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Saturday, Aug. 20, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Entertaining spirits during Bon festival


The car ferries to Shiraishi Island are all full. Family compacts drive off and park wherever they can, turning every spare piece of ground into a parking space. Even the small park near the port has added "ing lot" to its name. There are groups of people walking around who I've never seen before.

News photo
Islanders perform the Shiraishi Dance on the beach during Bon.

The fishing boats are full of families out fishing for the day, the mothers shielding themselves with white parasols. Mr. Harada's cargo ship, the Kaisei Maru, is docked out in front of its home port of Shiraishi, and the tanker Bizen Maru has returned home too. The priest and his son, dressed in full Buddhist robes, are driving around the island from appointment to appointment. "Chochin" lanterns are set outside of houses, and the island is abuzz with activity.

It's Bon, the "festival of the dead," when Japanese people make the pilgrimage back to their hometowns to pay homage to their ancestors. And that means all family members and relatives come back, even the dead ones. But no digging is required -- the spirits come back on their own, guided to their homes by lanterns the family sets on the porch.

Our island population more than doubles with the returning relatives. There are so many people, they say the island sinks under the weight. If you're the one receiving family members from far away, it's a very busy time of year. Even I am busy at this time of year, although I have no ancestors here. This is because the landlord of my house still returns every year to continue the traditions of performing the ancestral rites and visiting the graves of his relatives, and then in the evening sets off fireworks in front of the house. Although I like my landlord and his family very much, my favorite guests are the returning spirits, because they don't bring their cars, they don't need clean futons and they're satisfied with a simple diet of an offering of fruit and sake.

When the relatives come back, they also participate in the Shiraishi Odori, a Bon dance held in the memory of island ancestors. This dance has been performed for over 800 years and is designated one of Japan's Important Cultural Treasures. The dance, like many Bon dances, is performed in a circle of anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen people. Although the dance includes 13 distinct styles, each with its own traditional costume, these days only six are performed. Unlike other dances such as the Awa Odori, the Shiraishi Odori is a slow dance focusing on rhythmic and fluid movements. During the dance, the styles are performed simultaneously, with each style comprising a series of moves repeated over and over to the sound of rhythmic drumming and an elder who sings out a slow ballad. The locals perform the dance late into the night, for hours and hours, and even I find that dancing it puts me into some kind of trance. The summer heat, the call to the spirits and the beautifully flowing moves, danced over and over to perfection, completely absorb one in the moment.

During Bon, in the morning after serving my landlord and his family breakfast, I then take care of the spirits -- but this time a different kind. I go over to the beach and open the Moooo! Bar for the tourists and visiting family members who need to escape their relatives for a while. The Moooo! Bar stays open until the wee hours of the night, even longer than the dancing.

Between hosting my landlord's family, their ancestral spirits and the spirits at the bar, I have to admit I'm exhausted. Now I know why they call Bon the "festival of the dead." If you're not dead before Bon, you surely will be after it.

See a one-hour special on Shiraishi Island on B.S. Nippon TV, Saturday Sept. 3 at 9 p.m., and Sept. 10 at 9 p.m.


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