If you are in Okinawa during Obon, then likely you will hear eisa drums in the distance. I previously wrote a tiny bit introducing about Okinawa’s bon dance, eisa エイサー, in another post. You can hear eisa pretty much year-round, and especially at summer matsuri (~July-October), but it is most important during Obon. Neighborhood Obon eisa can occur anytime in the 4 day interval from the first evening (unkeh ウンケー) usually until the day after last day (uukui ウークイ). The act of eisa parading around the neighborhood is called 道じゅねー “Michi Junee.”
So I know many people just keep their windows open and listen for the sounds of eisa, following it when they hear it. But, honestly there is a better way to find out when and where they will be performing near you… there are likely signs in your neighborhood, though if you don’t read Japanese, you might not realize that is what they are for. I have passed dozens upon dozens of simple painted wooden signs indicating when eisa will be performed for various neighborhoods, so just keep your eyes out; occasionally you will get some modernizing areas post it on the official village/town/city website or even on a Facebook page. So what do these signs looks like?
key words that you might see on signs:
盆踊り bon odori/bon dance
ウンケー unkeh, the first day of obon
中日 nakanuhi, the 2nd day of obon
ウークイ uukui, the 3rd day of obon
公民館 public hall
広場 open space/wide space
Usanmi are Okinawan feasts typically prepared during holidays such as shiimii 清明祭 and Obon 旧盆. It is packed into lacquered multi-tiered boxes. The amount of food should be in odd numbers, usually 9. Usanmi seems to be a mixed custom, with origins in China and with Japanese influence… after all, Okinawa is a “chanpuru culture” (mixed culture).
These foods are nearly always some combination of the following, I have noted 7 items which are required, and the other 2 depend on family/region (I will slowly add pictures of each of these):
castella kamaboko カステラかまぼこ: fishcake “cake”; it is similar to “datemaki,” though datemaki is usually a more rolled shape where you can see layers. It is yellow with minced fish and eggs, resembling a castella sponge cake. Optional.
kouhaku kamaboko 紅白かまぼこ: red and white fishcake. Required!
age-doufu 揚げ豆腐: fried tofu. Required!
tenpura 天ぷら: various fried things, such as shrimp, squid, fish. Required.
konbu 昆布: kelp, boiled and tied into knots. Required
gobou ごぼう: burdock root, cut into long sticks and boiled in a broth. Required.
konnyaku こんにゃく: konjac, turned into a twisted shape and boiled. Required.
sanmainiku 豚三枚肉: boiled pork meat ribs, usually cheap and popular with Okinawans. Required.
mochi 餅: usually just plain white rice cake is used for offerings, though if it is for eating there will usually be red bean paste (anko) inside. Mochi are put into a SEPARATE box, and not mixed with the others. This second box is required!
I read some recipes on how to make all of these… at some point I shall put them up for those interested in challenging to make this and become and Okinawa cuisine master.
To be traditional, you should use umeshi (special Okinawa chopsticks) to eat it.
弥勒: Miroku (Japanese). In Okinawan language it is pronounced “Miruku.” It feels kind of strange, because ミルク miruku is one way to say “milk” in Japanese as well. But in this case, miruku ミルク is a deity 神様 (kami-sama), not the white beverage!
*神 kami means “god,” and -様 -sama is a very polite way to address people in Japanese.
Used as ミルク神, it should probably be pronounced miruku-shin, though I sometimes see variations such as miruku-gami and miruku-kami.
Miruku is actually one of the most commonly worshipped gods in the Ryukyu islands, especially the Yaeyama islands. Often someone will dress as Miruku in the island festivals, a long yellow robe with a large white mask carrying a fan. He is believed to have come from across the sea, nirai kanai ニライカナイ (this means sort of like “heaven” to Okinawan people), and comes bringing good fortune.
Hateruma 波照間島, the southern most island, is famous for “Mushaama,” a festival during the obon. The festival is designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and held on July 14th of the lunar calendar. It combines obon festivities with harvest ceremonies like the Miruku fertility deity parade and shishimai (lion dance). Islanders offer prayers to their ancestors and pray for their happiness, bountiful crops and of course, a big catch at sea.
In Akata 赤田 of Shuri, a traditional ceremony called miruku unke みるくウンケー is held. A smiling maitreya (a bodhisattva) and his followers walk around the community and pray for the good health and prosperity of residents. The miruku unke ceremony was revived in 1994 after not being held for about sixty years! Since then it has become an annual event. Starting from the Akata Club Community Center, the miruku walks at the head of the parade, called suneei スネーイ. About 100 people follow, including a marching band and children carrying flags of the Ryukyu era (these particular flags are called ンカジ, nkaji, which means “centipede” in Okinawa language, due to their jagged edges), while the miruku waves his paper fan to drive off evil spirits from around the people waiting to watch the parade. Often babies cry (I guess he is a little scary) and elderly people wave from the second floor of their houses. The parade is called suneei スネーイ. It typically happens on the Sunday before Obon. In 2018 this will be August 19th; in previous years it has begun around 4:30pm. In some other villages, the miruku parades occur on different days.
