• 15 . 08 . 05
  • Obon is a traditional Japanese festival at which time the spirits of your ancestors are said to return and visit you. It presents a rare opportunity for Japanese families to come together, as just about everybody in the whole country has a few days off at the same time. Apart from visiting graves and praying […]

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Dancing In The Street

Obon is a traditional Japanese festival at which time the spirits of your ancestors are said to return and visit you. It presents a rare opportunity for Japanese families to come together, as just about everybody in the whole country has a few days off at the same time. Apart from visiting graves and praying for peace, many people also take part in one of many Obon Odori that take place around the country. These are essentially huge outdoor linedances to traditional Japanese music that last into the early hours. The most famous of these is at 郡上, a small town also famed for having the purest water in Japan. I didn’t go last year, so I wanted to check it out and luckily, I managed to get a lift there and back, otherwise I would’ve had to wait until the first bus at 6am this morning!

The dances themselves were pretty simple, with 7 or 8 movements repeated over and over. Each dance lasted for about 15 minutes, which for me was roughly broken down into 5 minutes watching the others, 5 minutes joining the line and practicing and then 5 minutes feeling confident that I could do it. As soon as I came close to displaying any level of competence, however, the music changed and a new dance began. After a couple of hours though, the songs started to repeat, which meant I could get along a bit better.

The lines of people were massive, snaking in and out of the main town intersection and forming a giant cross of synchronised movement, kind of like a giant hokey-cokey, but with less shaking and more clapping. It would look great from above I think. There was something special about watching thousands of people (over 40,000 each night, reputedly) enjoying guilt-free public dancing with their family and friends. Actually, it was vaguely hypnotic, watching this sea of arms rise and fall. After a while, you kind of go into a trance and can do the moves without thinking. It feels almost like meditation.

Some people had clearly practiced too much and were masters, with precise and graceful movements. Others moved through the streets helping the newcomers and children get to grips with it all. And refreshingly, there were lots of people who actually couldn’t do it very well. It’s not often you see a Japanese person attempt something publicly that they know they aren’t very good at. We stayed until about 2:30am, at which point people were still arriving to take part! By all accounts, it lasts until sunrise and runs for 4 days in a row. I can’t imagine what it would be like to try and sleep here each year!