Read Your Indulgence

Destinations: Japan // Dead Can Dance – Obon

May 8, 2017

by Dane Steele Green

Rule #1 with geta, the traditional wooden sandals of Japan: lay around the house and wear them for a day to break them in before you do anything in them, be it walking, running, or most of all, dancing.

Yes, the Japanese dance in wooden shoes. Well, in fact. And, along with warm-weather kimono called a yukata, geta is derigueur fashion for a three-day summertime festival known as Obon, a time when the veil between worlds thins and the spirits of the dearly departed swoop in for a good party.

Ancestors are a big deal in Pacific Asia, and every country there has some sort of annual festival dedicated to them. In this way, the Obon reflects Halloween in its oldest sense. Both are song-and-dance celebrations of the dead, both have spirit lamps (obon-iri in Japan, jack-o-lanterns in the West), both involve leaving out food for the ancestors (segaki in Japan, candy in the West), both mark particular times of the year (the beginning of the harvest season in Japan, the end of the harvest season in the West), and both are three days (for the ancient Celts, Halloween had a “beginning,” a “during,” and an “end”).

Done around a mobile shrine called a yagura, in which are singers and musicians keeping everybody going. Each song has its own dance unique to the region; many of the gestures mimic everyday tasks back from back in the day, like spreading seeds and tying a horse to a post. If you are really lucky, you can find translations for the songs, which are BAWDY. Not to toss out spoilers, but the Japanese got around…

And once you are there, or anywhere Obon is celebrated, get ready to kick up your heels in some of the most “Japanese” of Japanese folk songs and dances, the later being called Bon Odori. Because Japan’s cultural timepiece is set to lunar, solar, as well as Gregorian calendars, Obon season can vary from region to region. The most famous Obon is in the town of Gujo-shi in northwestern Gifu Prefecture, deep in the mountains of the middle of the country, and it falls in August. Easily reached by train or bus, some planning is still necessary since Gujo-shi, whose remoteness acts to keep a lot of traditions alive and free from outside influence, is the very definition of a road trip.

But once you are there, set yourself up in a ryokan (a traditional inn), treat yourself to an onzen (hot spring) and gird your liver (the sake flows like lemonade!). And give yourself a day to get used to those geta. Steele Luxury Travel can plan your entire trip to experience Obon in Japan. Visit us at