Obon Odori: Dancing with the Heavenly Spirits

5 years ago


Illuminating the Tokyo night sky was a full moon. On terra firma, lanterns dangled above dancers celebrating the brief return of their deceased relatives. The dance was and is called Obon odori. Many moons have waned and waxed since childhood but I still love this traditional style of Japanese folk dancing seen at Obon Festivals.

Obon odori took root in Japan in the mid 1500's. It was inspired by a Buddhist disciple who had danced with joy in the streets after seeing a vision of his deceased mother being released from sorrow in the afterlife.  Originally this summer ritual of dancing in the street was a religious practice. Many still approach Obon odori with reverence. However, over the years, Obon for others has become more of a secular festival than a Buddhist religious ceremony. Like any good summer festival, besides the joyous dancing, vendors of cotton candy, superhero masks, goldfish and booths crammed with tchotchkes appear. 

 (Click here for photo credit info.)

Like any good summer festival, besides the joyous dancing, Obon festivals have vendors of cotton candy, superhero masks, goldfish and booths crammed with tchotchkes appear.

For this sapling Ninja Baker, the annual purchase of  goldfish was a high point. Pointing my sticky-with-wisps-of-spun-pink-sugar finger at my prospective pet (“that one”), the seller would scoop up a wiggling flash of orange into a water-filled plastic bag. My dad would hold the acquisition as the denouement of the evening – the Obon odori commenced.  

Typically, dancers of this form of folk dance gather round a yagura scaffolding. A traditional Japanese bandstand of sorts where the taiko drummer (or drummers - depending on the size of the venue) takes center stage. More than passionate art-making, the performers’ arms movements exhibit another-worldly kind of conviction and commitment. To this day, a deep respect reverberates inside as I hear the taiko drummers pound their instruments.

(Click here for photo credit info.)

Decades ago in Tokyo, we traced the dance steps similar to those danced by the spirits we’d invited from the other side.  Glad to report Nenbutsu and Tanko Bushi, the dances of yesteryear, are among the standards still popular today. Nenbutsu is an evocation/invitation to the deceased to join the festivities. Tanko Bushi mirrors the sweat-producing (digging, carrying and pushing) work of mining for coal.

Alongside the standards, however, are new melodies and Obon odori movements. This year a new dance was created to commemorate the Olympics. And a few years back, an Obon odori honoring a manga cartoon character named Doraemon was created.

Click here to see husband, David and me dancing a modern-day Obon Odori.
 They say good marriages have shared hobbies...
I met my darling husband in a West Coast Swing class.

If you love to dance or Jitterbug, take a look at my interview with Tony nominated choreographer, Lynne Taylor-Corbett at Sardi's in NYC.  (It's under the Video tab at NinjaBaking.com)

If interested in attending an Obon festival in Japan, plan for an August visit. Unless you are flying to Tokyo where mostly the Obons are held in July. (Everyone agrees the festival takes place in the 7th month of the year.) Tokyoites prefer to schedule according to the current solar calendar. The rest of the country adheres – for the most part - to the lunar calendar.

Instead of dressing up in light summer kimono and dancing, perhaps you’d prefer to watch YouTube videos and sip on Melon Soda with a scoop of ice cream: Japan's answer to America's Root Beer Float. (Photo below from 2ch Oryourisokuho : "2 ch Cooking Bulletin.")


Whether you choose to drink, dance or do both…

Wishing you the spirits of joy.

The Ninja Baker

© ™Watkinson 2012

The Ninja Baker's Recipes are also available at:

Bob's Red Mill

Wholesome Sweeteners



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