Layers of artistic heritage in Aomori Prefecture

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

The weather is crisp when I arrive at Shin-Aomori Station via the Tohoku Shinkansen. I’m not surprised, though, the northernmost prefecture on the island of Honshu is known as a cold and isolated place.

It’s likely thanks to the chillier environment keeping people inside with little to do — and the local economies of logging, fishing and farming — that this prefecture has developed many distinctive traditional arts and crafts. These include wooden crafts using local lumber, straw crafts, indigo dyeing fabric and sashiko embroidery.

Ms. Tanaka, the taxi driver who takes me from the train station to downtown Aomori City, lights up when I tell her I’m here to immerse myself in the prefecture’s artistic culture. The first thing she mentions is nebuta.

The massive illuminated floats parade the streets during festivals in August. They are made out of washi paper, bamboo and wire, and are painted with sumi ink, pigment and fabric dyes. Tanaka tells me that these floats, which now typically depict brave warrior scenes, were originally based on small lanterns that villagers made to float in the ocean during the summer Tanabata star festival. The floats were supposed to keep all the bad luck away for a year.

There are various nebuta festivals across the prefecture, but the main one that takes place in the prefecture’s capital draws a crowd of around 2.8 million people. Throughout the year, nebutashi (craftspeople who make nebuta), design and construct the floats with a team of specialized paper gluers, electrical engineers and apprentices.

On Tanaka’s recommendation, I start my artistic journey at the Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse (1-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori; www.nebuta.jp/warasse/). Located on Aomori Bay, the museum lets visitors see prize-winning floats from the previous year’s festival.

Eager to see the nebutashi in action, I take a quick walk from the museum along the waterfront to Takenami Hiro Nebuta Research Center (2-2-8 Yasukata, Aomori; www.takenami-nebuken.com). When I arrive, five people are in the middle of gluing paper and making different parts of the float.

“Every child grows up making nebuta crafts at school. I started making them as a child and have continued to do that ever since,” says Hiro Takenami, who founded the center. He adds that the significance of the craft hasn’t changed with increased exposure and more tourists.

“Nebuta still hold an important place in the hearts of the people of Aomori,” he says. “They wait all year for the festival.”

Wanting to make the art form better known (and more economically viable), Takenami has recently started to create and sell lanterns made of the floats from previous years, which otherwise would have been thrown in the garbage. In addition, he frequently travels abroad to make and showcase both his lanterns and his nebuta. Takenami understands that in order to stay relevant, the tradition needs to adjust to the times.

It becomes evident that the tradition is changing when I visit the home and workshop of Asako Kitamura, the only female nebutashi. Following in the footsteps of her father, Kitamura only began to train as an artisan after trying a variety of more typical jobs.

“I wanted to find my life’s work,” she says. When I ask her if she has struggled to gain respect as a female nebutashi, she laughs.

“Of course. People didn’t take me seriously at first,” she says. “Once I kept working year after year, however, people began to see (that I was serious). Now everyone accepts me as a nebutashi.”

Aomori’s contribution to the arts isn’t just in the field of giant floats. Many luminaries hail from the prefecture, including writer Osamu Dazai (1909-48). The one I’m interested in as I start my second day in the prefecture is Shiko Munakata (1903-75).

Munakata was a prolific woodblock artist and his work adorns many establishment around his hometown, including Shin-Aomori Station. There’s good reason for this, many of his works detail the area’s landscapes as well as its nebuta culture, kites and other folk traditions. Most of his pieces are available to view at the Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum of Art (2-1-2 Matsubara, Aomori; www.munakatashiko-museum.jp). The small museum is located in a Japanese garden, and features both a permanent and changing exhibition.

Following an introduction to Munakata, I head to the Aomori Museum of Art (185 Chikano, Yasuta, Aomori; www.aomori-museum.jp). It’s a large space and, when I arrive, the museum’s stark white building is surrounded by snow glittering in the early afternoon sun. As I wander around the grounds, I begin to feel as if I am in some kind of a postindustrial or postmodern ruin. Perhaps that’s the intended effect, as the museum, designed by architect Jun Aoki, was inspired by the prehistoric Jomon Period Sannai-Maruyama archeological site located next door.

The museum itself boasts quite an eclectic collection that includes pieces by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, but I am most interested in the large array of work by homegrown artists, including Munakata. The Yoshitomo Nara gallery, with its site-specific Aomori-ken dog statue, off-white like the snow outside, is particularly intriguing.

That evening, I take the train to Misawa, on the eastern coast of Aomori Prefecture, facing the Pacific Ocean. The town is known for its history of aviation, having hosted Imperial forces until the end of World War II and the American forces afterward.

The avant-garde polymath Shuji Terayama was born in 1935 and grew up in the shadow of that military history. As a child, he lived in Misawa and experienced the bombing of the city and its air base in 1945. He founded the theater group Tenjo Sajiki in order to create work that questioned social norms and common sense through fantasy, eroticism and elements of folklore.

Although he passed away in 1983, Terayama’s spirit lives on at the Shuji Terayama Museum (16-2955 Aza-Sabishirotai, Oaza-Misawa, Misawa; www.terayamaworld.com/museum). The dramatist’s work can be hard to access, but the museum owns a treasure trove of images and recordings to indulge in. From the outside facade to the statues and many videos on display, the entire building lives up to the URL of the museum’s website: Terayama World.

Having stacked my trip to Aomori with visits to museums and workshops, I still feel like I only scratched the surface of the region’s culture. A second trip is in order, but I’ll take taxi driver Tanaka’s advice and come back in August when the nebuta preside over the region like kings.