From Heisei to Reiwa: all-night celebration at the Gujo Odori.

gujo odori Cover Story

On the night of April 30th, 15,000 people gathered to celebrate this historic moment in Gujo City, Gifu Prefecture.

In Japan, we also count the years with the name of the current era; which, since the Meiji period, has changed with the reign of each emperor (the symbol of Japan). Prior to the Meiji period, when there was a major disaster such as an earthquake or a flood, it also had the meaning of casting off the bad luck and making a fresh start.

On April 30th, 2019, the 125th Emperor of Japan – Emperor Akihito – abdicated, and the curtain fell on the Heisei period.

Then, on May 1st, 2019, the 126th Emperor of Japan – the new Emperor Naruhito – ascended the throne, and the new imperial era became ‘Reiwa’.

On this night, countdowns were held throughout Japan to usher in the new era, Reiwa.

Here – Hachiman, Gujo City, Gifu Prefecture (Gujo Hachiman) – at the base of Gujo Castle, the fervently dancing figures of 15,000 people were illuminated by the moonlight.

Gujo Odori is a Bon dance festival with a 400-year history. It is held for two months every summer at Gujo Hachiman.

In particular, for four days (August 13th – 16th) during Obon Week, an ‘all-night dance’ continues until dawn; the number of people attending in these four days reaches about 200,000.

Long ago in the Edo period, for the harmony of the social classes (warriors, farmers, artisans, and tradesmen), the local feudal lord gathered the bon dances of all the villages of his domain at his castle. He encouraged the people to “dance together for these four days of Obon, without regard to social class or position”. It became a popular yearly festival.

Due to this background, visitors and locals alike all dance together in one circle at the Gujo Odori.

Gujo Odori is not merely a ‘watching dance’, but a ‘dancing dance’.

The geta (traditional clogs) worn by people are a feature.

Because it is important to make a good ‘ka!’ sound when kicking the ground with geta, regular visitors to the festival search for geta they can get a good sound out of.

Geta are made from Japanese cypress.

In the four days of Obon week, the all-night dance continues from dusk until dawn; a total of 9 hours.

Continuously kicking the ground while dancing will quickly wear out the soles of the geta.

Because of that, craftsmen use techniques to make the geta highly durable.

Many people go through three or four pairs of geta in the season.

This ‘Gujo Odori’ – one of Japan’s three largest Bon festivals – spans a total of 32 nights from mid-July to early September, and is now designated as a national Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the government.

The spring 2019 Gujo Odori introduced here was held as a special celebration from 7 p.m. on April 30th until 2 a.m. on May 1st, as the era passed from Heisei to Reiwa.

People participating in the dance rotate in a clockwise direction around a float-cart, upon which a Hayashi (traditional music) group performs Gujo-bushi.

Gujo-bushi are songs for Bon dances, and the 10 songs each have a different style of dance: ‘Kawasaki’, ‘Harukoma’, ‘Sanbyaku’, ‘Yatchiku’, ‘Kochou- kawasaki’, ‘Gengenbarabara’, ‘Nekonote’, ‘Sawagi’, ‘Jinku’, and ‘Matsusaka’.

The music of Hayashi; the sound of geta; and the moonlit Gujo castle beside the whispering Yoshida River.

The sight of people dancing the night away here, unchanged for 400 years, fascinates many people to this day.