Bon Odori: Dancing with Spirits of Departed Ancestors

Bon Odori: Dancing with Spirits of Departed Ancestors

Posted by Yukiko Kisaki on 14th Aug 2019

Bon Odori street dance during Obon

Mid-August in Japan is the time for Bon Odori street dances during Obon, Festival of the Dead. Obon lasts for three days, during which the Japanese invite the spirits of their departed ancestors back for a joyous family reunion of sorts.

Streets, parks, and gardens turn into stages for Bon Odori dancers. Men, women, and children wearing colorful yukatas or stylish kimonos dance to thunderous taiko drums, and magnificent fireworks light up the night sky.

Bon Odori dances have highly distinct regional styles. One of the best known is Awa Odori from Tokushima region in southern Japan.

Awa odori dancers in tight, colorful kimonos

In Awa Odori, large groups of women (sometimes in hundreds) sing in unison and dance on the tips of their wooden geta sandals. Steps are sharp and crisp, in small movements restricted by tight, colorful kimonos. Hand movements are highly stylized with graceful skyward gestures.

Japanese women floating lanterns in river

On the first day of Obon, families light bonfires called mukae-bi to welcome their departed ancestors.

On the third day, they light a different fire (okuri-bi) to say goodbye, and float lanterns in nearby rivers to accompany the ancestors on their way back.