Bon Dancing in Shimokitazawa

Lanterns lanterns lanterns! This means only one thing: we are officially on Obon holidays. For one short week in the middle of August, the country takes a breather and lets its hair down. People make the most of this holiday by going back to their hometowns to visit family or even by going on a trip overseas. It’s a busy time to be on the road, but you don’t have to go far to have some fun. Every city and town around the country hosts many Obon festivals and events. No matter where you are, there’s sure to be something going on close by.

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Summer fashion
Bon odori

On the weekend, I went along to a small festival in my neighbourhood called the Shimokitazawa Bon Odori. Bon odori is a traditional dance festival you only see in the summer. During Obon, everyone’s ancestors return from ‘the other side’ to visit their descendants. So doing this bon dance is a way to welcome them! Each region has their own style of dance and music. In Tokyo, we have the Tokyo Ondo. Even Shimokitazawa has their own lively version called the Shimokita Ondo. In general the dances involve people stepping back and forth, clapping and raising their arms while moving anti-clockwise around a square stage.

Here’s a video of the Shimokita Ondo (warning: the tune will get stuck in your head!)

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Cuteness overload!Bon odori
Dancing on daddy’s shoulders

Festival food
Festival favourites: yakisoba and kakigoriBon odori

Locals love to dress in colourful yukata and dance around the tiered stage. On the top tier is the beat-maker. Drummers take turns playing the taiko, the deep sound echoing through the surrounding streets. Below them are the official dancers who are part of a community club or special bon dance group. They are the dancers the rest of us watch to learn the routine. And they are also the ones who get the crowd fired up! On the ground level at the base of the stage are the participants. Anyone is free to join in the dance – just find your own space and take care not to run into the person in front! I love seeing all the adorable children dancing. It’s great to see these long-standing traditions being passed on. The remaining spectators stand around enjoying the event while eating some festival food or having a drink.

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Have you ever been to a bon dance before?

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13 thoughts on “Bon Dancing in Shimokitazawa

  1. I have some great memories of the Kinokawa Matsuri, stopping at a local festival on the way to MT Fuji, and even in Toronto at the JCCC (Japanese Cultural Community Centre).

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      1. No. I took a last minute booking on a Hankyu Tropics tour, during the August holiday (I get the timing of O-bon and Golden week confused) and caught a bus from Osaka ….don’t remember the station.
        I had just arrived in Japan and had no language skills…the main guide knew a little English and a Mother/daughter duo who were of Chinese background knew all three languages quite well.
        The bus got caught in traffic and we couldn’t get to the mountain until morning–though were supposed to start climbing at night. Wherever we stopped, there was a bon dance going on outside the hotel. Either nobody told me where we were, or I didn’t understand.
        I never saw most of the people again, until one year later when one of the young ladies who held up the flags for buses came to Koyasan on the day I was there teaching. She and the bus driver remembered me. Kind of funny.
        So, it was dark and I have no idea how far we were from Mt Fuji.

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        1. For some reason, evening and nighttime traffic coming into Tokyo can be an absolute nightmare – the last few hours on the expressway is often a slow crawl. So I know what you might have experienced coming this way from Osaka. It’s too bad you couldn’t climb Fujisan that night, but great that you got to catch a local bon odori. Sometimes Plan B turns out pretty good!

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  2. It looks like a fairyland of lights … just magical.
    The other festival of lights that comes to mind is the fire festival at Nara, so your blog brings back many memories that your mother & I reminiscence on. Thank you.
    Dad
    14-Aug

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    1. The fire festival in Nara sounds awesome! I wonder if you have any photos of it. Kyoto also has some very popular fire festivals where they write symbols or pictures on the side of the mountains. Would love to follow in your footsteps and see it one day!

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  3. Hi Celia, this time last year I was in Japan and I did catch a bit of bon dancing at a little town outside Hirosaki, travelling out from Aomori. I had asked at the Aomori visitor centre about any ‘small local festivals happening’. I really enjoyed it, especially how the locals watching on gradually joined in.

    Back in 2011 I happened to be in Nikko this time of year, and caught a bus out to a village that was holding its bon dance event. It was held in the grounds of the copper manufacturing plant! Being only my second visit to Japan then, I had no idea what was going on.

    On my last day in Japan last year I went out to Shimokitazawa, and had a great few hours at a local festival held at the Shrine just out of town. There was also some mikoshi procession action in the small streets around the station. (I can’t recall exactly, but maybe you gave me the heads up about this event. Someone did, as it was not a random find!).

    I love going to or even falling upon here small local events. There seems to be some much socialising and enjoyment that comes from them.

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    1. Sounds like three very memorable experiences! The great thing about bon odoris I’ve found is that it doesn’t matter if it’s the countryside or in the city, they still have that feeling of a community coming together to have a good time.

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