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 (盆踊り). 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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Autumn in Japan

The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons. As autumn approaches, the Japanese longingly look forward not only to a relief of the summer heat, but also to the beauty of the autumn leaves. The most popular kind of autumn leaves are (Japanese) maple leaves, that turn bright red in autumn. They are called ‘momiji’, although the term may also be used to denote autumn colours in general.

While Japan is most famous for its cherry blossom tradition, the red leaves of the maple can definitely compete with the cherry blossom in terms of popularity. Maps and forecasts tell you when the autumn leaves are at their most beautiful. In the ‘top weekend’, Japanese and gaijin alike flock to the most famous autumn leaves viewing spots in the country (click here for a brief list), causing severe traffic congestion along the way. I have heard stories of people who set out to view the autumn leaves at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto during the top weekend, but who instead ended up spending seven hours in traffic and didn’t even get into the city at the end of the day. But of course if you do manage to get to a good spot, it is usually worth your trouble. Autumn in Japan is truly beautiful!

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Ginkgo in Takayama, Japan

Beautiful yellow ginkgo leaves in a temple in Japan

Toyota City Tip: The most popular place for viewing autumn leaves in Toyota City is Korankei Gorge, in the town of Asuke (Toyota City). You can walk up the mountain, visit the temple and enjoy various types of food and drinks that are sold at special autumn festival booths.

Korankei gorge in toyota city

Korankei gorge in Toyota City

Girl’s Doll Festival – Hina Matsuri

March 3rd was ‘Hina Matsuri’ or ‘Girl’s Day’. On this day, all families with a daughter display a set of traditional Japanese dolls in their house. But apparently the habit isn’t limited to people with daughters. Ever since early February, I have encountered these ‘hina dolls’ (‘hina’ is the japanese word for doll) everywhere I went: in malls, community centers, restaurants, etc. I had heard about Hina Matsuri before coming to Japan but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is still so widely practiced.

The traditional doll display is hughe. It has seven storeys and portrays an imperial household, compete with furniture, servants and musicians.

hina matsuri emperor and empress

The first two levels contain an emperor and empress with three court ladies below them

hina matsuri minister of the left

A member of the imperial household. My best guess would be that he is 'the minister of the left'.

hina doll display

A few elaborate hina doll displays

Imagine having such a contraption in your living room, especially in a small Japanese apartment. No wonder that these days there are many modern and more minimalist options available as well.

hina matsuri minimalist

Minimalist hina dolls. Notice the 12 layers of fabric in the doll's clothing, which represent the 12 layer kimono's from the Heian period (called jūnihitoe).

hina matsuri mouse

And last but not least, my favourite: a hina doll mouse, wearing a kimono. Kawaii!

People watching – guys in kimono

During the summer festivals it is customary to wear a summer kimono, called ‘yukata’. The past few years this old custom has regained popularity among young people. Oftentimes they give their own twist to the look. Like these four guys, doing their best to look badass:

4 guys in yukata

Guys in yukata - working hard to look cool

Toyota City autumn festival – Koromo Matsuri

Last weekend was Koromo Matsuri, Toyota City’s autumn festival.

‘Another festival’, you say? Didn’t we just have one (see post about Oiden Festival in summer)? That’s right, but Japan is the land of festivals. October especially seems to be a popular month for festivals. Most of them are in honour of a good harvest, as is Koromo Matsuri.

Koromo is what Toyota City used to be called before it became Toyota City. During the festival, eight ‘dashi’ or floats (festival cars) are paraded around the city. Each float represents a neighbourhood of Toyota City.

koromo matsuri 8 floats

The floats are lined up before departure

Inside and on top of the floats are people making music, shouting and throwing coloured paper strips. As the float passes, you feel like you’re surrounded by falling leaves or flower petals.

The floats are pulled by dozens of people, young and old alike. At the beginning of the rope are ‘the regular people’, closer to the float are ‘the pro’s’ with a special uniform.

