Summer heralds the season of festivals throughout Japan. Traditional folk dances called bon-odori are regular features at many Japanese summer festivals.
There are three major bon-odori folk dance festivals in Japan -- Awa-odori dance festival in western Japan, Nishimonai bon-odori festivae northern prefecture of Akita, and Gujo-odori dance festival in Gifu, central Japan.
This article explores the appeal of the Gujo-odori folk dance festival, and the traditional wooden sandals sandals worn during the event.
Dancers of all levels are welcome at the Gujo-odori dance festival in Gujo-Hachiman ring the festival from mid-July to early September, the clickety-clack sound of geta sandals echo through the city’s streets.
Japan's three major bon-odori folk dance festivals
Bon-odori dancing is a harbinger of summer in Japan. Bon-odori folk dancing mainly takes place from August 13 through 15, when traditional Buddhist urabon rituals are held. During this period, many Japanese families get together to welcome their ancestors’ spirits into their homes .
Most Japanese people consider themselves as non-religious, but Buddhism has played a key role in Japanese life since ancient times. Perhaps this is why bon-odori folk dancing has become a Japanese summer tradition.
Bon-odori folk dancing is held in various parts of Japan, mostly around August 13 to 15. The term bon-odori generally refers to the many dance festivals held across Japan during the Buddhist bon period. Different music and choreography are featured at each festival.
Here’s a quick overview of Japan’s three major bon-odori dance festivals. The events are promoted by the respective communities as traditional art performances, and they draw huge crowds each year.
Akita【Nishimonai bon-odori dance festival】
The Nishimonai bon-odori dance festival in Akita, northern Japan, is designated as an important intangible cultural asset of Japan. The dance’s origins are not exactly clear, but according to legend, the folk dance is a mash-up of two ancient dances. One of the dances was first performed by an ascetic monk who prayed for a bumper crop, while the other dance was dedicated to a deceased ruler.
Nishimonai bon-odori dance is known for its elegant dance moves
The festival is held in Ugo town every year during August 16 to the 19. Nishimonai bon-odori stands out from other bon-odori dances because of its graceful and elegant moves.
Tokushima 【Awa-odori dance festival】
Awa-odori dance festival is one of Japan’s leading summer festivals. The four-day event runs every year from August 12, and is Japan’s largest in terms of scale and participant figures. Awa-odori dance was born in Tokushima, western Japan, but is also performed in the neighborhoods, Koenji and Shimokitazawa, in Tokyo.
Rows of dancers line the streets at Awa-odori dance festival
The Awa-odori dance is about 400-years old, and is said to have its roots in the ancient Japanese province of Awa. The rhythmical dance is performed separately by groups of men and women. The Awa-odori dance is also famous for its distinctive chanting and singing by the dancers.
Awa-odori is performed by many dancing troupes called “ren.” Each group has its own unique costume and choreography, and many Tokushima residents have a favorite dance troupe.
Gifu 【Gujo-odori dance festival 】
The Gujo-odori festival of Gifu, in central Japan, is about 400 years old. The dance started in the Edo period and has been designated as an important national intangible folk asset. The biggest difference between the two other bon-odori dances is that the Gujo-odori dance welcomes anyone to join freely.
Huge crowds of dancers at the Gujo-odori dance festival（photo courtesy: Gujo-Hachiman Tourism Association）
One of the songs played during the Gujo-odori festival is famous for its lyrics. Over the generations, Gujo-Hachiman’s residents have sung and danced to this tune starting with a line about leaving Gujo-Hachiman in tears.
The Gujo-odori festival opens for more than 30 days from mid-July until early September, making it Japan’s longest running bon-odori dance festival. The most exciting time of the festival is called tetsuya odori, or all-night dancing. Another key feature of the Gujo-odori festival is its variety of dances. A total of 10 dances are said to take place.
