Let’s dance!

Today is Obon, an important Japanese holiday. Traditionally it is a day for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. But since the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to have a party, it is also an excellent reason to organise a festival and get together with friends and family.

Apart from delicious festival food and lots of people wearing yukata, the Obon festival is characterized by Obon dances, which are called Bon Odori (η›†θΈŠγ‚Š). The dancers gather around a central stage and perform circular dances while moving around the stage. Compared to some Western dances, the Obon dances seem very slow and subdued. But once you give it a try, it is a wonderful feeling to share in the group atmosphere and to do the dances together.

obon nagoya castle

Obon dancing at Nagoya castle. The central stage houses the musicians and from time to time, different people are invited up on stage to dance there.

obon dancing nagoya castle

The colourful crowd in yukata is so beautiful!

Anyone can join in: there are many elderly ladies, but also lots of young people. Even clumsy gaijin like me are welcome to join. In the video below you can see the cutest little boy doing his best to dance along with the adults. There is also an equally cute, but slightly older girl in yukata.

In this next video you get a better look at the crowd and you can really see the circular motion of the dancers. Sometimes you will see ladies in matching yukata. I think they belong to an Obon dance group where they practice all year long and then go to various Obon festivals in their matching yukata.

There are big Obon events like the one at Nagoya Castle where these videos were made but Obon is also celebrated on a smaller scale in local neighbourhoods. When we were wandering around Muroran, a small city in Hokkaido, on an evening in August, we saw this local Obon gathering on a neighbourhood square:

Obon in Muroran, Hokkaido

This was a small, local community celebration in Muroran, Hokkaido. There weren’t any booths with festival food. Instead there were some tables where people placed their homemade food, sharing between everyone.

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Dancing in the streets at Oiden festival

Every last Saturday of July, Toyota City has its annual festival called Oiden. It is followed by the Toyota City Fireworks Display on Sunday.

They close off one of the main streets of Toyota City and set up a stage and some food stands. Thousands of people flock to the Toyota City Center to see the spectacle that is Oiden.

Oiden festival stage in Toyota City, July 30th 2011

Oiden festival stage

Toyota City near Toyotashi station

This is what the area usually looks like

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So what is Oiden all about then? Oiden is a dance festival. Groups of people, dressed in the most colourful costumes they could come up with, gather in the street behind the stage.

Oiden Festival Toyota City performers

All waiting to perform

Each group has practiced a dance routine that they will perform over and over again to the Oiden song while slowly moving up and down the street in a long chain (making an ellipse so that they eventually come back to where they started and so that all spectators have seen all groups pass by).

A bit too abstract? Allow me to illustrate with a video.

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Oiden is starting. First a countdown: ‘O-I-D-E-Oiden’, then the music starts and everyone starts dancing.

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You have to admit it’s a catchy tune. In the video below you can hear the chorus and see another group dancing. It’s the same song every year.

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These dancing people give a new meaning to the word energetic (genki in Japanese). I have never seen such enthusiasm over such a prolonged period of time, nor have I ever seen so many smiling faces in one place.

Oiden Toyota City festival energetic dancers

Could they be any more enthusiastic? Take into account that they have been dancing for two hours already. I'm impressed!

Admittedly Oiden seems a little over the top but all cynicism put aside, these loud, happy, sparkling people really made me feel good. Oiden is a festival with a very positive vibe. It’s all about having some good old-fashioned fun.

Oiden festival Toyota City smiley costumes

Smiles all around

Oiden Toyota City festival sparkly dancers

Sparkly and happy

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When the festival is over, most of the crowd disperses in about 15 minutes. Although nobody throws garbage on the ground in Japan, a cleaning crew of about 20 people is on standby – just in case. When the street clears the crew immediately sets to work, picking up the smallest piece of paper or lost sequin by hand (!).

Clean up after Oiden, the Toyota City festival

Cleaning crew cleaning the already spotless street