Japan is a country that blends old and new, traditional and modern, in unique and surprising ways. For example, you can be in the most rustic little soba shop that looks to be about 100 years old, yet be using their bathroom with a state-of-the-art toilet. It’s the most bizarre, delightful thing to experience. This juxtaposition of old and new experiences and elements are all around you—in the food, culture and architecture. The Japanese so deeply value tradition, yet are so open to innovation and change.

I was most profoundly hit with this insight during a recent visit to Japan a few months ago. One of the places we decided to check out was the Nebuta Museum in Aomori City, located at the very northern part of mainland Japan.

The Nebuta Museum is a facility that is home to the amazing, grand floats that are carried through the center of Aomori City at an annual summer tradition called the Nebuta Festival. As these floats are paraded through the streets, they are flanked by large taiko drums, musicians and dancers. The tradition generally dates back to the 8th century and likely evolved out of Shinto ceremonies. Over the years, the event spread to other nearby cities and villages in Aomori Prefecture, where more than 3 million people come to visit each year.

It just so happens that this is where my husband is from as well. And I confess, in the 20 plus years I’ve visited his home town, I’ve never fully appreciated and “got” this festival.

Don’t get me wrong. These are beautifully crafted structures that bring the entire community together. The event is a time where families, friends, neighbors and visitors from far and near gather to enjoy the festivities. It unites people, and that’s wonderful. But it also was for me a very specific aesthetic and style that felt old and traditional, and I sort of compartmentalized it in my head as just that.

That all changed for me when I visited the Nebuta Museum, which opened in 2011. Located right next to the Aomori City train station, this modern structure, designed by Molo Architects, completely shattered my pre-conceived notion of the Nebuta and re-engaged me in a way that was totally unexpected. The ribbon facade screen wraps the whole building, creating a Nebuta world of light and shadow plays. Something old and traditional became new again.

Photo by Shigeo Ogawa
Photo by Shigeo Ogawa

It challenged me to think about how open and willing this organization must’ve been to take such a bold step in the design of the building when working with the architects. I imagine they seized this opportunity to evolve—to engage the next generation of audiences to ensure future growth of the festival, while building on, not losing, its history and tradition.

We try to go back to Japan every few years. Every time we do, I return inspired by new experiences and insights that influence my work and contribute to our creative approach here at Phinney Bischoff. This year, I returned thinking about how a brand can engage audiences through environment and experience. That experience says so much—not only about who you are today. It says a lot about where you’re going.

What is your [future] brand? If it aspires to bring the next generation along and engage new audiences, be open to evolving your traditions and blending them with the unexpected to make something old feel new again.