The Japanese Summer Festival, “Bon-odori” | Guidable Japan

The Japanese Summer Festival, “Bon-odori”

By Yae Aug 2, 2018

During the summer in Japan, have you ever heard the the sound of Japanese drums from somewhere in your neighborhood?

If you look around that area, you’ll find many Japanese people gathering and dancing in a large circle around a yagura, which is a raised platform where singers and Japanese taiko-drummers perform.

This is calledBon-odori in Japanese, which means Bon-dance.

“Why do Japanese people dance in this way?”

Many of you may wonder about the purpose and origin of bon-odori, and this article will introduce you to the custom.

1. Purpose of Bonodori

Japanese people perform Bonodori to honor the spirits of their ancestors.

From August 13th to 16th, many Japanese people believe that ancestral spirits come back to life, and people visit their family graves to make offerings. In a tradition called mukae-bi, some Japanese people welcome their ancestors by burning a fire meant to guide them back to Earth.

Bon-odori is also used to welcome and guide the returning spirits, and participants dance continuously from dusk until dawn on the night of August 15th.

2. Who Created Bonodori?

A monk from the Heian Period (794-1185) called Kuya thought it would be easier for people to remember Buddhist prayers if they were chanted in time to the rhythm of a gourd-drum, and he gradually began dancing along with the beat. This style of prayer was popular, and over time it became connected to memorial services, then evolved into bonodori as we know it today.

3. Bon-odori was a Chance to Meet People

During the Edo Period (the year 1603-1868), bonodori became popular as a means of meeting other single people. Since there were few chances for men and women to meet during the Edo Period, the big crowds of people that gathered for bonodori presented a rare chance. Let’s say it was like a precursor to the modern “blind-date” or matchmaking party.

However, using Bonodori to find a romantic partner was considered an affront to public morals, so much so that the practice was even abolished for a time during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Fortunately, after attempting to enforce the ban for a while, Bon-odori was reinstated during the Taisho Period (1912-1926).

4. Location

Every year, Japanese people hold Bon-odori in a variety of places:

・Buddhist temple grounds
・School playgrounds
・The roof of commercial buildings

Bon-odori is usually organized by the residents’ association of a given area.

5. How to Enjoy Bon-odori

It’s very simple. Just keep in mind following tips:

・Feel the atmosphere

Just look around at the Japanese people dancing and smiling in each district, enjoy the view of the town, and feel the Japanese summer season.

・Feel real Japanese culture

Bon-odori has been an important part of Japanese traditional culture since the Heian Period. It’s definitely worth seeing this 1,000-year old custom.

・Feel the rhythm and join the dance

Don’t worry too much about learning the dance steps. They’re not difficult, and the same steps are repeated over and over. Just give it a shot, join the circle, and you’ll gradually get the hang of it.

・Try wearing a yukata

Many people wear yukata to Bon-odori. Try wearing a yukata and feel for yourself how Japanese people enjoy fashion in the summer.

・Enjoy the music

There are many kinds of music at Bon-odori. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, just enjoy the sound and rhythm.

Hopefully you’ve learned  a bit about what Bon-odori means to the Japanese. If you’re free during Obon (August 13th-15th), think about participating in your neighborhood’s Bon-odori. 

Care to join us for Bon-odori this summer?