It could be the only place in the world where summer means watching a spiritual dance ritual one day and a covers band destroying Skid Row the next.
It’s incredibly hot in this 100-year-old kimono. My hair is sticking to my face; there’s an unpleasant trickling sensation down my back. I’m fairly sure the anti-perspirant I put on this morning stopped being effective quite some time ago.
My discomfort goes unnoticed by the staff and customers of the soba restaurant where I’m currently on display, my Japanese host wrapping me in her family’s heritage kimono in the middle of the dining room.
Goto-san pulls the heavy, embroidered folds closed, placing one of my hands on top of the other carefully to hold it in place. “There!” she says, stepping back with a flourish.
A chorus of “Oooooh” rises from the diners, as camera flashes pop. The restaurant owner hurries out of the room, coming back in lugging a large wooden stand with another kimono draped across it. “Two hundred years old,” he says proudly, placing it in a corner and insisting our small group have pictures taken with it.
Because these aren’t just your usual, run-of-the-mill kimono. This special type of patchwork robe, known as a hanui, is made from tiny pieces of silk fabric painstakingly stitched together by the women of each family in this district.
They are passed down through generations, and taken out of the closet for just three nights of the year – during the sacred dance of the Nishimonai Bon Odori festival, which starts tonight.
Outside, the lantern-lit streets are crowded with people who have travelled across Japan to be here in Ugo-machi, a tiny town in the northern prefecture of Akita. Food stalls line the footpaths, with cold Asahi and crushed-ice confections a welcome relief from the still-stifling night-time heat. But the celebrations aren’t uproarious, and the crowd – while large – is fairly subdued as the dancers prepare to start.
August is an auspicious month for the Japanese. Obon, the time to pay respect to ancestral spirits, is currently being observed around the country. This is a spiritual time when Japanese return to their home towns, a kind of pilgrimage to the graves of their ancestors. It is believed the spirits of the dead return during this time, and must be honoured.
In Nishimonai, the story goes like this. During the 1280s, the villagers began to dance in the local temple to pray for a good harvest. More than 300 years later, the town’s great samurai lord Shigemichi Onodera was defeated in battle and, in shame, burnt down his castle and fled. In the ensuing years, his remaining followers danced to remember their great lord. In time these two dances merged, and the Bon Odori has been performed in its present form – and in the same place – for the past three centuries.
As the taiko drums pound into life, the vocalists take up the refrain. There are only two dances in the Bon Odori, repeated throughout the night. While the surreal, hypnotic movements of the masked dancers could be watched for hours, to say the music is a little repetitive is probably an understatement. But the point of the song is to keep the dancers in their rhythm; hundreds of graceful hands moving in purposeful, tai-chi like movements down the darkened street, backlit by dozens of burning braziers.
Kids practice the dance at school for months beforehand, and follow in the steps of more professional dancers. All but the very young children wear a mask; either a full-face, black cloth known as a hikosa zukin, or the narrow, elegant amigasa hat. The covered faces add to the dreamlike feel of the dance – how can they possibly know where they’re going?
We start chatting to a trio of teenage girls, who go to the local junior high school. Dressed in cute jumpsuits, scooping out spoons of crushed ice and giggling, they could be 14-year-olds anywhere in the world.
"Dozo yoroshiku," I say with a little bow as we leave, proud of my Japanese knowledge. This pleasure is soon to be punctured by Goto-san - or Brenda, the English name she has inexlicably chosen for herself - who is clutching my arm in hysterics.
Amid peels of laughter, Goto-san explains that the term I've used for "pleased to meet you," is a very formal expression, typically used in business situations. It's basically the English equivalent of shaking hands with a six-year-old.
But then, some rules seem to be bent for foreigners. The Japanese understand that our culture is different. Sometimes though, they are bent a little too far - like a couple of days later, when my husband gets groped by an overexcited young man. We're at another festival, this time in Yokote City - about 20 minutes north of Ugo.
We are sampling the alternative to beer, a cloying kind of Korean liquor mixed with grape juice, when the man sidles up.
"Oh, I like this!" he says, grabbing my husband’s chest and squeezing. "Oh, and this!" snatching at his bum.
"Hey, he's mine!" I say, pulling him away. My husband looks slightly traumatized. The man stands there grinning for a moment, then shrugs and walks away.
This festival is almost the polar opposite of the Bon Odori. Put together by a group of progressive local musicians, it offers jazz, rock, funk and blues over four stages. My favourite has to be a Beatles cover band, who wear matching yellow t-shirts, stand straight as an arrow no matter what the song and look more like a Japanese version of The Wiggles. A close second is a rock band who look the part, but whose Skid Row songs would probably be better if the lead singer didn't have to pause between bouts of headbanging to read the words from a stand.
At the end of the day, a swing jazz band has taken over the main stage. As I stand there wondering if I really want to eat the food I've just bought thinking it was barbequed beef (actually: soft pork cartilage) I feel a tug on my dress. I turn around to be greeted by a little girl, smiling up at me. "Hello," she says. "Hello," I say back. "How are you?" The girl turns towards her mum, who is standing a couple of metres back. The mum smiles encouragingly. "Good," she says, then, just as quickly; "Goodbye," waving at me before running back excitedly to mum.
Chuffed at my newfound celebrity status among preschoolers, I bite into my pork cartilage with renewed vigour. It's pretty gross, but does nothing to dampen the weekend's excitement - and I'm already wondering what kind of spectacle the next festival will bring.
Michelle Duff is a freelance journalist based in rural Japan.
JAPAN'S NORTHERN FESTIVALS
Nebuta Matsuri Giant, illuminated papar-mache dolls are hefted down the street in a parade, illustrated with samurai warriors, birds and flowers. Held in Aomori City in August.
Sapporo Snow Festival This seven-day celebration in February sees giant snow sculptures line the streets for a distance of 1.5 kilometres, creating a giant “snow museum”. An international ice sculpting competition is also held.
Soma-Nomaoi Held in Fukushima prefecture, highlights of this three-day festiva in July include a race between twelve samurai horsemen clad in armor, helmets, and carrying katana swords.
- The Dominion Post