11 August, 2017
Last month was Obon, an important holiday period in Japan. This is the time of year when most Japanese people travel back to their hometowns to gather with their families and visit the graves of their ancestors, but for us foreigners it means a week off! My coworkers and I had an opportunity to go on a trip to Shikoku, one of the smaller islands that make up Japan. I had been in Japan for over 8 months at this point, but had never left Honshu island, so I was excited to see another part of Japan. When I found out that the trip would be free, I was sold.
What happened was this: my boss’ father’s company had booked a bus trip to Shikoku, but there were extra seats because some of the company members canceled, so they invited us English teachers to join. The idea of being on a bus with all of my coworkers and a bunch of Japanese businessmen, plus my boss and her parents, was a little odd, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up! In the past year of travel and living in Japan, I’ve tried to say yes to as many new experiences as possible, and I’ve found that in doing this I’ve had adventures I could not possibly have dreamed of, so I figured this would work out pretty well. And it did.
The first day was an early one, and we all met up at Kanazawa Station to board the bus, our chariot for the next three days. We pulled out of the station at 6:40 for what would end up being over a 10 hour journey, including plenty of stops. I have pretty good bus stamina, and enjoyed talking to my coworkers, listening to music and podcasts, and staring out the window, but even I got a little crazy by the end! Japanese buses are pretty comfortable, and the scenery was lovely, especially once we left Honshu island, crossing a massive suspension bridge with swirling whirlpools in the sea below and over to Shikoku island. Once on Shikoku, the scenery got more interesting, and overall a lot more lush and tropical, with idyllic terraced rice fields and old houses and twisting, aquamarine rivers rushing through tangled forests. Like I said, we made a lot of stops. Every hour or two we stopped at a rest stop, which were usually well-equipped with clean bathrooms, tons of vending machines, and soft-serve ice cream in refreshing flavors like apricot. So Japanese! Lunch that day was a beautiful bento box with tons of tiny delicacies to try.
The highlight and purpose of this bus trip was to visit two famous dance festivals in Shikoku. All summer long in Japan, festivals big and small are held all over the country, at schools, parks, squares, and in the streets. Traditional dancing is always a big part of these festivals, particularly the Bon festivals held in August. The first evening of our trip we stopped in Kochi, home of the Yosakoi festival that has been held annually since 1954. Yosakoi is a fascinating dance style, combining traditional dance with modern music and involving floats and huge teams of dancers in coordinating costumes with props such as fans, flags, lanterns, and naruko, traditional wooden clappers that are a requirement of the festival competition.
We eagerly tumbled off the bus around 17:00, and followed the crowds of people and sounds of music to a covered shopping arcade on the festival route. The minute we saw the yosakoi dancers, I was awestruck. The color, the movement, the energy! Pure joy radiated across each of their faces, and you could tell they were truly feeling this moment and having the time of their lives. I’ve always loved watching performance, and seeing these passionate performers make magic in front of me brought tears to my eyes. I also loved the various interpretations of the dance through the costumes, music choice, and choreography. Some teams had more traditional costumes, and some were more out-there, but all were equally committed to the dance.
Dinner that night was a traditional Japanese meal on low tables with so many dishes: edamame, sashimi, yakitori (meat skewers), croquette (kind of like breaded and fried mashed potato), tempura, vegetables. . . it went on and on. I was seated with my boss’ parents and we got along well even with my poor Japanese. They were impressed that my friends and I like sake, which was drunk in pretty sizable quantities that night.
After dinner, there was still a bit of time before the bus left for the hotel, and we didn’t have to go far to find more Yosakoi dancers. It was dark now, and the festival had taken on more of a party atmosphere, and were invited to join the dance! We were given naruko clappers and followed along. It was so much fun, and there was such happiness in the streets that night. The dancers let us keep the naruko as a souvenir, and when I see them in my apartment they are such a happy reminder of that time when I danced in a festival in Kochi.
It was another hour on the bus to our hotel, and needless to say everyone slept well that night! Next time, day two: more time on the bus, crossing an old vine bridge, visiting an Edo-era village, and another spectacular dance festival.