For four magical nights each August, at Gujo Hachiman in Gifu, dancers revelers line the streets until dawn breaks over the surrounding mountains in celebration of Obon. Across most of Japan, the festival of Obon is celebrated from the 13th-15th of August (there are some regional variances). This festival is not only a time for Japanese to remember their ancestors, but also for the spirits of those ancestors to return to the family altars
The highlight of summer in Japan is the obon holiday season, where dance festivals like the one at Gujo are held throughout the country. The Gujo festival is one of the largest and well known of the all-night variety of dancing festivals, attended by thousands of people from all over the region.
Gujo Hachiman is located in Gifu Prefecture only an hour and a half from Nagoya by car on the road to Takayama, so why not make the trip and see what the fuss is all about?
When I went there, the real bon dancing hadn’t started yet, but people were already getting into the spirit and dancing around the float on which men are playing and singing out the obon beat. Various stalls are set up to sell food and drink (if you can manage it, stay overnight or have a designated driver so you can enjoy the cold beer in the hot night), and people join in and drop out of the dance at will.
The dancing itself is easy, repetitive and slow, so there’s no need for performance anxiety. There are various types of Bon Dancing throughout Japan, but the dance at Gujo Hachiman is quite simple, and anyone is welcome to join in with the locals. The basic shape is “circular,” surrounding an elevated platform, where 10 different types of music may be performed; each with a separate dance pattern, but they are all pretty easy to learn.
If you start by observing the movements dancers from outside the circle, followed by joining the circle and paying attention to the movements around you, you should be dancing like a pro within 20 minutes. Ok, perhaps not a pro, but dont worry about it; most of the other participants don’t actually know how to do it either! =)
Although Gujo Hachiman Bon Dancing is held on various dates during July, August and September, the main festival featuring all-night bon dancing at Gujo Hachiman is held over 4 days on August 13, 14, 15 and 16. This all-night festival certainly beats out other local festivals in communities around Japan, which typically have only offer Bon Odori nights that last a couple of hours for an evening in a park.
The direct highway bus from Nagoya’s Meitetsu Bus Center is the easiest and most convenient way to reach Gujo Hachiman. Visitors traveling by bus arrive in the center of town at Gujo Hachiman Jokamachi Plaza – where the dancing takes place, and walking distance to many hotels and ryokans. The journey affords travelers scenic views of the surrounding countryside.
Direct buses to Gujo Hachiman depart Nagoya twice a day – once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. To get to Gujo Hachiman by train it is necessary to change to a little country line at Mino Ota, and the trains don’t run so often on that line, so before you set out check your route on Hyperdia.
The Discover Gujo Hachiman page is the best place to start to get a feel for this beautiful little town, its dancing, its tiny little castle, and its many natural charms.
Below you can see an example of the “Kawasaki” dance, the most famous and well known of the 10 Gujo Odori songs. The movements of this dance represent the rivers and mountains that make up Gujo Hachiman, and viewing the moon on a warm summer evening.