This past week was the Kyureki Calendar based obon festival in Okinawa. On Kumejima, I was able to attend the Gima and Higa festivals which both took place at the same time, on the second day of kyubon. I found it extremely interesting how different the two festivals were, even though they are on the same small island. Just as every family that celebrates Christmas does it in slightly different ways, so too, do different families and even neighborhoods celebrate obon differently.
Below are a few pictures from the night. It also happened to be the night of a blue moon so I included a few shots as it rose behind the Gima festival. Both had fireworks, Eisa, dancing, and live performances. I even played with one of the local bands at the Higa festival. As with most festivals, guests were encouraged to make a donation that helps support the event and community, and in return receive a small bag with snacks and a drink. There was also food for sale. Most of the community club members (every community aza tends to have several clubs: one for young people, another for mothers, etc) participated in the Eisa dance or bon odori (bon dance).
In the pictures below you’ll notice that on Kumejima they integrate the two with an outer circle of Eisa dancers and an inner circle of drum-less odori. When the festival ended, organizers and participants settled down for a long relaxed party to celebrate all their hard work and to re-connect with all the people who returned for Kyubon.
This week marks the start of obon in Okinawa. Unlike in mainland Japan, where obon occurs in July or August, this special period occurs in late August, on the 15th day of the seventh month of the old kyureki calendar. As with jurokunichiand the recent harvest ceremony umachi, Kyu Bon follows the calendar of the old Ryukyu Kingdom. In 2012, Kyubon falls on August 30, 31, and September 1.
Bon, or Obon is a three-day event with roots in Buddhist and Confucian teaching that spread from China. It is a time when families welcome back their dead ancestors and honor them before sending them back to the next life. In modern days it has become a time for family reunions and returns to birthplaces. Families join together for the three days to celebrate their parted relatives and continue family traditions.
On the first day of Kyubon, families join together at their local ohaka. These family shrines are common in Okinawa and house the cremated remains of a family. The ohaka range in design, but generally the larger older ones are in the shape of a womb and tunnel into a cliff face or natural cave, while newer ones are often like small houses and are separate. The family brings food and lights to welcome the ancestors. Each family has its own traditions, though there are some similarities. The day is often similar to that of the Kyureki New Years.
One difference is that lanterns are often hung at the entry way to the house property to light the way as well as lanterns at the house shrine.
Every family is different, but from what I’ve been told, each family makes offerings at their family butsudan (small shrine inside a home) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner of each day of Kyubon. The butsudan is decorated with offerings of fruit and sake, and other foods are placed before the shrine.
On Kumejima, there is a tradition of Eisa performances on the second night of Kyubon. There are several throughout the island, each with their own local custom. Last year I attended the one for my local community. There were Eisa performances by children and adults, dancing, and live local music. In essence, it is a time for the community to come together and be one, just as families come together for the Kyubon days.
Unlike performance groups at other festivals, the Eisa during Kyubon is performed by members of the community with only a few weeks practice. It is meant as part offering and welcome. In addition to Eisa, a traditional bon odori or dance is performed to music.
The third day at sunset is the time for the ancestors to leave for another year. In addition to the first two offerings, a final one will be made, and the spirits of ancestors will be said farewell to for another year. Many families used to shoot off small fireworks to scare any reluctant spirits back, but the fireworks display has grown more popular.
Only one of the local community celebrations in Kumejima, the largest, does fireworks during Kyubon. For practicality’s sake, the fireworks occur on the second day at the end of the community Eisa celebrations.
I’ve talked about Eisa before, but one of the great things about this Okinawan take on dance and drumming is that there are so many ways to do it. Almost everything is up for grabs when it comes to unique community identity in Eisa performances. This past weekend, I attended the annual Nishime sumo competition and Eisa on Kumejima. Nishime is one of nearly 35 aza or neighborhoods on the island.
As at the Gima Okinawan Sumo competition, the purpose of the events were trifold: the traditional offering of personal effort during the traditional harvest, a way to raise money for the community, and an entertaining social event that binds the community closer together.
The Event started at 3:00 with Elementary sumo competitions, working up to the adult competitions. I participated this year, and won my first match 2-0, but lost the second one 0-2 to the champion who won the whole thing. I have that kind of luck when it comes to pulling numbers for the tournament ladder.
Directly after awards were handed out, local community members put on the Nishime Eisa performance. Most Eisa performances are set for stages or parades and often have their performers arranged in a block formation. At this unique celebration, the performers entered in one long line and then circled the sumo ring. To accompany the drummers there were five sanshin (sanshin are the Okinawan version of the Japanese shamisen, a cross between lute and guitar that is usually covered with snake-skin) players who sang and played Okinawan tunes which are a usual feature of Eisa.
It is unknown when Eisa began on Kumejima, however, it has been a staple of island life since at least the Meiji Era, though it was temporarily halted during World War II. The Eisa performance today lasts about fifty minutes with 12 songs.
Yokatu Kaijo Meguri
More on Nishime Eisa
There is more than just the circular Eisa that makes Nishime unique. Half of the performers wear the traditional Eisa garb of Chinese influenced dress with headwear formed from a long stretch of fabric. Unlike many Eisa costumes of bright colors, the Nishime drummers wear mostly black with white trim. The drummers use mainly small drums with a pair of large drums leading and following. The Eisa moves are complex, but overall require a great deal of stamina.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Nishime is the other half. While one half of the performers are drummers, the other half are paired couples in bright traditional Okinawan clothing. These performers do not have drums but instead dance to the music and drums along the sumo circle. These tend to be the older or married couples, while the drummers are the younger, though not all are single. The men tend to use closed fists in their dance, while the women have more graceful open palms.
Finally, accompanying the Eisa performers are Okinawan clowns in the guise of the elderly. The arrive with offerings of awamori which they provide to the audience. The clowns dance, fan the Eisa performers and interact with the audience. They help encourage everyone to participate and provide more of an offering to the celebration.
*Song and history information provided by the Kumejima Cultural Center and Museum
This past weekend was the two-day annual Kume Island festival. Due to a typhoon during its planned weekend, the festival took place on August 10 and 11. There was a lot to see this year, and since it is the islands largest festival of the year, it provides a lot of unique insights into Japanese and Okinawan culture, along with a fun night for the whole family. Check out the video blow for a quick look at some of the festival’s highlights!
Friday August 10
The day’s festivities started around 5:00 at Furiai Park, a large sea-side area with stage and facilities. The area was ringed by game booths, food, and other stations. Performances from local music groups were intertwined with award ceremonies for the students who made advertisement posters and other attractions.
Japan has the little drummer boy beat on all counts. There are many kinds of traditional drumming in Japan, but perhaps one of the most original is Eisa. In Okinawa, Eisa is a cross between dance and music, with performers moving in a limited fashion while beating a variety of portable drums. Sometimes these performances include music and calls.
In August there is an even on the main Okinawan Island on Kokusai-dori (dori = street, a popular tourist destination) in Naha City, where 10,000 Eisa performers drum in a parade along that popular street. Here are a few pictures from the even I caught back in 2009. If you’ll be in Okinawa the first week of August you can see this amazing event, and even try your hand at Eisa!
*The first picture is of a shirt at the event. Eisa is spelled incorrectly ^_^