Gujo-Hachiman: the center of Gujo-odori folk dance festival
Let’s take a closer look at the Gujo-odori folk dance festival of Gifu, in central Japan. The Gujo-odori festival has continued since the Edo period, and unlike its other two counterparts, the dance festival in Gujo is characterized by its welcoming attitude.
Gujo-odori dance festival draws huge crowds of dancers （photo credit: Gujo-Hachiman Tourism Association）
Gujo city (Gifu, central Japan): the center of Gujo-odori folk dancing
Gujo city stands in central Gifu, which lies northeast of Osaka. The city has a population of about 400-thousand, and is surrounded by nature.
The Gujo-Hachiman area is the epicenter of Gujo-odori dance. Gujo-Hachiman has historically thrived as a castle town and is famous for its picturesque streets. This area is blessed with water from three rivers, and the town is famous for its abundance of water. Gujo-Hachiman is home to a local water spring named Sogi-sui, which was the first to be listed on a list of Japan’s 100 best water sources.
Charming townscape of Gujo-Hachiman（photo courtesy of Gujo Hachiman Tourist Association）
The town’s symbol is Gujo-Hachiman castle. It is the oldest wooden castle in Japan that has been rebuilt. Founded in 1559 by the warlord Morikazu Endo, the castle served 19 warlords until Japan ended feudalism in 1871. Most of the castle was torn down, but the castle was fully restored in 1933.
<amp-img width="1000px" height="666px" src="https://s3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com/thegate/2019/07/31/15/52/07/Gujo-Hachiman-Castle.jpg" layout="responsive" alt="Gujo-Hachiman castle is surrounded by nature >
The town symbol - Gujo-Hachiman castle (photo credit: Gujo-Hachiman Tourism Association画像提供：郡上八幡観光協会）
The Gujo area is also famous for worshipping Mount Hakusan – the 2,702 meter tall peak that straddles across the prefectures of Gifu, Ishikawa, Toyama and Fukui.
Mount Hakusan is considered as one of the three most sacred mountains of Japan, along with Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama. Since ancient times, mountain worshippers have made their pilgrimages to Mount Hakusan on a route that begins in Shiratori city.
Mount Hakusan: one of Japan's three holiest peaks
Let’s dive deeper into the details of the Gujo-odori folk dance festival, including its history.
All walks of life enjoy dancing (photo credit: Gujo-Hachiman Tourism Association）
The history of Gujo-odori folk dance
Gujo-odori folk dance is said to have its roots in furyu-odori, which literally means drifting wind dance. Furyu-odori dance is performed with drum and flute music. It is the origin of Japanese Noh plays. Some historians suggest that Gujo-odori folk dance was influenced by nenbutsu-odori, or dancing combined with Buddhist chanting.
While the roots of Gujo-odori dance are unclear, history shows that the dance had fully evolved during the Edo period.
Gujo’s first feudal lord, Endo Yoshitaka, is said to have promoted Gujo-odori folk dance as a way to bring his townspeople together, regardless of social status or class. Various bon-odori folk dances were collected from villages across the Gujo domain, and townspeople were encouraged to dance freely regardless of class, during the four days of the obon Buddhist period. The dance festival grew larger every year. Gujo welcomes all dancers willing to join. The welcoming attitude has been in the making for over 400-years.
Festival schedule and venues
Gujo-odori folk dances are held at different locations every night. Another feature of the Gujo-odori festival is that the dancing takes place outside a shrine or temple festival. Each venue is uniquely charming and festival-goers can enjoy dancing anew every night.
Dancing takes place from around 8PM until 10:30PM on weekdays and Sundays, and from 8PM to 11PM on Saturdays. But from August 13 to 16, the Gujo-odori dance festival continues until dawn. The four days of all-night dancing brings Gujo residents together, and the Gujo-odori dance festival reaches its climax.
Ten different dances are performed at the Gujo-odori folk dance festival. Many of them are traditional dances collected from various areas across the region. Unlike Tokushima’s Awa-odori folk dance, participants of all levels dance together in Gujo.
