August 14 is a special day for the Musashi district of Totsukawa Village, the day for an Important Intangible Folk Culture Asset and centuries-old tradition that started in the Heian Period: the Musashi Obon dance.
There are currently about 70 people living in the Musashi district of Totsukawa Village, and the population is steadily aging. Though the village is usually very quiet and deserted, on August 14 the place suddenly comes alive thanks to the children who have come back to visit, and tourists who participate in the dance.
The Obon dance is tradition all over the country, and many places have their own historical renditions of it. What makes this one so special? We asked Tadakazu Hirase, who’s lived in the Musashi district for almost the entirety of his 80 years, except one year while he was a student. As a self-proclaimed “Matsuri man”, who is also a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the Musashi Dance, he told us many things that surprised us.
The first thing was the number of songs they play during the Obon dance.
“The Musashi district’s Obon dance has 34 songs. Some people say it’s ridiculous, but some of the dances are fun to watch, like the one that’s set up like a novel where a guy is trying to win over a girl.”
Thirty-four songs in an Obon dance! At about five minutes per song, with a little bit of rest in between, it would take about three hours to go through all of them. Not to mention, you’d have to remember all the moves and lyrics. Mr. Hirase laughed.
“I’m the chairman of the Preservation Committee, but I still don’t know all the lyrics to every dance!”
The second surprising thing about the Musashi District’s Obon dance was about the final dance, the “Dai-Odori”.
“It goes for as long as an hour and fifteen minutes, and it’s the same dance the whole time. I still remember how I would nod off during the Dai-Odori when I was in elementary school because it was so long.”
So after dancing 34 songs, they also do an hour and a quarter-long Dai-Odori...just the thought of it is overwhelming.
However, the Dai-Odori has recently been shortened to just 15 or 20 minutes, but the reason why was something else that surprised us.
“When the Expo ‘70 world fair was held in Osaka, they asked us to do a demonstration of Totsukawa’s Obon Dance, but they wanted us to cut it down to 20 or 30 minutes. Since then we’ve been doing the short version.”
It’s hard to imagine that someone could request that a centuries-old traditional dance be cut short, but we have to think that even they must not have expected that the short version would end up being used every year.
When we asked Mr. Hirase if anyone had requested the long version be reinstated, he let out a great laugh.
“It’s not like people can’t dance it, but even if the song changes, it’s still the same dance, so it might bore people eventually. Besides, the preservation committee has 26 people in it but the average age of all of our members is about 65, so even if they asked us to do it we’d be exhausted. We just don’t want to do it! (laughs)”
Of course, tourists are welcome to come watch the dance, take videos and photos, or even participate.
They aren’t particular about the details of the dance, so you can be true to how you feel in the moment, and the other dancers are all open to new dance styles. It sounds like a more Latin tradition than Japanese, especially since in the past, the dance used to be done throughout the night, with breaks in between. The idea of dancing through the hot summer night reminded us of Brazil’s Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
But it doesn’t matter if the dance has been shortened or if the festival doesn’t last through the night anymore, because the Obon Dance has very deep roots in this place.
“Every year we put up the tower in the schoolyard of the former Musashi Elementary School. One time, a long time ago, somebody who lived near the elementary school passed away on August 13, and we thought it would be rude to hold a festival through the night, so we canceled it for the first time ever. But then a man from that household scolded us for canceling, saying ‘Why did you do that?’ So we thought about it and decided to do it after all, and afterwards the man thanked us saying, “I’m glad you did it. This is heaven.”
It’s probably hard to find a festival with such a long and unique history, and which is so beloved by the locals. There are even some people who live outside of Totsukawa Village who love the festival. For example, Shin Nakagawa, professor of Arts and Culture at Osaka City University, has been bringing between 20 and 30 students to the festival every year for about 40 years.
Not only that, but, after graduating from the university, one of those students contacted the Preservation Committee asking to teach them the dance, and even formed a Musashi Dance Club in Osaka, which now boasts 16 members.
“The village’s population is steadily decreasing, and I really think it would be a terrible shame if this tradition ended. I would hate for a dance that we’ve inherited from our ancestors to become obsolete while I’m the president of the Committee,” said Mr. Hirase. He said he was so happy when the club in Osaka formed that he dubbed them the “Second Musashi Dance Preservation Club.”
If you want to see and participate in this Obon Dance, we highly recommend you stay at Ōmori no Sato. It’s a boarding facility located directly across from the former Musashi Elementary School where the festival is held. The building is over 100 years old and used to be a boarding house for teachers at the school, and it’s been fully renovated. It’s run by locals from the Musashi District, including Mr. Hirase, who had a hand in its foundation.
“It was neglected for several decades and was just kind of falling apart, so I thought maybe we could use it for a community center or something. Then one of my friends who works for the prefectural office asked me if I wanted to make it into a lodging facility.”
So Mr. Hirase spoke with the residents of the Musashi District, and six families living near the building agreed to operate the facility together. Then he started a revitalization council and applied for assistance from the national government. When the work got under way, Mr. Hirase’s friend at the prefectural office brought an American Japanoligist named Alex Kerr, who had been working to restore old Japanese buildings all around Japan. Under the guidance of Kerr, Mr. Hirase and his committee completely overhauled the building, and in 2014 Ōmori no Sato opened for business.
The building is a modern Japanese style with a refined feel to it. It’s made almost entirely of Totsukawa lumber, and its spacious and comfortable lodgings are so popular with travelers that there is no vacancy for as many as 280 days out of the year. Mr. Hirase says he has no regrets because it remains profitable.
“Lately when there are no guests, the neighbors say that it feels a bit lonely and dark. I’m glad I did it!”
We definitely recommend that you stay here when you come for the Obon Dance, because you’ll get the full experience of the festival, see it from the early preparations to the end of the last dance. Even if the place is full on the day of the festival, don’t worry. The boarding house is run by locals; if you ask, they’ll be happy to show you the dance or help you get involved. Don’t miss experiencing the heart and soul of the Musashi District, and give the Obon dance a try. Who knows? You might even want to come back!