If you live in Okinawa, you should definitely go watch one of these parades with Miruku-kamisama!
Youtube videos of Miruku in the town near me, Nishihara.
御中元 ochuugen is the custom of summer gift giving. In my local stores, there is a huge display with aisles of summer gifts. You may also see the something like 夏のギフト (natsu no gifuto summer gift) or even サマーギフト (summer gift spelled in katakana).
This gift-giving season typically corresponds to Obon. In Okinawa, it is traditionally observed when visits to the family home are made during Obon (customarily the second day), but it is okay before or after. Especially in the workplace where you will probably not see them during actual Obon. In Okinawa, it is tradition to deliver the gift in person, rather than use a mail delivery service, though you will see many people in the grocery store filling out the mail delivery forms to send gifts to family in the outer islands or the mainland.
For me, the most interesting part is the types of gifts on display in stores. Popular items are summer fruits (mango in Okinawa), rice, coffee, pork, unagi (eel), jelly sweets, and other goodies. But there are also gift sets such as laundry soap, beer, spam, cans of tunafish… sometimes I find them quite odd, as far as gifts, but it seems so practical that I actually sort of appreciate it. Usually gifts are about 2000 yen to 5000 yen; stores make a lot of money during this time period. It is also typical to ship gifts to family members who live far away… during this time I see many people filling at shipping forms at the store counters for summer gifts.
During this time, I have seen a bunch of ads on tv about sending summer gift. The Hormel one sort of makes me laugh a bit, sending a gift pack of SPAM. The family in the ad seems so happy to be receiving cans of spam and making goya chanpuru.
七夕 Tanabata is known as the “star festival” in Japan.
In Okinawa, it is observed during the lunar calendar (like many other holidays…) instead of the solar calendar (more typical in mainland Japan). It occurs on July 7th in many parts of mainland Japan, and the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Okinawa, usually around August, just before Obon begins. It is the precursor to Obon; mostly it is the day to clean the ancestors’ grave, put flowers, beverages and incense in front of the grave to guide the ancestors’ spirits to come to one’s house. It is a time to ask ancestors to come visit during Obon season; it is believed that the ancestors protect their descendants in the real world, so it is important to take of them in their afterlife.
In present day, Tanabata in Japan is typically celebrated as a school event; students decorate bamboo branches with ornaments and hang strips of colorful paper with their wishes written on them, called tanzaku 短冊. Ornaments made of origami paper are made into shapes such as windsock, stars, lanterns and nets. They all have a meaning; for instance, the net-shaped paper represents a river. Several retail stores and community centers will put up Tanabata trees with decorations, and leave blank slips of paper for you to write your wishes on to hang on the tree.
The story of Tanabata, based on a Chinese legend of the “weaver star” (known as Vega in English) and the “cowherd star” (Altair): There once was a young woman named Orihime (Vega), who was good at weaving cloth and worked very hard to the please her father. But, as she worked very hard she became afraid that she would never fall in love and marry. Her father, Tentei (Sky King), who was a god, arranged for her to meet a hard working cattleman Hikoboshi (Altair) who lived across Amanogawa River 天の川 (literally, heavenly river, the Milky way) on the eastern side, while Orihime and her father lived on the western side.
The two fell instantly in love and married, but subsequently she forgot about weaving and he let his cattle wander all over on both sides; this made Tentei angry. He ordered the two to separate and each to live on a separate side of the river. His daughter wept and pleaded, however, so Tentei relented a little, and allowed the two to meet once a year, on the night of the seventh day of the seventh month.
So, if you look up into the evening sky on July 7 and it is clear, you can see the two stars reunited. But if it is rainy or cloudy, know that they will try to meet again next year. Some children will even make teru teru bozu てるてる坊主 to wish for good weather such that the lovers will meet again!
In Okinawa, the Tanabata story is usually a little different, and actually refers to the Celestial Maiden Legend (Hagoromo), which is believed to have occurred at Mori-no-kawa in Ginowan. The Ginowan summer matsuri is themed around the celestial maiden legend; even the city mascot is the celestial maiden! So, to conclude, Japanese tanabata is celebrated quite differently from Okinawa tanabata. While you may see a few wishing trees up at department stores or community centers and cute tanabata-themed packaged snacks, there really is not much public tanabata celebration in Okinawa like there is in mainland Japan. One day I hope to make the Sendai Tanabata festival held August 6-8 (not quite using the lunar calendar, but close…).
Typically in Okinawa, the only 2 places with “events” around July 7th Tanabata are Okinawa city 1st street shopping arcade in Koza, and the Itoman Peace Memorial Park.
