O-bon Odori

Ten years ago this week I was in the neighborhoods of Osaka doing the O-bon odori, the dance performed at the annual Japanese festival of the dead. All across Japan, from the end of July to early August, neighbors and families gather to dance the night away and welcome the souls of their ancestors back for a night of dancing. It’s quite the custom, and one that almost every Japanese has participated in at least once in their lifetime. I had the privilege of spending the summer of 1999 in Osaka and was invited to the local O-bon festival near where we lived at the time. With a few other Americans, I made the journey to the neighborhood park where the festival was held for our debut O-bon Festival. It was comforting to know that hundreds of other parks around Japan were playing host to the same dancing and singing I witnessed that night. I still remember the large circle of fish-shaped lanterns that magically lit up the park that evening. In the center of the lanterns rose a wooden tower about ten feet high, where the equivalent of the mc was to sit and spin the tunes for the night, a mixture of traditional Japanese songs. Most of the crowd came dressed in their yukatas (summer kimonos) and geta (Japanese wooden shoes) and ready to line dance the night away despite the humidity that still hung in the evening air. Of course, like so many other things Japanese, O-bon’s roots relate back to Buddhism and the ritual of honoring one’s ancestors, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone in Japan these days, especially among Japan’s youth, that could explain the true significance of O-bon.

Once the music got going that summer night we quickly realized we were the only ones that didn’t know the steps, but after a few minutes of instruction, we fit right in. Young or old, everyone joined in, making a circle of dancers stepping in synchronization around the yagura, the raised wooden platform that stood in the center of the park. The most famous O-bon song is that of the Coal Miners song, or Tanko Bushi. Even now, ten years later, when I hear the song memorializing the coal workers of Kyushu at Miike Mine, I remember back to that night in Osaka, sweat dripping off my forehead, and the good times I had. I just made a note to myself next summer to find a local O-bon festival to take my daughters to so they can know the joys of O-bon and the Tanko Bushi dance.

More information on O-bon can be found here.

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