Tottori Shan-Shan Festival
Photography by Thaddeus Pope
Obon, or simply Bon, is a Japanese custom of paying honour to the spirits of one’s ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. Now considered to be the second most significant holiday after New Year’s, this Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into an important family reunion holiday. During Obon, celebrants return to ancestral sites to tend to their graves in anticipation of a visit from the spirits of their ancestors, who are believed to pay visits to household altars, and participate in lively regional festivals with their own unique style of dance.1The household altars are known as butsudan, a common feature in many Japanese homes.
Obon is one of only a small number of events in Japan that are recognised by the government as national holidays. In a country where paid holidays are still considered a rare luxury, Obon is a precious and highly anticipated occasion, so much so that most companies go on holiday during this time, leaving the hard-working Japanese free to shed their inhibitions and enjoy themselves with their friends and family.
The Bon Dance
Celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years, the custom traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-odori, or ‘bon dance’, which is typically celebrated around the 15 August. Bon-odori was originally a Nenbutsu folk dance performed to welcome the spirits of the dead.2Nembutsu is the Japanese term, which means to think intently about or contemplate the Buddha by repeating the Buddha’s name. The modern manner of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region, each of which has its own local dance and style of music. The music may consist of songs pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon or to local min’yō folk songs, and some dances involve different kinds of props, such as fans. In the beloved Tottori Shan-Shan festival, umbrellas are used.3Min’yō is a genre of traditional Japanese music; i.e., a folk song. Each area of Japan boasts its own unique version and style of their min’yō.
A typical Bon dance begins when participants form a circle around a high wooden scaffold, called a yagura, constructed especially for the festival. The yagura usually also serves as the bandstand for the Obon festival musicians and singers. Some dances, however – such as the dance performed at the Tottori Shan-Shan festival – simply proceed in a procession along the town streets. The dance of a particular region may also depict the area’s history and specialisation.
The Bon dance tradition is said to have started in the latter years of the Muromachi period (1336–1573) as a form of public entertainment. Over time the ways in which Bon-odori is practiced may have evolved; however, the joyous and spiritually uplifting dance is still much-cherished public entertainment that is inseparably associated with the summer.
The Tottori Shan-Shan Festival
Though various bon dances take place throughout Japan, the dance performed at the Tottori Shan-Shan Festival can be categorised as kasa-odori, a dance with paper umbrellas, and te-odori, a ‘hand dance’.
Tottori Prefecture is in the western Chugoku region of the main Japanese island, Honshu. It is the least-populous prefecture of Japan, with 570,569 residents (as of 2016), and spans a geographic area of 3,507 sq km (1,354 sq mi). The prefecture is heavily agricultural, and its products are shipped to the major cities of Japan. Tottori Prefecture, together with Shimane Prefecture, is known as the Sanin region, meaning ‘the shady side of the mountains’, because a mountain range separates these two prefectures from Hiroshima and Okayama, resulting in significantly wetter weather than further south. From such weather conditions arose the legend that inspired the yearly festival.
According to a legend from the Edo period (1603–1867), when the town of Kokufu (located to the east of modern-day Tottori City) was suffering from a particularly devastating drought, an elder named Gorosaku took to dancing with an umbrella as an entreaty to the village god to deliver rain. Gorosaku continued to dance with the umbrella until he died, at which point the drought ended.
These days the energetic and impassioned dance is performed with ornamented paper umbrellas – a homage to the umbrella dance performed by Gorosaku. The dance represents the beautiful but gallant local culture of Tottori, a typically quiet prefecture that comes alive for this event. The music played during the Bon dance is not limited to Obon music and min’yō, however: some modern enka hits and children’s tunes, written to the beat of the ondo, are also used during dances in the Obon season.4Enka is a popular Japanese music genre that resembles traditional Japanese music stylistically. Modern enka, however, is a relatively recent musical form that adopts a more traditional musical style in its vocalism than ryūkōka music, which was popular during the prewar years.5An ondo usually refers to a kind of song with a distinct, swung 2/2 rhythm. This ‘swing’ can be referred to as ukare in Japanese. Ondo is a term used in older Japanese genres but is still used today when referring to songs written in this swinging style.
Held from 13 to 15 of August every year, the Tottori Shan-Shan festival is the region’s biggest annual event. Indeed, such is the popularity that in 2014, the event’s 50th anniversary, it was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest umbrella dance in history.
The highlight of the festival is an umbrella dance known locally as Issei Kasa Odori, during which as many as 4,000 people parade around the city while performing elaborate and carefully choreographed dances with decorative colourful umbrellas in hand. These handmade umbrellas consist of a bamboo frame with washi paper stretched across it. The material is painted red and blue, and the frames are decorated with the bells and strips of silver and gold strips of paper. Participants begin rehearsal months ahead of the festival, familiarising themselves with the steps, the music, and the movements with the umbrellas. The performance itself lasts up to two hours.
The name ‘shan-shan’ is actually onomatopoeia, representing both the sound of a ringing bell and of boiling water, something one might hear at one of Tottori’s many hot springs. And while water supplies in the modern era are provided by technology and sophisticated infrastructure, descendants who have inherited this tradition continue to commemorate the spirits of their ancestors – and the hardships they faced – by putting on this spectacular festival. The sight of a kaleidoscope of vivid, swirling colours and the chorus of thousands of jingling bells makes this singular event a must-see.
A Pride in Ritual, the Pride of the City
Obon-odori festivals are the pride of both their host cities and their residents, and the Tottori Shan-Shan Festival is no exception. One case in point is that even the drainage covers in the streets of Tottori are decorated with images depicting shan-shan umbrellas. In addition, the participants, who come from all walks of life, place such value in their local events that many are seen in tears at the closing ceremony, distraught they will have to wait another year for the next ritual dance. Their commitment, it must be noted, is remarkable: the elaborate dance requires months of practice for just one night of celebration.
As such festivals become more popular, they’re also becoming more modern. Although Bon dancing has a 500-year history and is regarded as a symbol of traditional Japanese culture, the shan-shan festival in Tottori exemplifies how Bon-Odori has evolved to remain relevant to younger Japanese – and become more inclusive as Japan accepts more foreign workers and tourists. For Japan, preserving its cultural history means more than strict adherence to tradition. It also means opening up its cultural treasures to the greater world.
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Based in Japan, Thaddeus Pope is a photographer, videographer and web/print designer with a passion for human-centred visual storytelling. He is available for assignments in Japan and around the world.
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- 1The household altars are known as butsudan, a common feature in many Japanese homes.
- 2Nembutsu is the Japanese term, which means to think intently about or contemplate the Buddha by repeating the Buddha’s name.
- 3Min’yō is a genre of traditional Japanese music; i.e., a folk song. Each area of Japan boasts its own unique version and style of their min’yō.
- 4Enka is a popular Japanese music genre that resembles traditional Japanese music stylistically. Modern enka, however, is a relatively recent musical form that adopts a more traditional musical style in its vocalism than ryūkōka music, which was popular during the prewar years.
- 5An ondo usually refers to a kind of song with a distinct, swung 2/2 rhythm. This ‘swing’ can be referred to as ukare in Japanese. Ondo is a term used in older Japanese genres but is still used today when referring to songs written in this swinging style.