Square (or circle) dancing, Japan-style

Last weekend I attended Guji Odori, an old-fashioned Japanese style dance party. This particular festival/party features dances originating from the Gifu prefecture of Japan. Gifu prefecture is located West of the Tokyo area. Throughout the summer months, Gifu prefecture holds a number of dance festivals for people to take part in these traditional shindigs. For those of us either unwilling or incapable of heading to Gifu for the sake of a festival, however, there is Guji Odori. This took place over the course of a weekend about a 5 minute walk from Gaienmae station in Aoyama.

This is one of those events you can literally let your ears lead the way to. The drums and music could be heard from the station exit, and I think many people who showed up may have just wandered to the area out of curiosity. This is the entrance gate – admission was free. Food and beer was available within the confines of the dance area, and many of the shops on the street had munchy-type food (gyoza, soba, shumai, etc.) available for purchase.

Many of the people attending the event came dressed in what might be described as the “summer variation” of the kimono.  This is called a yukata.  It’s easier to wear and lighter than the many-layered and formal kimono. The heat was intense this afternoon, and everyone was given a fan to use. When not in use, most people stuck them in the bow around the waist (called an obi). You can also just see some of the traditional wooden sandals worn by most everyone at the event. Both men and women wear the sandals and the yukata – the designs typically differ based on sex, but the style remains much the same.

All around the event area are lanterns like these. You can see a larger, similar lantern in the first picture. These lanterns spanned the entire event area – from all four corners of the dance arena to the box where the musicians sat in the middle.

This is the main event square and the musicians for the festival. On the other side of the hut, a sign is displayed to tell the dancers which dance is currently being performed. Just as the current dance ends, the sign for the next dance is displayed. The primary music at this event consisted of a drum, a singer, a shamisen, and a larger flute-recorder like instrument. The dancers also clapped where applicable in the dance, and their feet also provided a sense of rhythm. Simple, but goosebump-raising to watch.

The participants for this event were a varied group. As mentioned earlier, many attended wearing yukata, but a wide number of folks showed up in every day clothing – jeans and t-shirts, shorts and sneakers…I saw a girl wearing a Pikachu hat near the center of the circle, and even one salaryman still wearing his suit and tie. These dances all have some kind of historical significance – they’re very repetitive and easy to catch on to. They mimic everyday life in Gifu prefecture (OLD everyday life, I should point out). Dances depict simple aspects of existence like a man riding a horse, a girl folding the sleeves of her kimono to play, and a farmer plowing a field. The dances featured simple steps and clapping motions and were performed while moving slowly in a circle around the box the musicians sat in.

These dances are simple and anyone who wanted to participate was welcome to. There were very few foreigners present at this event and even fewer chose to join in the dance, but anyone could do it. Just watching for a few minutes to get the basic step in place should be enough for even the least skilled dancer out there.

While this event took place over the course of a weekend in Tokyo, these kinds of festivals continue throughout the summer months in Gifu prefecture. The internet is a great place to search if you’re interested in attending one of these events – rumor has it there are secret dance parties for those people “in the know”. I’m putting together a video about this at the moment and hope to have it up on YouTube shortly! Hope you enjoyed the photos!

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One Response to Square (or circle) dancing, Japan-style

  1. Gram says:

    Hi Lish
    Did you get in the mood to join them? Maybe next time, huh?
    Nice pictures. It must of been very picturous if that is a word……. to see the women in traditional dress. Love you, Gram

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