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    Nebuta Arts Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Nebuta Float

    Nebuta Arts Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Nebuta Float

    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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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. 


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    STEP 5:  DEBUT

    Finally, the nebuta is complete!

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    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." 

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    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. 

    --

    © All photos are taken by and belong to Nebuta Arts, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nebuta Arts with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

    Nebuta Arts on the Road: Top Things to See in Aomori City

    Nebuta Arts on the Road: Top Things to See in Aomori City

    Aomori City is a port city, the capital of Aomori Prefecture. It's completely walkable and/or accessible by public transport. 

    What to See
    Nebuta Warasse Museum

    Nebuta Warasse Museum
    Nebuta Warasse Museum
    Nebuta Warasse Museum

    Located adjacent to the Aomori station is the Nebuta Warasse Museum.  There isn't much signage in English at the start of the museum, but once you enter the main hall, there are subtitles to the short film that runs about once an hour.  Four or five of the previous year's floats are displayed - fully illuminated - along with English explanations.  This is undoubtedly the best place to see Nebuta up close, especially if you can't make it to the actual Nebuta Festival.  You can take a photo with a mini Nebuta float and a person dressed as a haneto dancer.

    Cost: 600yen per adult
    Total visit time: 1 hour

    Aomori Museum of Art + The Four Cats Cafe

    Aomori Museum of Art

    A short distance away (by bus or car) from Aomori City is the Aomori Museum of Art. You have the option to buy tickets by exhibit: the permanent exhibit, the temporary exhibit or both.  At our visit, the temporary exhibit was art from Italy's 16th century.  The most famous attraction here is the "Aomori Ken" sculpture by Nara Yoshitomo that sits outside the museum and serves as the end of your tour. At 8.5 meters high high, it's a popular photo opportunity. The Museum also runs a cafe - The Four Cats - which serves items like apple curry and desserts. 

    Cost: 1900 yen per adult for both exhibits
    Total visit time: 2 hours (or more, depending on your interest). 
     

    Where to Shop

    A-Factory

    A-Factory

    Right next to the Nebuta Warasse Museum is A-Factory, another space dedicated to promoting the best of Aomori items. Set up more like an open market, you can buy any sort of gourmet Aomori food product here.  The building also features a couple of cafes and an apple cider factory where you can view the transformation of Aomori apples to drink. 


    ASPAM
    If for some reason you don't can't find it, just mention "sankaku" (triangle) to anyone, and they'll know what you're talking about. Along with A-Factory, ASPAM is THE omiyage hub in Aomori City. Shaped like a giant A for Aomori - or like we said, a triangle - ASPAM is meant to be the central hub for learning about Aomori. The first and second floors feature an array of small, Aomori-specific gift shops and speciality vendors. Other floors feature restaurants with local cuisine, a panoramic film about Aomori and and an observation deck. Crowds from tour buses as well as cruise ships seem to linger here, so depending on your timing, the number of people around can be crushing.  

    Aomori Station (JR)

    Like most places in Japan, some of the best and most convenient shopping in the area can be found at the train station. Aomori Station has a variety of omiyage shops, a foreign foods market, a MUJI (clothes and housewares) and a JINS (glasses on the go). 

    **A special note about shopping in Aomori: When you spend over 5000yen on certain approved items, you are able to purchase them TAX FREE! This requires filling out a special form and handing over your passport. Usually if you just mention your passport, the salesperson will know what to do. 

    What are your top spots to visit in Aomori City? Leave a comment below or reach us at info@nebutaarts.com!

    How to See the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, Japan

    How to See the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, Japan

    We recently returned from a trip to the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, Japan. If you're not already in the Tohoku area, we've been told this is a somewhat difficult festival to attend because of the sheer number of people who come (~2 million!). Since this festival is seriously jaw-dropping and not to be missed, we've decided to share trips for how to make the adventure possible.   

    PRO TIP 1: BOOK ACCOMODATIONS AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE!

    People will tell you to book a place to stay one year in advance, and this is not exaggeration. We started trip planning in early April (4 months in advance), and we were scrambling to find anything remotely near Aomori City, where the Nebuta Festival is held. 

    If you're late to the game like we were, use any means of finding accommodation possible, including the usual travel websites, friends/family recommendations, travel agencies, AirBNB, individual hotels listed in travel guides such as Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor.   Search in Japanese if you can. Hopefully at the end of this you'll come up with something. We were finally able to find places to stay for each night by using a combination of Orbitz, national business inns (try Toyoko Inn, Route Inn or Super Hotel), family connections and AirBNB. If you can't find anything in Aomori City, some people book hotels in the neighboring cities of Hirosaki, Kuroishi, Towada or Hachinohe (all of them roughly 45+ minutes away).     

    (We should note that we also spoke with travel agencies in the US and in Japan, as well as friends of friends, but they were not able to help. Be prepared to go this on your own if necessary!)

    One issue with staying far from Aomori City is getting to and from the Festival. We rented a car and parked in the city early (around 2pm, with the Festival starting around 7). If you're also driving, other alternatives can be parking further away from the Festival center and taking a cab in or walking. The streets quite near to the main areas do not close until pretty much the start of the Festival and even with the street closures, you can get quite close.  However, that does not mean you'll be able to find a parking spot. Those parking lots are tiny compared to the US!

