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A Japanese cure for the summertime blues


While getting ready for another humdrum day of work my daze is broken by the shrill of a whistle. I’m unsure of where the noise is coming from for a moment until I realize the commotion is coming from outside, in front of our building along the town’s main street. I look out the window and am surprised by all of the activity going on along the street. There are booths lining the street, games going on at every corner, and a group of local men are carrying a portable shrine, marching to the awkward beat of the whistle. With the myriad of summer festivals that are held in Japan it is easy to lose track of a few of these festivals, but I’m surprised that I didn’t know about our town’s festival until this moment.

As I watch all the comings and goings I smile. Children are trying their best to snag the newest Doreamon doll (a famous cartoon cat) from the toy pond. Women fry up a batch of yaki soba (Fried soba noodles). The men carrying the shrine stumble down the street, probably from a combination of the weight and too much sake. After a few minutes of watching the festivities I acquiesce to my responsibilities, pulling myself away to finish preparing for the day. During my classes it is hard to concentrate hearing all of the fun going on in the background.

When my break arrives I dash outside to check out the festival. Walking along the street I am immediately reminded of where I am, the sights and smells are distinctly Japan. There are fried octopus balls, BBQ squid, and fish on a stick at every turn. I have seen it all before, yet tonight everything seems to stand out a little more. For some reason I am more aware of my surroundings, rather than just going about my daily routine.

Because I am enjoying the festive atmosphere so much I decide to get a beer. As the first sip of cold, foamy beer seeps into my bloodstream I head for the music and dancing that has just begun. Fortunately, I have arrived just in time to see the beginning of obon dancing. Obon dancing is a dance done during obon season, August, in remembrance of one’s ancestors. People, most wearing brightly colored yukatas (traditional Japanese summer wear), move around in a big circle repeating the same dance motions. Each song has a specific dance to accompany it. The motions are precise and purposeful, involving one’s hand, arms, and legs. Depending on the song one might stay in the same place, or move around the circle in slow defined motions. If done correctly it looks graceful, although not by me. At the far end of the circle on an elevated stage are four Japanese women exquisitely dressed who are adroitly demonstrating the correct movements and timing for the rest of the crowd to follow. When the entire group of people is in sync it is a harmonious scene that makes me feel like I have been transported to a different time and place. It is peaceful and reminds me of the good that can be found in every part of the world. 

In the middle of the circle are the musicians, which the dancers rotate around. Each town has a different setup for obon. For our festival Taiko drummers are accompanying the recorded music coming from the large speakers. Taiko drums are a traditional Japanese instrument. They are large wooden drums made of bamboo and covered by leather at both ends. Thick wooden sticks are used to play the instrument. The sound produced is a deep bone rattling, “BOOM !” The rhythmatic beating grabs my attention and the intensity of the drumming rocks my whole body. The musicians, some of whom are women, put their entire energy and effort into the drums. Their passion for their skill can be seen in the sweat dripping from their brow. The exact motions and measured beats are engaging. It is art in motion. After a few moments I am lost in the music and the dancing going on all around me.

These feelings of awe and wonder overwhelm me. I am completely absorbed in the moment. An incredible surge of energy envelops me. My eyes begin to well up. This is what living abroad and experiencing another culture is all about, feeling a connection with a foreign country and the people in that foreign land. I don’t want this moment to end. After living in Japan for almost three years life here is routine. Most things are just part of day to day living. It is a sublime feeling to be reminded of all the joys that come with living in a distant land.

I keep telling myself one more song, one more song. Finally, I pull myself away and back to work with only a few minutes to spare. Walking up the hard cement stairs I smile knowing how lucky I am to be living in another place and immersed in another culture.

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