The Bon Beat

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Photo by Joshua C. Millage, U.S. Navy
Photo by Joshua C. Millage, U.S. Navy

The Bon Beat

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Japan | .
published: July 14, 2016

In the next couple of weeks, you may see people in summer kimonos gathering in local off-base parks - colorfully decorated with lanterns - to eat, drink and perform traditional dances to the beat of Japanese folk music.  This type of gathering is called “Bon Odori”, a traditional summer festival that is held throughout Japan.

Bon Odori festivals, which are also held at shrines, temples and public squares, are important events that bring communities together. If you live out in town, you might have the opportunity to help set one up or work at a food booth, as each town or community association organizes its own festival.

In the morning of the day of the festivals, townspeople are busy setting up a yagura (a stage for performers) and food and game booths. They also decorate the parks with lanterns with names of people who contributed to the event.

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 should join in. Even if you don’t know how to dance, dancers on stage and around you will show you how to perform the traditional moves.

There is lots of great food at these festivals, with yakisoba, yakitori, kakigori (shaved ice), cold beer and soft drinks the main fare. You will have to pay for your food and drink, but it’s not expensive and money is used to help pay for the festival. And for the kids (old and young), there are game booths where you can enjoy kingyo-sukui (goldfish scooping) and shateki (a shooting game).  If you have kids, they’ll have a blast.

Although today’s Bon Odori festivals only last a few hours, when they first started hundreds of years ago, they were overnight events held to entertain ancestors’ souls which were believed to be staying with their family for Bon period. Back then, the festival were held July 15-16 following the lunar calendar. According to the lunar calendar, the 15th of each month there is a full moon, which allowed people dance overnight under the bright moon light.

Nowadays, these festivals are held throughout July and August, depending on each community’s schedule.

Eisa
On Okinawa, the local people have their own form of Bon Odori called “Eisa.” Like Bon Odori on mainland Japan, this festival is held during the Bon period to see off ancestors’ souls.

At Eisa festivals, young male and female dancers in colorful and exotic Okinawan traditional attire with hand drums and sanshin (Okinawan banjo), parade around the village, dancing, singing and chanting.

Men play the sanshin and beat vigorously on the drums, as women dance to the rhythms. After offering the first dance to the village gods, the dancers go from house to house.  Unlike Bon Odori festivals, spectators do not participate in the dancing.

Popular Eisa festivals include Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri (Okinawa City), Senbaru Eisa (Kadena), Yakena Eisa (Uruma), Kyan Eisa (Itoman), Eguchi Eisa(Chatan).

What is Bon?
Bon is a traditional festive period to honor and entertain ancestors’ souls, which was observed centuries ago every July 13-15 under to the lunar calendar.  As the current solar calendar is about a month behind the lunar calendar, today Bon is observed Aug. 13-15 in most regions.  Japanese believe that ancestors’ souls return to their families during this period, spending a few days with them before going back to their world.

Japanese usually set up shoryo-dana (festival altar for souls) and clean up family tombs to prepare for Bon.  When the Bon period begins on Aug. 13, families light up their lanterns or make a small bonfire, called mukaebi (welcoming fire) at the entrance of their homes to guide and welcome ancestor’s souls.  The Bon period is a family-oriented time where children return to their parent’s home to celebrate. On Aug. 16 or couple of days later, people see off their ancestors’ souls with another bonfire, called okuribi (seeing-off fire). 

Shoryo-dana and Shoryo-uma
During Bon, you may see a square altar displayed in Japanese homes.  This is Shoryo-dana (festival altar for souls), also known as Bon-dana and is used to place pictures and other items of the deceased, as well as an incense burner.

Also, some families make a small horse out of a cucumber and a small cow of out of an eggplant. The legs are made of chopsticks or matchsticks.  These are called Shoryo-uma (horse for souls).  Usually they are placed with an incense burner outside of the entrance of a home on the first day of Bon to welcome that ancestors’ souls.

It is believed that the souls come back home quickly on a cucumber horse, tracing the trail of incense, and leave later slowly on an eggplant cow. The  horse and cow are placed on altar on the second day.

People will display lanterns, flowers and food items around the altar.

Yukata
To enjoy the festival atmosphere, why don’t you try wearing yukata, a casual summer kimono usually made of cotton, linen or synthetic fabric.  If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a yukata, you can find inexpensive ones at most department stores or your base exchange. You won’t regret wearing a yukata, especially on a hot summer day. It’s also a great souvenir for family and friends.  You can wear a yukata at other Japanese traditional outdoor summer events, such as a natsu-matsuri (summer festival) and hanabi (fireworks) festivals.

This story was originally published on Stripes Okinawa website on July 30, 2013.

Check out the Bon Odori festival 2015 schedule in Stripes Japan!

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