The Big Dance – Koenji Awa Odori

Summer festivals in Tokyo tend to be gatherings of 50,000 of your friends and neighbors, but the Koenji Awa Odori, with over 1,000,000 people in attendance over the two day event, still ranks as one of the largest in Tokyo. How did a festival in a quiet little neighborhood of Western Tokyo grow to such enormous proportions?

Likely, it has come about due to the now 10,000 participants in the festival, dance troupes from all of Tokyo and now Japan. The event is a constant stream of dancers, along the main street outside the station and spilling over into side streets. Awa odori (odori meaning dance) has its roots in Obon, the festival honoring the dead, but has grown into its own. While Obon festivals tend to be more restrained, Awa Odori use more instruments and more vigorous dance moves. Like Obon, spectators are encouraged to join in the fun. Like all festivals, food vendors set up stalls with delicious festival snacks (and of course, what would a festival be without beer?).

It makes sense to use this article to point out the difference between “honoring” and “worshipping” the dead. Many people falsely believe that Obon festivals “worship” the dead. This likely comes from the fact that followers of Taoist Buddhism believe the spirits of dead ancestors revisit the household altars (butsudan) during this time period and people pray at those altars. Prayers are not meant to be offered “to” these spirits, but on behalf of these spirits, whom the living may believe are trapped in some spirit world of suffering.

Obon is actually a celebration based on a Buddhist monk who prayed for his mother to be released from this world of suffering and in the process, recognized her love and selflessness to him. Through his recognition of the sacrifices she made for him, he danced for joy, which became Obon. So Obon is a time to “honor” the love and sacrifice of people, not unlike the American holiday of Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the ideals of America.

The songs and dances of Obon are often based on the daily lives of the people of ancient Japan, filled with movements like hauling in fishing nets, mining for coal, and planting rice. Watching them is like a glimpse into the Japan of old.

We attended this event as the kickoff “photowalk” of our Ekoda Photography Club. It was a great thought at the time, but now having experienced it, I would probably think better of taking a large group to this event in the future. We ended up losing a couple members of our group less than an hour into the event and with the swelling crowd and limited space to stand, it was going to be impossible to find them again. Additionally, it was very difficult to find good spots to take photos; some people who wanted good shots were there at 4:30am to stake out the best locations. This was frustrating for me and I’m sure even more so for less experienced photographers.

Even so, we did have an enjoyable time and got a few memorable pictures and probably many more good memories that we were not able to capture on camera.


Setagaya Firefly Festival

Today we had a chance to go to our first matsuri as residents of Japan: the Setagaya Firefly Festival. It sounded really cool when I found it on the Internet, but in fact, it was a pretty small neighborhood matsuri. The draw of this matsuri was the fireflies, which they brought in netted cages as well as a big darkened tent you could walk through and see their pulsing glow in the darkness. If you rarely or never see fireflies, it was totally cool. Many Tokyo dwellers who can’t get out to the deep countryside probably never see fireflies anymore.

The taiko troupe that performed was very talented and the rain gave pause for them to give the crowd a treat for about 20 minutes as the opening ceremony. Then it was off to sample the delicious festival foods like dango and takoyaki. Jeremy and Ayumi tried some interesting looking candy that was frozen on a block of ice.

We had the pleasure of having many members of Jayne’s family join us, so it was a good chance to hang out and catch up with everyone for the evening. Of course Japanese festivals are plentiful throughout the summer months (there’s one in the park across from our church tomorrow too) so we’ll be enjoying these for at least the next month or so!


Things To Miss About America – Half Moon Bay, California

Jumping on the freeway and heading due west from our home, we can be in the little seaside town of Half Moon Bay in less than an hour. As close as it is, it feels a world apart from the busy urban sprawl of the Bay Area. One cloudless Fall day, I decided on a whim to get in my car and take that short drive to the coast, to enjoy the quaintness of Half Moon Bay perhaps one last time before heading to Japan for a few years.

I certainly was not disappointed by my little diversion for the day. In the few hours I spent in Half Moon Bay walking around, enjoying an abnormally warm November day (Half Moon Bay is famous for it’s fog, which can often last the entire day, even if it’s completely sunny 15 miles inland). Strangers gave me genuine smiles as they walked past me on the street, and a few even struck up conversations and offered advice on scenic places I should photograph. Inviting public benches, donated by members of the community lined the streets of the downtown area, inviting me to stop and relax while enjoying a deli sandwich and the warm sunshine.

Half Moon Bay is as famous for its October pumpkin festival as it is for its fog, and there was plenty of evidence that the festival had recently ended. Pumpkins, some decorated in paint, some carved, and some just, well, naked, sat outside shops and houses alike.

A few miles north of the main part of town, an amazing little house/shop called Nest Gallery is hidden just away from the marina. Nest Gallery is filled with little objects d’art, some collected, some created. And as interesting as the art is, the artists who reside there are even more so. I had a wonderful conversation with one of the artists who used to practice architecture, and he regaled me with stories of the days he was involved in such high profile projects as the iconic Transamerica Pyramid and the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

I feel blessed to have spent so much of my life growing up in California, a dash away from some really incredible places. What Half Moon Bay may lack in size, it more than makes up for in spirit.