practicing, in addition to their usual schoolwork, school festival, and club activities.
Prior to this year, I actually didn’t have many memories of Nebuta. The first year I was in Aomori, I did jump, but then ended up horribly wrenching one of my ankles in the middle of the festival. (Incidentally, this was the subject of much incredulity and amusement at my office. “Wait, you jumped too hard? Silly foreigner…”) And last year, I was away on vacation for much of the summer. After this year, I’ve resolved to stay in Aomori during Nebuta for my remaining time here. It’s just too much fun to miss out on, and I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the festival atmosphere until it came around again.
This year was especially memorable for me because I ran into loads of my students while jumping. Many of them follow me on Twitter, so by announcing which float I’d be jumping with on any given night, they knew where they could find me. And find me, they did. Cue loads of other JETs commenting that I seemed to run into my kids constantly. I think it was as fun for them to jump with me as the reverse, because I was definitely not in “Alex-sensei” mode.
To cap off the festival, there’s also a fireworks show in the bay harbor on the last night. It’s a relaxing, low-key way to end a week of noise and frenetic activity. As much as I love Nebuta, one week is definitely sufficient for all of the revelry. I nursed a sore throat and a gnarly case of shin splints (Believe me, jumping for two hours is a lot harder on your body than it sounds…) for the better part of the next week. But that’s not to say that when August rolls around next year, I won’t shrug on my yukata, tie up the sashes, and take to the streets to bounce again.