    PRO TIP 2: FIGURE OUT THE MOST TIME EFFICIENT WAY TO GET THERE

    Aomori recently welcomed a Shinkansen line, making travel to this region easier than ever before.  Take the Hayabusa (fastest) or Hayate from Tokyo. If you've got the time, a JR Rail Pass and/or depending on layovers, this can be a great way to get to Aomori. Considering our time constraints and the amount of luggage we had in tow, we opted to take a Japan Airlines (JAL) domestic flight from Haneda to Aomori Airport. Truthfully this was somewhat of a pain, as American Airlines requires you to pick up your luggage and transfer to the domestic flight yourself. In our case, this meant waiting in an hour-long JAL line.   


    PRO TIP 3: CHECK IN WITH A TRAVEL AGENT 

    We connected with JTB USA in Los Angeles and were able to get the same flight itinerary we'd been following on all the travel websites for $400 less than what the sites were offering. We don't know how they did it, but they did. It's worth a call. 

    PRO TIP 4: FIGURE OUT WHERE TO WATCH NEBUTA AHEAD OF TIME

    The Nebuta Festival occurs in a rectangular section of downtown Aomori City streets, where the nebuta floats and dancers follow a set route each night. See this festival map to get an idea. You have two options for viewing the Festival: 1) Get a seat or 2) Walk around as it's happening. For seats, on the higher end, you can purchase reserved seating ahead of time through the Festival organization. On the lower end, you can nab a spot on the curb by laying down some tarp or blankets ahead of time as your "reservation". From what we can tell, remarkably, people seem to leave these "reservations" alone. If you're not able to get there early enough, it is also possible to stand and walk around as the Festival is happening. Behind the rows of people sitting on the sidewalks, there is room to move.  

    We were able thankfully able to have seats for every night of the Festival, and we recommend this for at least one night. The Festival is pretty packed with people, and walking through the crowds for its duration can be tiring. You can eat a bento and drink as you sit and also snap great photos when the Nebuta floats pass by.   

    PRO TIP 5: CRUISE IN

    We noticed many foreign tourists had landed in Aomori via cruise ship. Princess Cruises offers a variety of cruises that include Aomori as a port. From the cruise, you can partake in a variety of Aomori sightseeing tours and of course, the Nebuta Festival. Just list "Aomori" as your "Itinerary Port" when you search and look for the Nebuta Festival as an option. 

    What are your pro tips for the accessing the Nebuta Festival? Leave a comment below or reach us at info@nebutaarts.com!

    Obon Season Kicks Off in Little Tokyo

    Obon Season Kicks Off in Little Tokyo

    Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom that honors the spirits of one's ancestors. In Japan, the custom can consist of returning to one's hometown, visiting and cleaning the graves of ancestors and attending local obon festivals. Here in Los Angeles, the occassion can mean different things to different families. But one thing is generally recognized by all: the gift of community and culture realized through obon festivals. 

    The obon festival "circuit" in Southern California runs every June through August at various temples throughout Southern California. One of the largest obon festivals can be found at Nishi Honganji in Little Tokyo, whick kicked off tonight. This festival is marked not only by the traditional bon odori (the style of dancing performed during the festival) but also by the array of family friendly activities offered. There are games, a farmer's market, live music, bingo, and food booths serving up sushi, somen, udon plate lunches and drinks like Calpico. It's truly an event by and for people of all ages, many of whom take the time to dress in summer yukata or hapi coats. The reunion-like atmosphere, compounded by the view of the DTLA skyline against the setting sun, makes this a one of a kind cultural event in Los Angeles.   

    Nishi Obon 2017

    Nishi Obon 2017

    Nishi's festival is on again tomorrow, 7/9, from 2 to 8:30PM, and more events are on slated at other temples. For a full schedule of upcoming 2017 obon festivals in Southern California, visit this list from Japanese City.  

    Nebuta Arts on the Road: 50th Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival

    Nebuta Arts on the Road: 50th Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival

    This past weekend we visited our “sister city” to the north, San Franciso’s Nihonmachi (Japantown), for the 50th Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. Through the years we had heard loads about the Festival, and we were eager to see it through our own eyes. It did not disappoint.

    We visited the Festival during its second and final weekend. On Saturday, we browsed the exhibits (origami, bonsai, dolls), community booths and food and craft vendors. I don’t know what a typical festival in San Francisco is like, but this crowd was no joke. There was a line for everything!

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    The weather was awful on Sunday, the day of the Grand Parade. It started late, there were probably less people than usual, and we were soaked by the end. But the Parade participants definitely still gave it their all. For the first time, we got to see a Parade instead of being in it!

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    In terms of content, the Parade is fairly similar to the Nisei Week Grand Parade. Both contain various community groups and figures and end with a showstoppers (in this case, a large mikoshi). But what struck me about this Parade was the number of youth involved. Thinking ahead to the future of the community, this is a very encouraging sight.

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    Overall - as active members of the Little Tokyo community here in Los Angeles, it was great to see the Japanese and Japanese American culture thriving in Japantown, San Francisco. We were blown away by the scope and engagement of the Festival. We’re looking forward to future trips up and seeing what else they’ve got in store! If you’re in the NorCal area during April, be sure to check it out.

    To learn more about the Festival, visit: https://sfcherryblossom.org/

    PRO TIP:

    • This is probably a given for San Francisco, but public transportation is the way to go with all the street closures. We took the 38 bus in from Powell Street BART, got off at the Laguna stop. We also took Uber on the way out.