Learn the moves and have more fun （photo courtesy of Gujo-Hachiman Tourism Association)
The Gujo-odori folk dance festival usually opens with a song called “Kawasaki.” The tune is famous for its lyrics about leaving Gujo-Hachiman with wet sleeves, apparently from tears. Songs of different tempos and different choreography are played back-to-back during the festival, and participants never seem to tire of dancing.
Gujo-Hachiman’s Tourist Association has uploaded videos of the dances on its website. Check them
Odori-geta sandals: essential footwear at the Gujo-odori dance festival
Odori-geta, or wooden sandals for dancing, are a must-have item when it comes to dancing at the Gujo-odori dance festival. The click-clack sound of the geta sandals fills the streets during the festival, and geta sandals are a summer staple in Gujo.
Odori geta sandals - Gujo's cherished summer footwear （photo credit: Kishiyama footewear store）
Odori geta sandals: Gujo's essential summer footwear
The sandals worn at the Gujo-odori dance festival are made from top quality Japanese cedar that has been locally harvested. Japanese cedar is light and durable, so the sandals won’t fall apart even after long hours of dancing. Sandals made from Japanese cedar also produce an airy, beautiful sound.
Although Gujo's sandals are known for durability, some residents still need extra pairs of odori-geta sandals to dance for more than 30 nights. Gujo-Hachiman has many shops that specialize in geta sandals, so it is easy to replace worn out pairs. Serious dancers are said to replace their geta sandals at least two or three times during the Gujo-odori season.
Making odori-geta wooden sandals for dancing（photo credit: Kishiyama footwear store)
We visited Kishiyama footwear store – one of the many shops in Gujo-Hachiman selling odori-geta sandals.
More than a century-old Kishiyama footwear store
Kishiyama footwear store customizes geta sandals for dancing at the Gujo-odori festival. Shoppers can choose the sandal base and a fabric thong of their liking. Let's take a look at the special services offered by Kishimoto footwear store.
colorful fabric thongs (photo courtesy of Kishiyama footwear store）
① Original markings
The sandal's wooden base is marked with a pattern designed by the shop. The patterns are ironed onto the wooden surface, not printed. This prevents it from fading. The bold letters on the men’s geta sandals read “gujo-odori,” while the women’s geta sandals are marked with lively flowing letters.
② Special double "toothed" base
Gujo-odori folk dance involves a lot of rhythmic stomping and noise making with geta sandals. Too much dancing can result in the “teeth”, or the two heel-like pieces supporting the sandals, to come off. To prevent this from happening, the store carves out odori-geta sandals from a single wood piece. Another special feature of these sandals is its material. Japanese cedar is durable, creates a good sound and prevents the “teeth” from wearing away.
③ Adjustable fabric thongs
The fabric thongs are adjustable, so ask the shop to help you find the perfect fit before you go dancing. The shop has hundreds of fabric patterns -- you will be spoilt for choice.
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Photo taken during the store's founding days （photo courtesy of Kishiyama footwear)
Kishiyama footwear store has been in business for almost a century. Mr Takakazu Kishiyama is the shop’s fifth generation owner. The store makes about two thousand geta sandals every year.
When the business first started in 1871, it operated a geta sandal factory in a different part of town. On its 50th anniversary, the business relocated to its current location in Shinmachi and opened Kishiyama footwear store. The previous owner decided that it was better to relocate here because of shopper traffic.
Whether dancing or not, dress up like the locals do in Gujo-Hachiman. Get a pair of customized geta sandals and a yukata cotton kimono to enjoy the charming townscape in a different light.
Get a taste of Japanese summer at the Gujo-odori folk dance festival
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Paper lanterns line the streets
The best thing about Gujo-odori folk dance festival is that it welcomes everybody and anybody willing to dance. The festival is a massive street party that is open to all walks of life, including non-Japanese visitors too. There is no dress code, so the easiest way to enjoy the action is too simply jump in. If you fancy dressing up, getting some odori geta sandals will make your festival experience even more enjoyable.