Until yesterday I had never seen an Nebuta, and I doubt you have either. They’re pretty amazing things.
On Sunday we had a very pleasant bus journey through the mountainous wooded valleys to Sapporo, to catch a one hour flight back to the mainland to the coastal town of Aomori. Cel said goodbye to us at the gate in Sapporo and wandered off up the stairs to catch his own fight to Tokyo, where he’s very sensibly using the opportunity of finding himself in Japan to do a bit more exploring on his own in Tokyo.
Once we were out of Aomori airport and on the road in another meticulous Japanese bus with doilies on the headrests, it was obvious that the landscape was quite different. Our approach to the city was very flat with paddy fields criss crossed with rivers and ditches. We checked into our dinky rooms (I can’t sit in most of the baths here because my legs are too long) and then our fixer Ryuzo took us all to one of the most bonkers restaurants I’ve ever been in. Decorated in traditional Japanese style, your meal is interspersed with a bloke prancing around in costume with a large fan and various other props, while another guy loudly plinky plonks on a three stringed guitar. Luckily I managed to finish my food and get out just as they unleashed a huge traditional Japanese drum that I could hear destroying the eardrums of the diners as I made my way down the road to bed.
For our day off I spent most of my day hanging round the harbour where things were coming together for the week long festival ahead (more of that in a sec). My next co-presenter for this block, Johny Pitts, arrived in the afternoon and we dragged him round until 9pm, refusing to let him go to bed so that he got his body clock on Japanese time. I’m sure he felt like thanking us in the morning…
At the crack of dawn we made our way to the local museum on our mission to introduce UK children to the wonders of Nebuta. They’re basically huge paper lanterns. And I mean HUGE. About the size of a small house, they’re pushed through the streets every night this week of the year by teams of volunteers. As I said before, they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen, ridiculously intricate constructions of painted paper and wire depicting religious and historical scenes and legends. Threaded inside are electric lights to make them come alive at night, although in the past they would have used candles (they’ve been doing this here for 400 years, so they’re pretty good at it by now). We shot a nice little intro about me being scared of the biggest night-light ever, then filmed our thoughts on the 12 or so floats sitting ready in the harbour and met some dancers in their kimonos and hats (that look like upturned flower baskets).
Pretty soon Johny and I were wearing said kimonos and flower baskets and getting our head round the fact that we had to dance next to our float round the streets of Aomori for 2 hours. That’s quite a long time. And to turn it into a competitive event we were both going to be wearing pedometers to see who could do the most steps.
Once the floats were pushed into place along the road, with teams of dancers, drummers and flute players in front of each one you realised what a huge operation this was. We reckon the procession must have been about a mile long. Spectators thronged pavements along the route with raised up platforms every couple of blocks that you can pay to access for a better view. For the first hour Johny and I chanted and hopped from foot to foot with gusto, fired up with the usual AOTP competitive spirit. We checked our pedometers on camera halfway round (having to keep moving to prevent being run over by the lumbering float behind us) and I was about 2,000 steps ahead of Johny. Something had clearly gone wrong (my money is on Johny accidentally resetting his early on when it fell off his belt), but that didn’t stop me claiming I was better than him and lauding it up for the rest of the march. I took a fairly leisurely approach after that but he never caught up and when the fireworks signified the end of the parade an hour later I was crowned victor. Hurrah!