Hirosaki’s Neputa Village showcases the vibrant culture of Tsugaru

Tsugaru-han Neputa Village in Hirosaki City in Aomori Prefecture showcases the traditional culture and crafts of the Tsugaru region. Attractions at the tourist facility include large, intricately designed floats that parade through the streets during Neputa Matsuri, a festival dating back 300 years, and lively performances by Tsugaru-jamisen.

The Neputa Matsuri is a summer highlight in the ancient fortified city of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture. Held in the first week of August, the festival dates back to the Edo period (1603–1868). In the past, the popular event attracted the interest of the chiefs of the Tsugaru domain, and today crowds from all over Japan and beyond flock to the festival. The centerpiece of Neputa are 10-meter-high floats decorated with intricate hand-painted paintings and other designs.

The Neputa, not to be confused with the similarly named Nebuta Festival in the capital of Aomori Prefecture, celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2022. Tsugaru-han Neputa Village, a tourist facility next to Hirosaki Park, recreates the excitement of the event with exhibits. of floats and share the culture of Tsugaru through exhibitions of traditional crafts from the region. There are also performances of the distinctive Tsugaru-jamisen sound and other attractions for visitors to enjoy.

Tsugaru-han Neputa Village includes free and paid entry areas, a souvenir shop where visitors can purchase locally grown produce, and a restaurant serving regional cuisine.
Tsugaru-han Neputa Village includes free and paid admission areas, a souvenir shop where visitors can purchase locally grown produce, and a restaurant serving regional cuisine.

A display of floats from the Neputa Matsuri.  The large structures are designed to resemble a folding fan that is open.
A display of floats from the Neputa Matsuri. The large structures are designed to resemble a folding fan that is open.

Overcome summer fatigue

Facility tours begin at the Hirosaki Neputa Hall, where a presenter shares the history and features of the festival, and visitors enjoy a performance by the hayashi music that accompanies the floats that feature bamboo flutes and taiko.

The origins of Neputa and her cousin Nebuta are uncertain, although the festivals are believed to have their roots in the Tanabata tradition of nagashi bull in which lanterns are floated in rivers and other bodies of water to celebrate the festival of the stars. They are also linked to a similar ancient practice called nemuri nagashi historically observed in the Tōhoku region to “take away the drowsiness” that plagues farmers during the sweltering summer months. The custom was considered to be of particular importance in the far north of Honshū, with its short growing season.

Over time, the festivals developed distinct regional characteristics, one of the most obvious being their names. Both Neputa and Nebuta are believed to be corruptions of nemut, which means drowsiness. However, the intonation of the residents of Hirosaki, Goshogawara and other areas in the interior of Tsugaru is said to have transformed the word into the soft Neputa sound, while the lively dialect spoken in the fishing communities along the coast where lies the city of Aomori turned out in Nebuta.

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The entrance of the Hirosaki Neputa Hall.
The entrance of the Hirosaki Neputa Hall.

Floats on display inside the Hirosaki Neputa Hall.  Visitors can listen to a short lecture on the history and characteristics of the festival while enjoying the intricate designs of the structures.
Floats on display inside the Hirosaki Neputa Hall. Visitors can listen to a brief lecture on the history and characteristics of the festival while enjoying the intricate designs of the structures.

festival floats

The floats are the main draw of both festivals, and there are obvious regional distinctions here, too. Simple, square-shaped Tanabata lanterns, common from early on, gradually gave way to more elaborate designs, and in the latter part of the Edo period, huge doll-shaped floats called ningyō-nebuta either kumi-neputa it had become the norm. These were followed by fan-shaped ōgi-neputa which emerged in the middle of the Meiji era (1868-1912). Aomori City has become synonymous with the vast ningyō-nebutawhile Hirosaki hugged the ōgi-neputa. Goshogawara has a third type, the imposing tachi-neputa.

by Hirosaki ōgi-neputa have fronts decorated with elaborate drawings called kagami-e depicting famous people or scenes from Chinese and Japanese tradition. The reverses of the floats feature portraits of beautiful women painted in the traditional style. The center sections of the floats are designed to rotate, a spectacular feature that adds to the impact of neputa.

An exhibition of different neputa lanterns from the early Edo period shows their development.
An exhibition of different neputa Early Edo period lanterns shows its development.

A float in the middle of its spin reveals the okuri-e of a classical beauty painted on the reverse.
A float in the middle of the loop reveals the okuri-e of a classic beauty painted on the reverse.

