Gujo Hachiman is a storehouse of traditional culture. In the historical district of the old castle town, time feels as if it stands still—but the vitality of the culture has been preserved, too, in the handicrafts of local artisans, the local cuisine, the health of local communities, and, maybe most importantly, in the Gujo Odori, the Bon dance festival.
The folk dances of the Japanese Buddhist tradition exist in countless forms across the islands; connected to the Bon festival to welcome ancestors back to home altars, the dances reflect religious scenes or local history and move to the sound of ondo folk songs; the yagura , a raised platform, anchors the movement, but the dancers might spill out into nearby streets, moving as a team.
Gujo Odori is one of the most famous Bon Odori festivals, and takes place in one of the prettiest settings. The historic district of Gujo Hachiman with its waterways, cobblestoned streets, and preserved buildings makes the perfect backdrop. The festival extends for nearly a month but the highlight is the four days around the Bon festival. That’s the time that most visitors make their way to Gujo Hachiman to watch and take part in the festival. To blend in with the crowd, borrow a thin summer yukata , or pick one up before you arrive in Gujo Hachiman.
In the yagura, musicians play the Gujo Odori’s distinctive tunes to accompany the traditional dances. The dances of the Gujo Odori are native to Gujo but have spread across the country. The most well-known, “Haru Koma,” honors the region’s history of raising horses; another pays tribute to a historical peasant uprising; and the lyrics to "Kawasaki" trade on local stereotypes. At first, the dances can be confusing, but after a while, even the least coordinated outsiders can join in, twirling on the sidelines.
Gujo Odori is a project in preservation, just as the legal protection of the historical district: the dance and its songs are a living history book, written in its movements and lyrics the stories of the town. The dance is a chance to see the living culture of the town; the community is still vibrant. There is much to be learned from strolling the old town, but there is also much that can be gleaned about the local culture and local history from a night at the Gujo Odori festival.
The festivities take place around the same places, year-to-year, usually around a set of temples and shrines in the older quarter of town. This is a centuries-old tradition, after all. But these days, the crowds for the main three nights of the festival can be oppressive, especially when the August heat hits. Move through the crowd, exploring the festivities, but take a detour into a quieter lane, if things get too hectic.
The festival, apart from its amazing dance, is not unlike other festivals in the Japanese calendar of matsuri . Children race down the alleys, begging their parents for some change to play a shooting game. Stern-faced women drag on cigarettes while tending a flat-top loaded with yakisoba . Grandparents lead their grandkids. The scent of oil and the burnt sugar perfume of cotton candy fill the air. The town is alive.