A year ago, I ended up in of Japan’s random small towns deep in the mountains, rooted in centuries of history — as one does. This town is called Gujo-Hachiman. Gujo is the historical name of the area in modern day Gifu Prefecture. The historical town has a reputation that dwarfs its modest size. Mention Gujo-Hachiman and Japanese can usually list at least three pieces of trivia: food replicas, pristine waterways, and the Gujo Odori.
Odori and traditional summer dances in Japan
Odori is the word for traditional dances held throughout Japan, mostly in the summer around Obon, a 3-day festival honouring the dead. In addition to grave sweeping and visiting household altars, every region has different customs.
The places with the most famous songs include the Hokkaido folk-song known as “Sōran Bushi“, the “Tokyo Ondo” originating from the current capital, the “Kawachi ondo” of Kansai, the”Ohara Bushi” of Kagoshima,”Gōshū Ondo” is a folk song from Shiga Prefecture.
The two most famous dances are the Gujo Odori for its all-night dancing and the Awa Odori in Tokushima, Shikoku.
The origins of every dance are as numerous as the mountains tracing from Kyushu in the south up to Hokkaido. Dance traditions can also include rice planting, harvest celebrations, and rain dances. Costumes, music, and movements can be inspired by and incorporated from centres of culture, such as Kyoto.
The Bon dance tradition is said to have traced to the Muromachi period and dancers usually surround a yagura, a high wooden scaffold or platform. The Gujo Odori is said to have begun in the Tokugawa (Edo) period about 400 years ago as a festival for social cohesion (to rally the townspeople).
The communal dances take place in the public streets of the historic town, Gujo Hachiman. The steps to the 8 different dances are designed for people to slip in and out with ease.
Gujo Hachiman’s Odori
Gujo Hachiman as a town was founded by Endo Morikazu in during the Warring States Period prior to the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last in Japan. With his establishment of the Gujo castle, a town below quickly grew at the confluence of two major rivers: the Nagara, the Yoshida, as well as 8 other minor rivers.
Our first stop on our brief weekend stay was the cultural centre, the Hakurankan Museum, where the guides hold demonstrations of the dance steps. The presentations in Japanese explain the history behind the Odori, as well as the story each dance tells, giving significance to every gesture. The demonstration comes at the end and everyone is invited to try (which I would recommend because the mimicking makes the steps easy to pick up even with the language barrier).
The first two dances to learn are the Kawasaki dance and the Haru Koma. One is a harvest dance and the second is in honour of the horse, for which Gujo was historically famous. In total, there are 8 dances.
The dance called Yacchiku ヤッチク is about a historical Gujo uprising against the Gujo-han, district Lord, during the Edo Period. The peasants took a petition to Edo (modern day Tokyo) to protest the unfair tax system and won (a precedent during the Tokugawa shogunate).
Dancers can join at any point in the dancing. Usually, the same dance lasts at least 15 minutes, so a series of 8 or so steps are repeated. You just slide into an open spot and follow everyone else.
The key for dancing is to get used to the geta stilted shoes. Shift your weight onto one leg, tap with the toe for your other. Once you get used to balancing, it’s pretty straight forward!
Even though most people there will have traditional Japanese dress, no-one minds whatever you wear. The geta shoes are the most important because they’re essential to the beat and you need the stilts to knock against the ground. For people staying overnight at a ryokan, most local ones will offer geta and yukata (Japanese summer robes) for rental.
We started at one end of the street and our local guide wanted to take us to the yagura stage in the middle of the dancing, so she led us right through all the dancing! The dancing is always lined up on both sides of the street and dancers shift in a clock-wise direction through the town. As such, a through-area is always open for crowd-control. Many people also slip into the open stores or seating areas for a break as well, since the local shop owners are also part of the festivities. Just look for areas with seats and people milling around if you get tired.
In July and August, look out for the white hanging lanterns from traditionally tiled roofs and renovated buildings alike. On one side is the crest of Gujo Hachiman, and on the other is a cartoon character with the traditional yukata and stilted geta. They reflect the active community investment in the two-month long celebrations.
The dance dates have official names, such as a dance for Koyo, for women, for a Jizo, for Kanon, for the women. For 4 nights in the middle of August, there is all-night dancing from 8pm until 5am.
The locations are in different parts of the town, which isn’t a managable walking size. Some spots include the Otemachi, another at Shita-Hiyoshi, and another night at Honmachi. Visit the Gujo Hachiman Kinenkan Tourist Information Centre for a schedule.
A practical souvenir would be a handmade pair of geta shoes at a local shop. Unlike other souvenir shops in more popular travel destinations, the shoe shops here serve locals who come for repairs or new styles annually. At the back, you will find the elderly masters replacing the cloth straps as they chat with customers they’ve watched grow up through the decades.
Local History and Culture
In addition to its odori, Gujo’s contained size and rich history charmed me. The town’s natural resources gave rise to many other famous exports. Gujo’s dying was famous throughout Edo, but now there is only one traditional master left. I personally just enjoyed strolling through the quiet canal streets as well as the lively summer hotspots around the river.
The waterways are still the lifeblood of the town, flowing through the community-tended waterways. Open gutters are carefully tended and the canals are clean enough to leave fresh fruits and vegetables for traditional cooling, washing, and drinking from designated springs.
The crystaline water also manifests in the light local tofu and sake as well. Needless to say, the locals are also enjoy their bountiful fish. The best known is the ayu, a small fish that is found at street stalls with entire skewers and set dinners in traditional restaurants. Look out for the fishermen standing in knee-deep river rapids, patiently handling the poles being dragged through the currents. They begin early in the morning and some persist into the fierce midday heat.
Needless to say, I loved the small restaurants and cafes. I rushed into one with another blogging friend just before hopping back on the train back to Tokyo.
Odori dance inforamation
This last part is logistical information for people who want to visit.
Key Odori Dance Dates: Gujo Hachiman’s Odori dance schedule (English)
Locations: Various places throughout the town, so check the schedule and visit the information centre!
|Opening:||1st or 2nd July weekend|
|July||Weekends, some specific weekdays|
4 days of all-night dancing
|Closing||1st September weekend|
Transit to Gujo Hachiman (Google Maps is accurate for trains!)
Hope you get to experience this for yourself one summer! Check out more photos of Gujo Hachiman‘s town.