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Inside the Nebuta House Wa Rasse Museum

A Canadian-designed museum bears fruit in the city of Aomori, Japan.

Ask Tokyo or Osaka residents what comes to mind when they think of Aomori, and they will most likely answer "Ringo." It's the Japanese word for apple, a fruit that is strongly tied to the identity of this port city on the northern tip of Honshu island.

Nebuta House Wa Rasse musemDesigned by Vancouver firm Molo, the Nebuta House Wa Rasse musem is as striking as the floats it displays. 

For me, the association starts at Shin-Aomori, the station for the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train that brings the city to within three and a half hours of Tokyo. The market that fills some of the station's retail spaces sells a baffling array of fresh, dried, fried, baked, juiced, brewed, distilled and pastry-embedded apples. I see even more crates and cider at the adjacent A-Factory food complex. But the real apple of Aomori's eye sits opposite the market: the striking Nebuta House Wa Rasse museum, which displays a rotating collection of the brightly coloured, glowing parade floats created each year for the city's annual Nebuta street festival in August. The steel walls of the block-long building are painted apple red, with torqued strips of its cladding appearing as if they've been peeled away, like the skin off a Spartan or Fuji.

What's more surreal is that this award-winning museum was designed by a Vancouver firm, Molo, and that partners Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen had never before completed a building larger than a house on their own. "Aomori is known throughout Japan for the Nebuta Festival and apples, but also for snow, fish and beautiful forests. We wanted to present and elevate all these aspects of Aomori culture," Forsythe later explains to me. For her, using the colour crimson was the perfect way to project hope for Aomori, which was flattened in World War II, stymied by recession and buffeted by the nuclear disaster hundreds of kilometres away.

Aomori's Nebuta Festival flaunts its floatsAomori's Nebuta Festival flaunts its floats.

I step inside the museum's black-painted minimalism. Lighting levels are kept low to showcase the internally lit floats, devised for late-summer evenings. A series of ramps and overlooks are arranged so that the handcrafted Nebuta creations – a frenzy of fierce faces and beasts, bizarre colour combos and bulging forms made from paper, wire and wooden carrying platforms – can be viewed from every angle, unobstructed. On any weekend, the whole building throbs with taiko drums as headbanded dancers twirl in front of a wide-eyed crowd. The surreality follows me outside through the covered walkway that rings the museum. The pared-back metal strips provide playful glimpses of Aomori's portside buildings, harbour and the world beyond. It's a design that's deep and juicy.

Nebuta House Wa Rasse 1-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori, 81-17-752-1311

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Getting There

Air Canada operates the most non-stop flights to Tokyo from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. From Tokyo, reach Aomori by train in just under 3½ hours.

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