Nagoya - Every August the Japanese celebrate the Obon Buddhist Festival of the Dead to commemorate the earthly homecoming of their ancestors' souls.
During Obon week, a major highlight is Bon odori folk dancing, which dates back to the 15th century. Bon odori was originally performed to comfort and entertain the dead spirits during their visit. Today it's commonly danced in public spaces like parks or the grounds of shrines. In some towns, like Gujo-Hachiman in central Japan, people dance all night from August 13 to the 16th.
One sweltering evening during my second summer in Japan, I have dinner plans in downtown Nagoya with my American friends Walker and Jeremy. We meet up in the Osu Kannon district, my favourite part of town. Temples, antiques markets, vintage clothing stores, electronic discount shops, restaurants, food stands and old-style covered walkways make the neighbourhood a unique hodgepodge of old and new.
The Obon Festival may sound spooky, but Bon odori is anything but sombre. Paper lanterns illuminate the area, traditionally hung to guide the departed spirits home from the spirit world and back again (Obon is also known as the Feast of Lanterns).
Girls sporting bright yukata (summer kimonos) and geta clogs mill about like life-size geisha dolls. The heady aromas of outdoor festival food waft from the little stalls offering takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), grilled eel, corn on the cob and candy apples. There's a relaxed air about the place, yet it's alive with party-goers of all ages.
Walker and Jeremy show up in blue happi coats (men's kimonos) and shorts, ready for dancing. After a quick meal, we join a large circle of dancers on a gravel field in the temple grounds.
Folk songs blare from giant speakers. The dance involves simple footwork, arm movements and clapping against an easy-to-move-to tempo. Surrounded by adults and youngsters, we feel a bit like we're in a revolving conga line. Anyone is welcome to enter and leave the circle at any time.
As soon as we join the dancers, Walker and Jeremy start grooving like Obon experts and Soul Train stars at once, their tall frames not missing a beat. I reckon they've done this before; in some parts of central Japan Bon odori starts in mid-July.
While dance styles vary by region, the moves are rhythmic and repetitive. Obon also serves as an appeal for good harvests, so each movement traditionally symbolizes digging rice or threshing wheat. Because it's easy to imitate the steps and hand gestures by watching the other dancers, I quickly fall into sync.
Japanese women are amazingly lithe and agile in their long and heavy - albeit cotton - yukata with thick obi sashes tightly cinched around their waists. Although I'm not the only one dressed in western clothes, I wish I'd worn my own yukata to get a fuller odori experience. My tank top and capri pants are drenched from the humid 30°C night, and I need to take a breather.
I sway out of the circle to look for a drink, snack and paper fan (always conveniently handed out at summer festivals). While my buddies keep dancing, I chuckle at seeing Jeremy's red hair and Walker's afro bobbing high above everyone's heads.
Fireworks bring the festivities to a colourful, ethereal end. As we head for the subway, some teenage girls in trendy mini-kimonos ask Walker and Jeremy to pose for a photo with them - a great capper for our amusingly eclectic evening.