We arrived about 4:30 PM, found a spot to park our bikes, and followed the stream of people headed for the dance. This park has paths wind down into a shaded ravine and along a small stream to a grass playing field where there are also permanent buildings with a souvenir shop and refreshments. The path was lined with chochin - paper lanterns - which seemed to help to get people in a festive mood.
This festival was special as it was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Kashima becoming a city and incorporating the area called Ono where we live and the event was held. This meant that the politicians would be there. The mayor gave a speech, of course. I met a local assemblyman and discovered that his daughter is married to a man who owns the small lumber yard in my neighborhood. Small town.
The dance area was decorated with even more chochin, many of which will be used (and burned up) in a big festival at Kashima Jingu Shrine in September. There was the familiar yagura tower in the center of the dance ring, but this one was bigger than any I had seen in Hawaii and had a platform about one and a half meters wide and one meter above ground level around it where the featured dancers and taiko drums would be visible to everyone following them during the dance.
There were food booths and a large stage to one side where a karaoke contest was in progress. Those first to arrive were given a fan for the dance. Some people were in casual dress and others were in summer kimono, called yukata, or like myself, had a happi coat. One couple had even dressed their dog for the dance!
On stage, after the karaoki contest, there were performances by local people which included a really good taiko drum club, elementary school kids dancing, traditional Japanese dances accompanied by shamisen, and even a hula club. They were all quite good and it was fun for me to recognize the hula dances and songs, even though the words were in Japanese. Hawaiian music and dance has quite a following in Japan, going back to pre-WWII days. I met a woman on Maui just before I left last year, whose daughter went on a hula dancing tour in Japan and was featured on the cover of a Japanese magazine dedicated to hula.
In Hawaii, I was used to dancing more than a dozen different dances and tunes at each event, as the immigrants from Japan to Hawaii came from many towns, each with their own dance. I had heard that in Japan, the festivals in each location are limited to just a few dances, and I was thinking I would be disappointed by that. This night, we had three songs to dance to. The first was the traditional Kashima dance, then there was "Kashima Ondo" (ondo meaning a song with a lead singer) which was a new dance invented for the 10th anniversary celebration of the city. Finally, came Tankobushi - the coal miner's song - which is one that almost anyone who dances at bon festivals knows and is fairly easy for neophites to learn.
Happily, I was not disappointed about the lack of variety. The two songs and their steps from Kashima were new to me, so I was focused on following along and trying to learn them. Tankobushi is one I am very familiar with and provided me with a break between the others. One thing I especially enjoyed about this festival were the platform around the yagura. It was cool to have a taiko drum at each corner, and to be able to see the lead dancers well. Another thing was that the songs were all sung live, rather than being recorded as in Hawaii. As always happens with me, I just lost myself in the experience.
Upon reflection, all my self concern about liking the Japanese version of the festival was really at odds with the spirit of the occassion. Bon Odori as a religious dance means to dance joyfully in memory of our ancestors, and to dance
joyfully means to dance without ego-calculation. Joy is something one discovers, as opposed to "fun" which is an attempt to create joy. So, to get the most of Bon Odori, dance with abandon. Just focus on the music and the dance and the people dancing with you and forget yourself. In that way, you may experience the true joy that is Bon Odori.
As the fireworks that marked the end of the event started up, we made our way to our bikes for the ride home. It was 10 PM and as we rode through the fields of sweet potatoes in the cool air, we could look back from time to time and see the colorful bursts over the tower at Hamanasu Park.
PS - My calf muscles ached for a week!