I stood perfectly still as Akiko-san draped a long, deep blue yukata – the summer form of a kimono- on my shoulders, crossed the fabric across my chest, wrapped a pink obi sash around my middle and tied it in a huge bow in the back. Later, when I had put my hair up, putting two beautiful ornamental pins, or kanzashi, into my curls, I viewed myself in the mirror. I was astounded to see that a half Japanese girl like me could look so traditional in this gorgeous get up.
That night was the first night of the two-day Bon Odori Matsuri, or Obon folk dance festival, which is held all over the country at different times during the last few weeks of August. Obon is a Buddhist memorial holiday in which Japanese people honor the lives of their ancestors and reflect on the meaning of their own lives. The Obon festival has been celebrated since 657 AD in Japan and thus has a long history, which means every area of Japan has its own, specialized dances. The ward where Akiko-san and I were going to dance that night, for example, has different dances than other Tokyo wards.
We sat daintily in our taxi seats on the way to Hamacho Park- where the two night festival was being held- careful not to disturb our yukatas. When we arrived, we shuffle-stepped our way into the park in wooden geta clogs, past the entranceway and into the crowds surrounding a central stage. The whole park was lit up by thousands of small lanterns that hung from the two-story stage and from the street stands all around it. The bottom stage was shaped like a huge circle and rose about five feet above ground, while the upper stage, which was a smaller circle above the bottom stage, held taiko drummers. Skilled dancers moved their way around the bottom stage while a singer carried out long, high notes of folk songs.
The stage was astounding, but what captured my attention most was the lines of people below the stage, dancing. They circled the stage as they danced in rhythm, in sync, with each other. Old men in suits, little girls in tiny yukatas, teenagers, fathers, grandmothers were all present, smiling and moving, flowing, to the beat of the taiko drums. Akiko-san immediately urged me to join them, so I moved in. I felt a bit self conscious at first because since I had to copy the movements of the dancers in front of me, I was always a beat or two behind everyone else. Also, when I finally got the hang of a dance, the song would end and another, different dance would begin. But even then, I felt my happiness soar to great heights when I saw the serene faces of everyone around me, clapping, dancing, moving in unison, slowly circling around and around the central stage.
A woman speaker on the bottom stage first introduced the dancers, then the group of were slow and exact and therefore easy to learn from, I started to understand some of the easy dances. I had to stare hard, though, at the man in order not to fall behind and after a couple of dances, he began to take note. After one dance, he turned around to smile at me and to tell me that I was getting better at the dances, which I thought was very sweet.
Apparently he also thought I was sweet, because he began introducing me to all of his dance troupe friends. When he went up onto the stage- or yagura- to dance, he introduced me to a woman dancer so I could follow her. While he was gone, I became comfortable with the dances and concentrated on making my movements flow with the same soft, dainty feel as the woman before me. I began to notice that every dancer incorporated their own, unique style into their movements: one woman across from me, for instance, made her movements soft and beautiful while the man in front of her chopped at the air. I found this fact especially rewarding, for in America- in my experience, of course- people seldom have the courage to join in and dance, particularly men, but in this little festival world in the middle of Tokyo, everyone flaunted their style rather than cowering in the shadows.
Because Akiko-san and I thoroughly enjoyed the first night, the second night of the festival was a must, so Akiko-san and I again put on our yukatas and rode the taxi to the park. This time, though, I held more confidence in my Bon Odori dancing skill, so I joined the dancing group without any hesitation. Halfway through, I could honestly say that I was not copying movements, but producing them myself. So I clapped my hands and smiled with the others, twirling my hands and flowing to the music, feeling the warm air and the presence of happy dancers all around me.
With only about an hour left to go, I had just finished a dance and was waiting for another to begin, when an older woman, about seventy and an inch or so shorter than me, came up to me. Without any hesitation or embarrassment, she looked me straight in the eye and asked me if I was Nikkei, or Japanese American. I shook my head no, since I am not full-blooded Japanese, and she guessed next that I was half Japanese, so I smiled and said I was. But that was all of the conversation we could get in before the next song, a fun, disco-type dance, came on. I was clapping my hands and shaking my hips, enjoying the dance, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman who had just talked to me dancing. Her long black hair was pulled primly up into a bun and she was wearing a beautiful, dark yukata, yet she was dancing as if she was in her twenties, underneath a disco ball, wearing a sparkly red dress. She shook her hips and waved her hands, smiling at me, and called out, “Hai, hai, hai!” to the beat of the music. Her movements were so energetic and cute that I could not help but join in on her enthusiasm, laughing as I made my movements bigger. Soon I was yelling out “Hai, hai, hai!” with her and as we locked laughing eyes, I felt a happiness overflow me, that this old woman, unknown to me until now, was sharing a spunky dance with me and had accepted me into her world, though she knew I was from far away. I did not know this woman, or where she came from, or what kind of life she had led until then, but in that instant, I thought I understood her.
I never wanted the dancing to end, but it had to and did, so Akiko-san and I ran outside to the street stands to buy some treats before we made our way home. Then we walked back, staring up to the bright, beautiful moon, smiling about our wondrous adventure. Yet I felt bittersweet, knowing that as we turned our backs to the lantern lights and festive music, I was returning to my exchange student’s life, while that spunky old lady went back again to hers, to lead an existence unknown to me…our momentuous connection already gone, changing form into a blissful memory.