The Hirosaki festival features doll-shaped floats along with the more common ōgi-neputa.
The Hirosaki festival features doll-shaped floats alongside the more common ones ōgi-neputa.

the ōgi-neputa took root in Hirosaki largely because their standard design makes them relatively inexpensive and easy to build. Compared to the more elaborate ningyō-nebuta characteristic of Aomori, which are crafted from scratch by dedicated craftsmen and can take up to three months to build at a cost of around 20 million yen (companies and other sponsors usually foot the bill) building neputa it is primarily a voluntary effort. Groups such as neighborhood associations provide much of the work, the frames are reused, and the images that adorn the floats are painted by part-time craftsmen rather than full-time professionals. This do-it-yourself approach has helped keep the local feel of the festival alive.

A float seen from the inside.  The frame is made from a local variety of native cypress.
A float seen from the inside. The frame is made from a local variety of native cypress.

A model of the wooden frame of a float.
A model of the wooden frame of a float.

A sample of images from different neputa-e artists.  Work on floats is seasonal and most painters have regular day jobs.
An exhibition of images of different neputa-e artists Work on floats is seasonal and most painters have regular day jobs.

Songs and gold fish swimming

After the Neputa Hall, visitors continue to the Neputa Gallery, where there are exhibits featuring two other integral aspects of the festival: the processionists’ song and the balloon-shaped paper goldfish called kingyo-neputa.

Contestants in Aomori’s Nebuta repeatedly shout “Rasse ra” while jumping and dancing, while Hirosaki’s chant is the “Ya yado”, which sounds more subdued. One theory is that the call derives from an ancient neputa song with the line “Iya iya iya yo”, while another attributes it to angry shouts of “Ya ya!” used to taunt an opponent during a fight. The Goshogawara Neputa has his own chant, “Yattemare”, which also has a goading chime, lending credence to the idea that the call was originally used to goad rival groups while towing neputa through the streets.

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Kingyo-neputa they are said to be modeled on the tsugaru nishiki, a variety of decorative carp treasured by the daimyō of Tsugaru. During the Edo period, domain leaders hoped the fish would become a major trade item, but breeding attempts failed and the variety eventually died out. Carp live today as colorful lanterns carried by children.

Neputa-e drafts and other items are on display within the Neputa Gallery.
drafts of neputa-e and other items are on display inside the Neputa Gallery.

A diorama of a Neputa procession.
A diorama of a neputa procession.

An array of kingyo-neputa.  Along with the goldfish there are models based on eto, the 12 zodiac animals.
an array of kingyo-neputa. Along with goldfish there are models based on etothe 12 zodiac animals.

Regional Arts and Crafts

At the Tsugaru Craft Center, visitors can experience regional variations of traditional crafts such as lacquerware, pottery, and embroidery firsthand. The adjacent Sangendō has exhibits at another regional hallmark, the Tsugaru-jamisen, and the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village offers daily performances of the iconic instrument.

Traditional craft items on display at the Tsugaru Craft Center.
Traditional craft items on display at the Tsugaru Craft Center.

A craftsman works on a piece of Tsugaru lacquerware.  Visitors are welcome to ask questions.
A craftsman works on a piece of Tsugaru lacquerware. Visitors are welcome to ask questions.

Yamada Sachimi, a two-time winner of the women's division at the Japanese Tsugaru-jamisen championships, performs for the visitors.
Yamada Sachimi, a two-time winner of the women’s division at the Japanese Tsugaru-jamisen championships, performs for the visitors.

The last stop on the tour is Yōkien, a Japanese garden that incorporates elements such as Mount Iwaki and the hoary pines of the adjacent Hirosaki Park into its design. After relaxing in the garden, visitors will want to stop by the well-stocked souvenir shop, which includes a branch of the Aomori Prefectural Antenna Shop, or sample local cuisine at Umaiya Restaurant.

The Yōkien is designed in the Ōishi-bugaku style which is distinct from the Tsugaru region.
The Yōkien is designed in the Ōishi-bugaku style which is distinct from the Tsugaru region.

The Yōki-an Tea House on the grounds of the Japanese Garden.
The Yōki-an Tea House on the grounds of the Japanese Garden.

Tsugaru-han Neputa Village

  • Address: 61 Kamenokō-chō, Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture
  • Hours: Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (last entry at 5:00 p.m.)
  • Admission: adults 550 yen, middle and high school students 350 yen, elementary students 220 yen, kindergarten children and children over 3 years old 110 yen
  • How to get there: 15 minutes from JR Hirosaki Station on the Kōnan Tamenobu-gō Bus; get off at the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village stop

(Originally published in Japanese. Report, text and photos by nippon.com.)

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