Do you ever feel your heart beating fast when you hear the sound of a musical instrument? For me, I am thrilled whenever I hear the sound of Eisa, the traditional Japanese drums and dancing from my hometown in Okinawa.
Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, is a chain of subtropical islands visited by many tourists from both Japan and overseas. There is a unique culture on my Okinawan islands where you can hear the sound of Eisa practice along with the sanshin (three-stringed instrument) music everywhere, practised every night when it comes close to celebrating the yearly Bon Festival.
Bon festival is an annual Japanese holiday, an event for commemorating one’s ancestors. It is believed that their spirits return to this world to visit their families during the Bon Festival each year. The Obon is generally observed for four days from 13th August, but the period and customs vary depending on the region. In Okinawa, the Bon Festival is observed three days from 13th July using the lunar calendar that was formerly used - hence the dates vary depending on the year. This year, it was held from 31st August to 2nd September.
Each family prepares heaps of food and celebrates the arrival of their ancestral spirits with all the relatives gathered together. On the final night, after dinner, souvenirs are given to our ancestors and it is time to start the parade, called Michijune. Our ancestral spirits are then sent on their way to return to the spirit world by beating drums loudly and marching through the neighbourhood streets throughout the night. All the parades will then gather in a specific plaza and enjoy Eisa dancing group competitions.
Eisa, one of the Bon dances, comprises of a team flag bearer, folk singers playing the sanshin, Eisa drum dancers, hands dancers, and Chondara clowns. The role of Chondara clowns, with peculiar makeup, is to pump up the spectators by comical dancing and inviting everyone to clap along. They also act as the leader of the Eisa groups keeping the formation of the performance in order and supporting the group members.
Eisa dancers use three types of drums, the odaiko (a large barrel drum), the shimedaiko (a medium-sized drum), and the paranku (a small hand-held drum).
In each region of Okinawa the youth associations have many Eisa organizations with each dance style being passed down through the generations.
1. Eibo is warm, friendly and a leader type. As he gets excited about Eisa, you can hear him shout, "Yeah, sa, sa!" He was a former baseball player and is now a fan of Hiroshima Carps.
2. Little Sa likes to help others, but sometimes she acts a little goofy. You will see Little Sa carrying band-aids as another Chondara, called Takun, often gets into a lot of fights.
3. Sanaji seems to come out of nowhere and is ready to party when the Eisa Festival begins.
When he is given Shima, Okinawa traditional alcohol, he is in 7th heaven!
OKINAWA EISA MATSURI
The Eisa season is from June to September, when you can see many Eisa performances at Bon Festivals and summer festivals held throughout Okinawa.
The most exciting Eisa events of the year are the Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri (The All-Okinawa Eisa Festival) and Ichiman-nin Eisa Odoritai (The 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade). With mind-blowing performances members from each youth association dance their community's distinct Eisa with pride and a lot of soul.
Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri (The All-Okinawa Eisa Festival):
The All-Okinawa Eisa Festival is held on the first weekend after the lunar-calendar Bon Festival every year in Okinawa City. It is one of the largest festivals in Okinawa. Youth groups selected from all over the prefecture gather together to perform Eisa. Local youth groups rehearse over and over from early summer and share the spirit of the island regardless of their age on the day of the festival. The finale truly paints the Okinawan summer with "Kachashi " folk dance and fireworks.
Ichiman-nin Eisa Odoritai (The 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade):
"10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade" is an annual summer event held on Kokusai Street, Naha. Eisa is performed by ordinary participants featuring fun and creative Eisa performances with traditional young dancers filling Kokusai Street. It is also possible to participate on the day of the event as a member of the "Niwaka Eisa Dance Group" (entry fee is 1,500 yen).
Pictures from: https://ichimannin-eisa.okinawa
When I was young, I used to dance Eisa at my elementary school’s sports festivals and our local festivals. Even now, when I hear the sound of Eisa, the uplifting feeling of the festival brings back memories of practicing Eisa in summer at dusk, mums helping to dress children in costumes, dads preparing for the festival, neighbourhoods filled with Eisa performers for Michijune, the lively parks crowded with many stalls and people, the Bon dancers in yukata around the yagura stage, and all the smiles from young children to the elderly during festival.
Nowadays Eisa has become a popular traditional performing art that can be seen at various times throughout the year, such as annual events other than Obon, school sports festivals and weddings. If you miss the Eisa events and festivals, you will still have the chance to experience Eisa at Okinawan theme parks, such as Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura.
Endless blue sky, tropical flowers blooming under the shiny sun and sweet smell of the southern wind. Okinawa, where the unique Ryukyu Kingdom florished from the olden times. Vibrant traditional artifacts and culture are still there. Make your own craft item in Traditional Crafts Village, where you will be welcomed by many old local houses with beautiful red roof tiles, explore Gyokusendo, a stunningly beautiful limestone cave grown on a coral reef, and enjoy heroic Eisa dance and Habu vs Mongoose Show. Okinawa World, where you can experience Ryukyu time now. Enjoy your exceptional Okinawa here.
In the old days, Okinawa was a kingdom known as Ryukyu Kingdom, rich with its original yet unique cultures. Comes from the name, Ryukyu Mura is a theme park about Okinawa traditions located in the central part of Okinawa main island.
Walking to the entrance, you will be welcomed with Okinawa traditional houses providing variety of activities, from coral picture frame making and shisa painting to stone accessories making. Have a walk between the traditional old houses of Okinawa and enjoy the calming yet relaxing greenery! If the time comes (every day on 10:00 and 16:00), you can see Ryukyu Mura attraction performing Okinawan arts, from Shisha performance, Eisa (dynamic dance with drums) performances, to Okinawan folk songs and Okinawan traditional dance.
Therefore please don’t miss the liveliness and spirit of Eisa when you visit Okinawa. You will be touched by the sounds of the large barrel drums and the dynamic dance performances.
Come to Okinawa and enjoy 'My Japan' .....!!
Written by Chihiro Matsumoto, International Group Consultant Saizen Tours
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