In the next couple of weeks, you may see colorfully clad dancers parading through the streets of Okinawa, our people in summer kimonos dancing in local parks or lots amid festive lanterns in mainland Japan. In either case, the air will be filled with the sound of folk music celebrating Eisa and Bon Odori, respectively.
These summer parades and festivals also take place at shrines, temples and public squares, depending upon the region. They are important events that bring communities together. If you live out in town, you might have the opportunity to help set one up, prepare a parade route or work a food booth, as each town or community association organizes its own event.
In the morning of the day of the festivals, townspeople are busy setting up performances stages and food and game booths. They also decorate the parks with lanterns with names of people who contributed to the festivals in mainland Japan.
As the sun sets, the lanterns are lit, and residents and visitors gather. Everyone is welcome at these festivals, so don’t be shy. Taiko drummers and well-trained dancers in “yukatas” (summer kimonos) perform on stage. You’ll notice that people will start dancing around the stage. You can join in, too. Even if you don’t know how to dance, just watch the dancers on stage and around you.
In Okinawa, dancers trained from childhood do all the work for spectators. Young men and women in colorful traditional attire play hand drums and three-stringed “sanshin” while parading through towns and villages, dancing, singing and chanting. Often, men play vigorously as women dance to the rhythms. After offering the first dance to the village gods, the dancers go from house to house.
There are lots of great foods at these festivals and parades. Fried “yakisoba” noodles, “yakitori” (skewered chicken), kakigori (shaved ice), cold beer and soft drinks are the main fare.
You will have to pay for your food and drink, but it’s not expensive and the money is used to help pay for the annual festivities. And for the kids (old and young), there are game booths at the festivals or along the streets where you can enjoy “kingyo-sukui” (goldfish scooping) and “shateki” (a shooting game). Kids will have a blast.
Eisa festivals traditionally last until midnight. Dancers perform along the streets in commemoration of their ancestors’ spirits. While today’s Bon Odori festivals only last a few hours, they were once overnight events held to entertain ancestors’ souls, which were believed to visit their families for the Bon period.
These Event used to be held in the middle of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. In this calendar, the 15th of each month there is a full moon under whose bright moonlight people can see well enough to dance throughout the night.
This year, Obon, the traditional holiday for Bon Odori, is Aug. 8-10. Eisa festivities traditionally take place after this day. Nowadays, these festivals are held throughout July and August, depending on each community’s schedule. Make sure you take in one or two near you this summer.