A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Bon Odori (盆踊り)- Dancing for (and with) the Dead- a little earlier than usual this year at the Festival for Rebounding from the Tornado-in Hojo, Tsukuba (on August 11th)

Bon-Odori ( a painting by Kiyokata Kaburagi 1878-1972)

By Avi Landau

On the evening of August 13th families all over Japan will go to cemeteries with paper lanterns to greet and guide their ancestral spirits back home for what is called the O-Bon Festival. During their short stay with their This-Worldly families, the ancestors will be wined and dined with various offerings, AND entertained as well. This has traditionally been done in the form of Bon Odori ( Bon Dances), in which men, women and children ( of all ages), usually dressed in YUKATA ( cotton kimonos), dance either in lines or in a circle ( depending on the area).

Having apparently first developed sometime during the  Heian Period (794-1185), and later tranformed and popularized by Ippen Shonin (一遍上人), the founder of the Ji Sect of Buddhism (時宗) in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), these dances ,which eventually came to be performed in various forms all over Japan, had until recently had a purely religious significance (expressing  joy and thanks to the ancestral spirits).

Apparently in some parts of Japan, the Bon Odori events were also occassions for free physical intermingling between the sexes ( something which you can read about in the writings of novelist Mori Ogai, among others)

(A detail from an old picture scroll detailing the life of the Buddhist Priest Ippen Shonin. The dancing which can be seen here, the Odori Nembutsu popularized by Ippen as an expression of ecastatic devotion to, is said to be the ancestor of today`s Bon Odori)

These days, however, if they have survived in a particular area at all, Bon Dances have often become major events and tourist attractions- in fact, Tokushima Prefecture`s Awa Odori Bon Dances ( in which thousands of costumed dancers parade through the streets) are probably what that prefecture is most famous for! See here: http://www.city.tokushima.tokushima.jp/english/awaodori.html

Even when they occur on a smaller scale these events can be lots of fun as community gatherings ( while in some areas, they still do retain plenty of solemnty and mystery).

In usual years in Tsukuba`s Hojo ( in the parking lot of the former Tsukuba City Office along Rt 125) there would  a big Bon Dancing event in which this areas local dances are performed and taught (for everyone to join in!).

Last year , however, a devastating tornado ripped through the center of the old town, and instead of its usual summer festival (held every July), there was a bog Bon Odori event held in the freshly cleaned up, though at the time not yet reconstructed main commercial street (SHO-TEN GAI).

This year Though the July festival WAS held, the BON ODORI event will be held again, along with all sorts  of other entertainment- along the same- now totally renewed SHO-TENGAI.

The festivities will begin at 1 PM.

(A few hours before the event as it was in years before the big tornado of 2012- typical features of a large scale Bon Odori: a large stage ( called a YAGURA) and colorful lanterns)

Though this should be a special event- and an important show of support for the people of Hojo who are really proud of their little town-

don`t expect TOO MUCH, from the  Bon Odori dancing ITSELF (in Hojo or anywhere else where local BON DANCES are held) because it is said (or at least , I have read it somewhere) that though the Japanese traditionally DID want to entertain their ancestral spirits, they DID NOT want to entertain them TOO MUCH and make them want to overstay their welcomes!

The festivities in 2011 began with a surpring event- a tofu eating contest! The winner ate nine packets in 5 minutes!
At dusk, the dancing began- the dancers looked like SPIRITS themselves, gliding elegantly around the YAGURA stage with hands fluttering elegantly
As time passed, more people joined in the circle
A great Tsugaru Shamisen and Wadaiko (Japanese drums) ensemble got everyone fired up
A nearly full moon added the perfect touch in the background
In the year 2012, because of a devastating tornando which ravaged the town, Hojo`s annual festival was cancelled. Instead, Bon Odori was danced down the main commercial street (known as the SHOTENGAI)
People came from far and wide to join in on the Bon Odori dance event held in Hojo this year (2012)
Another detail from the 13th century picture scroll on the life of Ippen Shonin shows the Nembutsu Odori he popularized and which is said to be the ancestor of today`s Bon Odori

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