text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Although, at least according to some sources, they are related the casual (and the not so casual) observer will have a hard time finding similarities between the frantic Awa Odori and the evocative Bon Odori (盆踊り) the other dance that characterizes the Japanese summer and the period of the O-Bon, the return of the ancestors’ spirits. While the Awa Odori is a huge festival that needs a twelve-month preparation and that culminates in two days of Dionysian madness, the Bon Odori is much more casual, it lasts three-four hours and (usually) concerns only the people of a particular neighborhood who seize the opportunity to wear their yukata (the summer kimono) and break the monotony of their evening stroll, dancing for a while to old songs and nibbling at something from the food stalls.
Leaders of the Bon Odori are the old ladies of the area; although the dance steps are known to all Japanese, in any Bon Odori gathering there will be at least a dozen of these ladies, wearing the same yukata-symbol of the association they (invariably) belong and setting the tone of the dance, dancing in a circle on the wooden tower standing in the middle. The other dancers, usually people from the neighborhood (but not exclusively; the Bon Odori are open to all) dance also in a circle around the tower, usually laughing at their clumsiness: excluding the old ladies who rehearse all year, most people only dance once-twice a year. Just for the sake of it.
Well, not exactly for the sake of “it”. People dance the Bon Odori to feel that it is summer, to remember their ancestors (who during this season are soaring over the city), their hometown (where they danced it for the first time) and the old music that accompanies it: sometimes a folk song from various areas of Japan (Tokyo included –yes, there are some people who are “from here”) and sometimes an old hit of the idiosyncratic pop called “enka” (演歌) that the old ladies leading the dance are so fond of. And while the adults dance to their memories, the children create theirs, occasionally playing around the Bon Odori circle and occasionally joining it to learn from the grandmothers the steps to the dance of the summer.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.