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 firstname.lastname@example.org!