Bon Odori: The Famous Dance of Japan’s Summer Festivals Steeped In Tradition

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  • There are lots of different summer festivals around Japan to experience and one of the most fun to see and join in with is Bon Odori. Held in August all over Japan from big cities to small towns alike you should be able to find one somewhere near you wherever you are in Japan.

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    Author’s photo

    The Bon Odori is a traditional dance festival that is held in order to welcome back the spirits of the dead for the Obon holiday. Often they are held locally in one of the hundreds of little parks scattered around every Japanese city so each local group can practice the taiko rhythms and the dances and celebrate with their immediate neighbours. These smaller bon odori are usually held a little earlier than the bigger celebrations where the whole town comes together.

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    While living in Yotsukaido city, an hour or so from Tokyo I was able to experience both the local and citywide Bon odori. The first festival, the local one, I came across entirely by accident. In the park near my apartment, that is usually just a small patch of bare earth with a clubhouse behind it, were hundreds of coloured paper lanterns strung up around a wooden stage known as a Yagura.

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    Author’s photo

    As it began to get dark a few men began playing the big Taiko drum and the music started to play. Within minutes, a ring of people formed around the stage and they began to dance. The steps looked pretty simple, moving around the circle back and forth and sometimes jumps and claps and I soon got the chance to find out for myself when one of the young guys who had been playing the Taiko drums, Junya, pulled me into the circle and showed me the steps too! Every time I’ve been to a Bon Odori festival everyone has been just as welcoming and happy for us to join in!

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    It was from Junya I found out about the bigger citywide festival being held a few weeks later. The city Bon odori was a huge event with whole teams of Taiko drummers instead of just one or two and a huge circle of dancers! Along with the traditional dances, there were a few more recent numbers in there for the kids – even a bon odori style dance to the Doraemon theme song! It’s hot on an August night in Japan so wear loose clothing! At the Yotsukaido festival there was time for a break from dancing when most of the lights went out while there was a fireworks display too. If you’re in Japan in August and you want a fun traditional night with some local people, do your best to find a Bon festival somewhere! You won’t regret it!

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