At 22-years old, I was a young, idealistic college graduate armed with a degree in anthropology and no idea how I wanted to use it. Guided by my interest in travel and utter befuddlement over what to do next in my life, I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to teach English in Japan.
In July of 2005, I moved to Japan with a full suitcase, enough Japanese to ask directions, but not to understand the answer and pretty much no idea what I was getting into. I moved to Aomori Prefecture, a rural area on the northern tip of Japan’s main island. I dove right into the culture and language, making lots of new friends and experiences. I renewed my one year contract and soon two years became three and then three became four.
Now, I could tell you about how while I was there I found that my calling was to be an educator, or I could tell you how I met and fell in love with my wife, Satoko, but those are not the life-changing experiences I plan to share in this piece. Instead, I would like to tell you about the first time I went to the Nebuta Festival.
This summer festival takes place in the three main cities as well as several small towns throughout Aomori and is best known for its amazing, larger than life sculptural lantern floats. The first time I saw one of these powerful works of art, I was left in awe. They are created using a hand-fashioned wire armature that is strung with lights, covered with Japanese paper and painted with sumi ink, wax, and paper dye. When you see one in person the tension in the wire, vibrant colors, impressive attention to detail and imposing scale take your breath away. There is really no other art form quite like it.
From the first time I attended the festival I became obsessed, I made it my mission to see every version in every small town in the area. Luckily one of those towns was, Kizukuri, where I lived. It took me two years to build up my language skills and the courage I needed to introduce myself to one of the float making groups. Having never worked with a foreigner before, they were welcoming yet cautious. Before long, the members of Yachi Naka Nebuta team recognized my enthusiasm and dedication to the project and took me under their wing.
Together we created four amazing floats over the next two years, mostly working in the evenings after work and into the wee hours of the morning. My skills quickly improved and by the beginning of my second year, I was able to create my first original design.
Soon I was hooked integrating this new medium into my artwork. I’ve made everything from a life-size penguin to our Nebuta covered Christmas tree to Hank, the seven-foot octopus that lives on my home ceiling.
I find myself inspired by this powerful art form often spending evenings immersed in my work only to notice that the night had flown by and sun was already rising. Once I returned to the States eager to take the next step towards my new career as an art teacher, I found myself being drawn again and again to share this compelling medium.
I worked with students to create Nebuta lanterns in the shape of liberty bells and mobiles as an artist in residency in inner-city Philadelphia. Made Nebuta fans with early childhood classes in Quakertown, and eventually incorporated Nebuta into my fifth-grade curriculum here at Moravian Academy.
Our students create original fish themed Nebuta lanterns, modeled after the traditional Kingyo Nebuta lanterns from Aomori. Each year I get to share my passion for these unique sculptural lanterns, reliving my first reaction to this amazing art form through my students’ eyes. The students are always excited to try out an art form that is so meaningful to me. Even though this ambitious project offers a challenge for many students, by the end almost everyone shares that it is one of their favorite projects. The valuable connection this art form has to my artistic past and present shines through illuminating my students’ imaginations much like the bulbs that fill these amazing works of art with light.
Featured in the Winter 2019 Moravian Academy Journal, the following is adapted from a presentation that Lower School art teacher Brian Elstein shared with staff and faculty before the start of the 2018-19 school year.