For those outside of Japan - and Aomori specificially - the process of building a nebuta is somewhat of a mystery. Though visitors to the Nebuta Festival can be granted surprisingly up-close access to the nebuta floats, the process that comes before isn't necessarily open to the public. It's not easy to find information (at least in English) in what it takes to bring a nebuta to life.
Recently we were fortunate enough to see this process up close, as a new nebuta was scheduled to be designed for the Los Angeles Nebuta Bayashi Honzonkai, our affiliate non-profit organization. The actual construction process began in October, when a team of artists from Aomori - led by lengendary artist Hiroo Takenami - traveled to Los Angeles to construct it. Takenami has come to LA multiple times in the past to build nebuta. In those years, at least part of the nebuta float was constructed in Japan and was shipped over, where it was later completed. However, this year was the first time a nebuta float was constructed entirely in Los Angeles.
Under normal conditions in Aomori, this process takes artists anywhere from 3-6 months. This team had 3 WEEKS to complete the task. Would it even be possible?
STEP 1: FIND A STORY TO TELL
The first step is conceptualizing the nebuta float float. Each year, Takenami selects a scene from Japanese history or myth and sketches a design. This year's float was to depict a Japanese folk hero called Kintoki:
Sakata Kintoki was a samurai warrior during the latter part of the Heian Period (900 AD). Though Kintoki was known as one of Lord Minamoto no Yorimitsu's "Elite Four", he was most famous as the legendary boy named Kintaro, who stradled a bear while holding a broadaxe in one hand.
Legend has it that a koi fish swimming up towards the heavens turns into a dragon. Symbollically, this act is also said to reflect every parent's hope for a child's success, courage and health.
These images of the young, brave Kintaro and the koi (carp) were used in this nebuta so that the Los Angeles Nebuta will continue to prosper.
- Translation provided by the Los Angeles Nebuta Bayashi Hozonkai
STEP 2: START WITH THE FRAME
After float's scene is planned, the team - along with a group of dedicated volunteers - then constructs the corresponding wood framing and wiring that underlies the nebuta float. Already you can see the nebuta beginning to take shape.
STEP 3: APPLY WASHI PAPER
After the wood framing and wiring are completed, LED lights are added to the interior frame. Traditionally candles were used but over time lighting has evolved to modern standards.
Next, the nebuta floats are covered in washi paper specifically brought from Japan. Washi paper is a traditional paper that is processed by hand from local fibers and gives a special look and texture to the nebuta.
To best display the shape of the wiring, the washi paper is individually cut exactly to fit each wire space. The paper is gently puffed up by hand from behind, and the edges are carefully glued and pressed to surrounding papers. There are hundreds of wire spaces to fill, so this is a very time-consuming process.
Once the paper is set, outlines are drawn.
STEP 4: PAINT
Finally, painting begins. Takenami mixes custom colors to ensure that the colors match his vision. In certain parts of the float, melted wax is applied first, which changes the way light shines through the washi paper. Each team member is assigned to fill a certain area. The artists adjust the positioning of their brush to achieve the appropriate shading and texture.
During the painting process, the lights of the float may be turned on to ensure the colors are reflected correctly.
STEP 5: DEBUT
Finally, the nebuta is complete!
In our case, a special ceremony was held to bless the nebuta. A small offering was left at the foot of the float, and Takenami thanked everyone for their hard work and expressed his gratitude that the project had gone well and without incident. He asked for safety at future events. Each of the attendees at the ceremony bowed and prayed for the same, and with that, the nebuta was "alive."
All told, the team worked for three weeks straight on a strict schedule - often from sunrise to well past sundown - to complete the project. We extend to the team, as well as the many volunteers who assisted, a big OTSUKARESAMA for their tireless efforts to keep this tradition alive and share it with us in America.
You can see this new nebuta in action for the first time at the Hollywood Christmas Parade this Sunday, 11/26.
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