A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Tsukuba’s Very Own (?) Nebuta Parade!

An uneasy silence filled the pre-fab shed set up in front of Capio Hall. The hapi-coat clad festival organizers shot nervous glances at each other.  The man I was addressing stroked the back of his tilted head, as he slowly and audibly drew air though his slightly parted teeth. It was clear that my question had hit a raw nerve. In fact, after many can-we’s and should-we’s had bounced back and forth meekly between those present, I was told that I would not be able hear an exact figure from their mouths. All they could say was that it required a VERY LARGE SUM to hire, transport and maintain the Nebuta Floats for the Matsuri Tsukuba Festival.

Last weekend  was the 11th time that these world famous NEBUTA floats (just a few of them) have been transported down to Tsukuba by truck from Aomori City at the northern tip of Honshu Island. The Nebuta Festival is one of Japan’s most famous and exciting matsuris, and its long history attests to its deep connection to the Tohoku Region and its people. It is WELL worth a special trip to Aomori (even from abroad!) in the beginning of August to witness the passion of the procession and the eerie beauty of the giant illuminated floats which feature UKIYOE-like paintings of warriors, animals, sumo wrestlers, etc….

What I would really like to know is why Tsukuba City would have to lay out so much dough to bring the Nebutas here for our festival. I could understand it if it were for one year, but EVERY YEAR? The Nebutas have no connection at all to Tsukuba, Ibaraki, or Kanto. Why should we have the LEFT-OVERS of someone else’s festival, no matter how famous?  I think there are enough history, legends and traditions around these parts to provide material for creating a new and ORIGINAL Matsuri Tsukuba which native Ibarakians and new and foreign residents could all relate to. It WOULD take some IMAGINATION and DARING. That, however, might be a little difficult to find.

The origins of the Tsukuba Nebuta connection are also shrouded in mystery and perhaps intrigue. The group responsible for having started bringing down the floats eleven years ago is the Junior Chamber International Tsukuba Branch .When I asked them to tell me the story they claimed it would take 2 hours to do so and then quickly explained that some big-shot in their organization knew (was connected with) someone up in Aomori. Well, I think we would all agree that JCI is not representative of Tsukuba and shouldn’t be the ones to decide how the festival budget should be spent. I would also not be surprised if someone were making a bundle off our matsuri.

Most of the people who come to enjoy Matsuri Tsukuba (and there are surprisingly many!) probably don’t even catch a glance of the famous floats (they are usually wrapped in plastic). That is because of the shape which the festival has taken. Yes, I’m talking about the actual shape of the festival if viewed on a map or from above. Just like Tsukuba University, the festival has grown very long and slender. At its most crowded it becomes like too much water being forced through a narrow gorge, and in total there are only 3 or 4 outlets where the water (the crowd) can run off into other directions. On humid days it is quite tiring to navigate the entire length of the festival and then back again. With all the different performance (mostly third rate) venues set up and ALL THE FOOD stalls up on the main pedestrian path, the layout of the festival is not conducive to viewing the Nebutas. I say scrap it and spend the money in better ways!

One tip for those who plan on visiting Matsuri Tsukuba next year is DON’T EAT BREAKFAST, or even dinner the night before, for that matter! From the DAYZ TOWN building all the way to the Expo Center it is wall-to-wall food (with some stalls for scooping up live fish thrown in here and there!)! Just how much can a person eat? And can someone give me a clue as to how to choose which yakisoba stand to buy from out of the dozens you find every few meters (and that goes for okonomiyaki, takoyaki, taiyaki, jagabata, etc., as well). Two foreign foods which have become almost as common are Indian curry and kebabs. Every once in a while you come across a rare find. For example, I was happy to find a stall serving Tunisian food. A special feature of the Tsukuba hawkers scene is the presence of many amateurs, especially foreigners who serve up their countries’ dishes. 

Though Matsuri Tsukuba is NOT one of the best festivals in the Kanto Area, it is still fun to be out with the crowd, see all the colorful yukata, probably run into some old friends on the narrow path, and of course EAT. It is very surprising and interesting to note how many young girls dress up in traditional wear. Their presence provides a real lift to the festival’s atmosphere

Sometimes this event is more reminiscent of a trade show than a matsuri, with many local restaurants, shops, and organizations setting up booths. I was happiest to find Mr Takano of Matsushiro’s Takanoya Liquor Shop hawking his award winning SAKE. Takano-san grows his own Yamada-Nishiki rice in a small, frog-filled field behind his shop. It is astounding how his rice wine, which contains only rice, water, and koji can be SO FRUITY and FLAVORFUL. Thanks to the junmaishu I purchased at his booth I actually enjoyed myself at this year’s Matsuri Tsukuba!


  • Vivian says:

    I too agree. Most of my Japanese friends thinks it is ‘stupid’ that we transport the nebutas all the way from Aomori. Most think we should have a more modern, science city theme. I recommended a ROCKET nebuta, and most smiled and said that idea might just fly. Could there be a petition or something, convincing city hall that we should get a festival of our our, new traditions, considering we are a modern ‘science’ city? Then Tsukuba Matsuri would surely appeal to not only tsukuba-ites, but also those who live in surrounding regions.

  • Dan Waldhoff says:

    I’ll cast my nay ballot too, but suppose there will be no changes coming once “tradition” has been established. Changing implies that the original idea was erroneous, which in turn implies that those whose idea it was were less thoughtful than they might have been, etc. Also, given the ever increasing size of the visiting crowds I can imagine the cost of float rental is recovered. The pity is that there wasn’t a more original idea put forward in the beginning.

    I am happy with some of the small changes – remembering how utterly filthy the scene was on the day(s) after in previous years. This year my day-after inspection didn’t give a hint of rotting ika or yaki-soba and there was surprisingly little incidental trash for me to collect as I made my tour. The karasu might have been disappointed but I wasn’t.

    I have been to the “real” Nebuta Festival in Aomori three times and the floats work much better there (though also covered in plastic). It is worth the trip. If you go that far let me suggest a little farther – to the Yokohama Kaigan (look right of Aomori-shi, across the bay, on a map). Their matsuri occurs at the same time and because the chief produce of the region is hotate … tada de tabi hodai!


  • Shaney says:

    I think that the JCI plays a major role in organizing the whole event, so that is why they get to choose what to put in the festival. They have the manpower (personpower?) to make the festival happen, so they get to make the decisions. That’s my guess.

  • Avi says:

    You must be right, Shaney. I just find it strange that such a homogenous group (there seem to be no new residents or foreign residents involved) should have had the main say as to what form our Matsuri would take.

    Dan, I agree with you that any changes would involve loss of face, etc. It would be interesting to check if what you say about recovering the costs is true.

    And I agree with Vivian in that even if we cannot stop the Nebutas from being brought down, we should at least add some more themes representative of this city.

    Another idea could be to have the best display of each institute (from its open to the public day) and have various demonstrations of the latest wonders developed in Tsukuba, plus more emphasis on local folklore.

  • Avi says:

    I spoke to a city councilwoman today. It’s 20,000,000 yen from the city budget for the floats. JCI Tsukuba foots the rest. To tell the truth, it’s less than I would have thought.

  • Shaney says:

    Isn’t that around $200,000? That’s outrageous!!