Toyota City Koromo Matsuri pulling the float

koromo matsuri preparations

Gathering their strength before pulling the float - mind the sake bottle

I was amazed by the speed at which some of these floats move.

After the floats have gone, children play with the paper strips on the ground. The playing children are surrounded by adults with photo camera’s – myself included – trying to capture this endearing scene.

koromo matsuri children and photographersThe child in the next picture is a little less active. While mommy tries to get a good look at what’s happening, this child is totally unimpressed by everything that’s going on and takes a little nap.

Toyota City Koromo Matsuri sleeping child

Child sleeping amidst the festival ruckus

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

Summer in Japan

The summer in Japan is drawing to an end. Yesterday school started again and typhoon number 12 is making for gloomy and rainy weather. Time for a retrospective on summer in Japan.

Weather – Before coming here, everyone had warned me about the ‘crazy Japanese summer’ and the especially the crazy weather. I thought people were exaggerating, as is usually the case with all things concerning Japan. It turns out I was wrong. The Japanese summer weather is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The heath and humidity are so strong that even just breathing makes you break into a sweat. And apparently this was a fairly cool summer. I can’t wait for next year.

Super Cool Biz – Because of the power shortage due to the Tohoku quake aftermath, the government launched the ‘Super Coolbiz’ campaign. The idea was that businesses should set the air conditioning no lower than 28°C. In order to cope with the summer heath, office workers were encouraged to wear outfits that are still appropriate for the office yet cooler than normal. This style is termed Coolbiz. Things like polo’s, shirts without a tie, and even the occasional sandal were allowed. This not only led to energy savings but also to an increase in menswear sales, with stores launching special coolbiz offers.

The Uniqlo Super Coolbiz Collection. Uniqlo is a well-known clothes store with decent clothing at affordable prices

Fireworks – Many cities organise firework displays during summer. Toyota City has a yearly firework display at the end of July that lasts for two whole hours. People also buy smaller fireworks to set off themselves in a park or at the beach.

Yukata – Wearing a yukata, especially at the aforementioned firework displays, is typical for summer. Click here to read about my first time wearing a yukata.

Bonodori dancing – Another occasion for wearing a yukata is at the Bonodori dances in August (although in the Tokyo region it’s mostly in July). People form a circle around a stage that houses the musicians and perform the dances in unison. Young and old join together to enjoy this typical summer pass time. Read more about Obon dancing.

Bonodori dancing at Nagoya Castle Festival, August 5th 2011

Bonodori dancing at Nagoya Castle Festival, August 5th 2011

A man doing a Bonodori dance while holding a baby

It really is young and old together

Festivals – Summer is the time for festivals. Festivals are often combined with yukata wearing, Bonodori dancing, and enjoying typical festival food.

Shaved ice – A cone of shaved ice with sweet syrup is a refreshing summer treat. Stores selling this treat are marked with the kanji for ice.

Ice kanji flag

Flag indicating that this store sells shaved ice treats

Shaved ice treat

Shaved ice treat

Climbing Mount Fuji – There is a saying in Japan: ‘He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool’.  The official climbing season for Mount Fuji is during July and August (mostly because of the weather). During these two months, people from all over Japan flock to Mount Fuji to try themselves against the mountain and to see the sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji. There is usually a cue to reach the top. Can you imagine a cue on top of a 3776 meter high, barren volcano?

Wind catchers Little bells that produce a delicate sound as the wind catches them are hung in front of open windows or doors. The sound is supposed to refresh you and make every breath of wind more noticeable during the summer heat. The sound of wind catchers is typical for summer in Japan and often invokes a nostalig feeling, reminding one of summers past.

Glass windcatcher in Japan

Glass wind catcher

Cicada’s – Around mid July the cicada’s start to chirp. They are huge flying insects that gave me quite a scare the first them I saw them. They produce their typical sound at an incredible volume.

A cicada, definitely over 5 cm

A cicada, definitely over 5 cm