Obon: Dancing With Our Ancestors In Okinawa
Summer in Okinawa is extremely hot! Most locals avoid the mid-day sun and hide from the humidity indoors. However, the island comes alive at night as the sounds of beating drums and the twangs of Sanshin (Okinawan banjo) fill the air. Youth groups spend the evenings practicing Eisa, a traditional dance that they will perform during Obon, the most important festival in Okinawa.
The three-day event is a chance for families and communities to come together and welcome the spirits of their ancestors home so they can eat, drink and dance together late into the night. Uchinaanchu (Okinawan people) deeply revere their ancestors, and praying and giving offerings to one’s ancestors is a central part of Okinawan spirituality.
Extended families get together on Unkeh, the first day of Obon, at the paternal father/grandfather’s house. The women in the family spend the day preparing a huge meal, while the men drink sake and entertain their guests. Lanterns are hung at the entrance of the house to welcome ancestors home and light the path for them. Offerings such as fruit, water, tea and sake are placed on the Butsudan (family altar) as gifts to their ancestors. Sato kibi (sugar cane) is also offered so that the spirits can use it as a walking stick and travel safely back to heaven after Obon. After praying and sharing a traditional meal, families head out into the streets to watch Eisa, a traditional dance performed to welcome the spirits and celebrate their homecoming.
Each community has it’s own style of Eisa, with original songs, unique costumes and a particular way of dancing. 園田青年会 (Sonda Seinenkai – Sonda Youth Association) is one of the most renowned groups in Central Okinawa. They are famous for the Michi Juneh style of Eisa, where they march through streets as they perform, as if they were taking their ancestors to visit each house in the neighborhood.
Southern Okinawa also has a strong tradition of Eisa and the two most famous groups are located in 米須 (Komesu) and 喜屋武 (Kyan). Rather than marching through the streets, the southern style of Eisa is usually performed in an open space outside the community center. Groups pay strict attention to their formation, and make sure the timing of their movements is synchronized. Eisa groups are led by Chondara (Okinawan clowns) who wear white face-paint and dress in distinct uniforms. As well as maintaining the group formation, Chondara also purify the performance area, captivate the audience, and scare young children in the crowd!
The dancing continues on Nakabi, the second day of Obon and climaxes on Ukui, when the ancestors are farewelled for the year. Uchinaanchu are gracious hosts, and want to take care of their ancestors well. This means that it’s considered rude to go home early without properly spending time with one’s ancestors. As a result, Eisa groups perform late into the night and it’s common to see crowds of people dancing in the street past midnight! So, if you’re in Okinawa between the 26th and 29th of August this year, be sure to catch some authentic Eisa during Obon, and be prepared to stay up late!