In August, the Sumida Ward tourism office held an event called “Yukata de Guide Tour,” during which foreigners could experience typical Japanese summer activities: wearing yukata, joining a cruise, and dancing the Bon Odori at a festival. Most of the event took place at Ryogoku, which has a reputation as a sumo town.
Also known as a summer kimono, a yukata is made of cotton, and is thus thinner than a typical kimono. The organizers helped dress me up, and even provided geta (clogs) for me to wear.
After getting dressed, we went to Kokugikan, a famous sumo arena. There weren’t any matches going on at that time, so we just had a look as we were briefed about the place.
Next up was the former Yasuda garden, which originally belonged to a feudal lord and then a businessman named Yasuda. There, we participated in a small tea ceremony.
We then boarded a cruise ship that sailed down the Sumida River. We had a beautifully arranged bento for dinner, and we got to watch the sunset and see Tokyo’s buildings and other fixtures turn bright as the sky went dark.
Lastly – this was the most memorable part for me – we joined the Bon Odori (“odori” meaning dance) at a night festival. Everyone was welcome to gather round and dance, regardless of skill; we just had to follow the performers. Besides, the steps weren’t that difficult, so even someone with two left feet, like me, could easily learn the steps. It was great seeing adults and children, foreigners and Japanese, alike, just having fun and dancing. The festival started off with traditional music, but later on, there were dances to more upbeat songs, and even a song in English. (For some reason, “Bahama Mama” is apparently a popular choice for Bon Odori music, as it was also played in another yukata event that I attended.)
The night ended with fireworks, much to the delight of many children. After getting changed, I bought the yukata I wore and went home.
The next month, I attended yet another yukata event and festival, this time at Jiyugaoka. Dressed in yukata, we went to a festival at a nearby shrine, where we got the rare opportunity to enter it. Normally, while one can enter the shrine grounds, the shrine itself is off-limits, and pictures are often not allowed. But the organizers of this event were able to get a Shinto priestess to give us foreigners a bit of an idea about Shintoism. She demonstrated a ritual ceremony, gave us all a purification/blessing, and allowed us to take pictures! I don’t think I’ll ever get that opportunity again, so I’m glad I joined this event.
At the festival grounds, one very interesting sight was a cat in a happi (a traditional Japanese coat). It got a lot of attention, so its owner allowed people to take pictures of it and even hold it.
To end the event, the organizers taught us some common Bon dances, including “Tanko Bushi” (a song about coal miners) and “Tokyo Ondo” (Tokyo Song).
Luckily, I didn’t suck at the dances. I look forward to next year’s Bon Odori!