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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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

Yukata – summer kimono

Today I wore a yukata for the first time. A yukata is a casual summer kimono, usually made of cotton. In day-to-day life, I usually spot one woman in yukata a day. But at summer festivals and especially at firework displays (hanabi taikai), a lot of people wear yukata.

My yukata was a gift from Suzuko and her family (Suzuko is my brother’s girlfriend). Today at the Toyota Firework Display was my first opportunity to wear it. I met with Hanae-san to learn how to put it on. She is a great teacher and thanks to her explanation, I got the hang of it pretty fast.

Hanae-san and Helena in yukata

All dressed-up and ready to go! Hanae-san is wearing a gorgeous hand-sewn traditional yukata

Helena posing in Hanae-san's beautiful garden

Gaijin in yukata, posing in Hanae-san’s beautiful garden. I do think Japanese girls look a lot cuter in yukata than those strange gaijin, but it was just so much fun to wear a yukata! I’m sure I’ll do it again ^_^

Yukata are not only for women. Men also wear yukata, although theirs are more simple in design and are worn with a less elaborate sash (a kimono sash is called obi). I managed to take a sneak photograph of a couple that was posing for a picture, both wearing yukata.

such a cute couple!

such a cute couple!

I loved wearing a yukata. It felt very stately and feminine to wear one. I hope the next festival will come soon, so I can wear a yukata again!