Bon Odori Matsuri

It was an unusually cool August evening…it was the perfect timing for a Bon Odori Matsuri.

Bon Odori is a festival dance which is held in the evening during Obon. In the old days, Bon Odori is performed to welcome the spirits and to send them off again. The people danced while wearing a yukata to the beat of the flute and the Japanese drum called taiko. But nowadays, Bon Odori is usually done as part of the summer festivities of the towns or villages.

My son, Zach, and I went to a Bon Odori in our neighborhood this evening. At first, we were just walking around, trying to find something to eat from the stalls that were aligned in the different corners of the place. They held the festival inside a big bamboo park.

After munching on some popcorn, we lined up for yakitori. Yakitori are grilled chicken skewers. The sellers were volunteers around the community so these yakitori were home made. And I tell you, they are 100 times better and tastier than the commercial ones.

After we finished the yakitori and the cotton candy which Zach tasted for the first time, we decided to watch the festival dance.

There was a make-shift stage and the main dancers were on the stage while the people playing the taiko (Japanese drum) were on the upper most part of the stage.

Below the stage, the other dancers performed and guests such as ourselves were welcome to join.

The dancers were so lively that one will be enticed to join them. So I did! I danced with them for the last 30 minutes of the festival with Zach joining us later on. There was one very nice lady who taught the steps to us and to some Junior High School boys while we were doing the dance.

We definitely had fun and it was one of those moments when how I wished I can speak fluently in Japanese so I can tell the people there how much fun we had. But since I can’t, all I could utter, especially to our “dance instructor”, was a heartfelt Arigatou Gozaimashita!

Obon Yasumi in Japan

photo source: Wikipedia

Last Monday, I was so surprised when I got in the bus…it was practically empty! The more surprised I was when I saw the main road— there were only a few vehicles and so the usual 25-minute ride to the station took only less than 20 minutes!

At the station, the train was almost empty as well. Then I remembered that it was, after all, the start of Obon Yasumi here in Japan.

August is considered the “ghost month” by the Japanese. Obon Yasumi is something like the Halloween in the United States or the All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in the Philippines which fall on Nov 1 and Nov 2 respectively. However, this Japanese celebration usually lasts for 3-4 days or sometimes a week long in other prefectures.

Some Japanese say that Obon Yasumi falls on the third week of August. But others are more specific. They say it starts on August 13 and ends on August 16. Actually, the date really depends on where in Japan you are.

But what really is Obon? Obon is a Buddhist tradition in Japan that is meant to honor one’s ancestors. My Japanese co-teacher said that for them, it’s not really about ghosts or those entities which we believe to be lost souls. Obon is about being reunited with their ancestors who passed away.

They say that on the first day of Obon, they need to go to the grave sites and bring lanterns or anything that can light the way for their ancestors. This light will guide them on the way back to their homes. Then on the last day, they will have to guide them back to the grave sites. In other places, they would bring the lanterns near the river and they let these lanterns float away to guide their ancestors to the other world.

photo source: Japan Rail Pass

So around this time, the Japanese people go back to their hometowns which is usually outside of Tokyo to honor their dead loved ones, which explains the empty buses and trains in Tokyo. Obon Yasumi is like a big family reunion for most of them.

But for the modern Japanese people who are not very traditional, this is the time to travel outside of Japan wherein they use up their work holidays and the kids enjoy their summer break. Plane tickets to go abroad tend to be higher around this time.

Another interesting thing to note is that during the Obon weekend, Japanese TV shows usually feature ghost stories…and I tell you, these are very scary because for one, they happened in real life!

For this year, Fuji Terebi (Fuji Television, Channel 8) has one on August 18, Saturday, from 9pm to 11:10pm. It has the title Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi ( Scary Stories that really Happened). I always look forward to shows such as this here every year.

The Japanese people have a very beautiful culture. They have a lot of very colorful celebrations and many holidays that are very unusual like Ocean Day or Mountain Day. I will try my best to explain how these holidays came to be and I will share them with you as they happen.

Some of the Things You Need to Remember when in Tokyo

I say “when in Tokyo” because aside from Tokyo, I haven’t lived in any of the cities or prefectures of Japan. Everything I will write here is based on personal experiences and some are opinions or ideas of my Japanese friends. They are the most basic reminders to help you get through your visit.

Recently, I have seen and I have heard of people I know who were in Tokyo, who are now here in Tokyo or who will be in Tokyo anytime soon. So I thought that it will be helpful if I can share some of the things that they have to know to enjoy their stay here.

  • Your credit is good, but cash is better. Yup, as modern as Tokyo is, there are still certain establishments that do not accept credit cards. Usually, the smaller shops, like the traditional ramen shops, only accept cash because they make use of the vending machine-like method of ordering food. You drop your money in this machine, press the button of your order, then a small paper will come out and you give this to the people in the counter. The paper has your order written on it. So in short, you pay in cash as you order. If you don’t see these machines near the entrance, there is a possibility that the restaurant or the food stall you entered into will take credit. So before eating out or before buying those precious souvenirs, it will be a good idea to first ask if they accept credit cards. If they do, they often accept VISA, Mastercard, AMEX, or JCB. If the cards you have are not the same as the ones mentioned, please don’t hesitate to ask those who are in charge.
  • Tips are not necessary. When you eat out, you don’t leave any tips on the table. One time, I was eating with my kids at a restaurant in Roppongi and the foreigners on a table close to ours left some cash before they headed towards the door. The waitress who was about to clean up their table saw the money and she chased them outside just to give it back. So to avoid the embarrassment of being chased down by waiters or waitresses, it’s better to just keep that yen in your wallet.
  • They have slow lanes and fast lanes in escalators. When using the escalator, it is not a good idea to occupy the entire space you are on, not unless you want to experience being yelled at or being pushed by people who seem like their lives depended on how fast they get through those flight of moving stairs. It is pretty simple actually—the left side is for those who have all the time in the world at that moment and the right side is for those who seem like they are running for their lives.
  • There are unspoken rules by the door. The rule of thumb: when entering a door and someone is coming out, you will have to wait outside before going in. This is especially true at the stations— bus and train stations alike. When the door opens, you will have to let everyone out first before you go in.
  • Being loud inside the train or the bus is a big NO! When inside the train or the bus, people should be talking quietly. I admit, I sleep inside these public transport  everyday when going to and from work…and honestly, I appreciate the peace and quiet. Also, and please remember this, no one is allowed to talk (except for emergencies) or chat on the phone while inside the bus or the train…oh yes, especially in the bus! I learned this unspoken rule the hard way when one day, I did just that: I was inside the bus and I was on the phone. I was whispering through the mic of my earphone so I know that I wasn’t being loud. But then obviously, the driver heard me in spite of the silence because, while using the mini microphone attached to him, he announced for everyone in the bus to know that talking on the phone is not allowed. He even called my attention by saying “Okyaku-sama! Okyaku-sama!” (Ms. Customer! Ms. Customer!). When I looked up, he was looking straight at me on the rear-view mirror. Just imagine my embarrassment!
  • It is very safe. You can walk along the streets in the middle of the night without the fear of being mugged…just the fear of seeing something supernatural like a woman in white and with long black hair. Remember Sadako from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge?
  • Tokyo doesn’t have a 24-hour train. Tokyo may be a very busy city but the trains (or the people working at the stations) need some rest as well, right? Usually, the last trains run between 11:30 pm to 1:00 am. You can always hail a taxi, of course. But it will be very expensive. I know someone who didn’t catch the last train because of work and had to walk 4 hours from Tokyo to Saitama…whew!

For now, these are all that I can think of. If I missed something, just drop me a note then I can include them in my next post.