御盆 Obon in Okinawa is often referred to as “kyuubon” 旧盆, which means “old Bon” because it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar (7th lunar month, 13th through 15th days 旧暦7月13日-15日). Some other areas in Japan celebrate it either in July or August 13-15th. It is also called “Shichiguachi” しちぐぁち, meaning 7th month in Okinawan language. It should also be noted that different areas of the Ryukyu islands actually have their own names and traditions for Obon (for instance, Ishigaki-jima and the Yaeyama islands have something interesting called “Angama”); the ones I write about are the most common for Okinawa main island. Many Obon traditions and customs observed in Okinawa are quite different from the ones typically seen on mainland Japan. Something important to note: the Japanese custom of toro nagashi 灯籠流し is not a common practice in Okinawa, so you will not see candle-lit lanterns released afloat on the water during Obon like you might in parts of mainland Japan.
Obon is a custom to commemorate one’s ancestors; the spirits return to this world for 3 days to visit family. It is sometimes referred to as “ghost festival,” “lantern festival,” or “festival of souls” in English.
In 2018, Obon will be on Aug 23-25th and Tanabata will be Aug 17th.
There are 3 days of Obon in Okinawa:
ウンケー unke/unkeh (お迎え): 1st day, welcoming day, when the sun sets. This is the day where families usually visit graves and welcome the ancestors home. Families will gather at the eldest son’s residence (where the family altar, a butsudan 仏壇, is kept). The family altar is set up, and offerings of fruit, mochi, sweets, sake/awamori, beer, and stalks of sugarcane are placed. The sugarcane is left as walking sticks for the spirits walking from the heavens. Obviously the ancestors favorite foods are also usually placed. Lanterns are set up to guide ancestors home.
ナカビ or ナカヌヒ nakabi or nakanuhi (中日): 2nd day, the middle day. On this evening, all my neighbors leave their doors and windows open, and have a large family dinner. The doors and windows are open to allow the ancestors to enter the home. Also, I see a lot of people distributing “gifts” (known as 御中元 ochuugen) on this day (mostly these are random food and household item gift sets sold in department and grocery stores all over), but any day leading up to or during Obon seems to be okay for distributing summer gifts. The eldest son’s family is in charge of the altar, so they must stay at home to receive other family members and visitors; so while the eldest son’s wife has to prepare many foods and the altar for Obon, they also receive many “gifts” in return, usually in the form of rice, beer, laundry soap, etc. For those family that are not the eldest child, instead they must prepare gifts and visit everyone else’s home where the altars are kept. So either way, it is sort of an expensive endeavor.
ウークイ uukui/ukui (御送り or 精霊送り): 3rd day, farewell day. This last day of Obon is filled with music and eisa (Okinawan bon dance), to say farewell to the ancestor spirits and escort them back to the heavens. There is usually a big feast late into the night, with various foods that are offered and special paper money called uchikabi ウチカビ is burned as for the ancestors so that they can use it in the spirit world. Some offerings and sugar cane is left out by the gate/fence/side of the road for the spirits to take home. This day, on the hillside by my village, you can see a large kanji lit up (they use electric lights, not actually burning into a mountain like Japanese tradition). Maybe this year I can get a decent picture of it; it represents some sort of farewell to the dead.
Before Obon, is Tanabata 七夕. In Okinawa, rather than celebrate star festival, it is more common that this is a grave-cleaning day to prepare for Obon and to ask ancestors to come visit during Obon season. It is believed that the ancestors protect their descendants in the real world, so it is important to take of them in their afterlife.
For the butsudan 仏壇 (altar) set up, many things are included. I will explain what is common in Okinawa… probably places in the mainland are a bit different, though some things will be the same or similar.
rakugan 落雁: this is dried “sweets” pressed into a mold (very water soluble so it lasts a long time). Despite the colorful appearance, the taste is very subtle, just a little sugar; since this is for altar offerings it is usually more “starchy” than sugary (made from mizuame 水飴, a glutinous rice starch syrup). These tend to be dry and a bit starchy-sweet in flavor. It is a type of Japanese confection (wagashi 和菓子) called higashi 干菓子, which is dried and has low moisture content. Often these will also be called bongashi 盆菓子 (Obon sweets) or kyo-kashi 供菓子 (or お供え菓子).
sugarcane, uuji ウージ (さとうきび satou kibi in Japanese): set out as walking sticks for the spirits. It can also be used to help ancestors carry souvenirs back to the spirit world. There are 2 types set out: long, guusanuuji グーサンウージ to use as a walking stick and as a balancing pole to carry souvenirs, and short, chitu uuji チトゥウージ also used to help carry back souvenirs. Sometimes the short sugarcane is also used as minnuku ミンヌク (水の子 in Japanese, set out as small offerings to Buddhist gods or to keep out bad spirits).
medohagi メドハギ or soromeshi ソーローメーシ (精霊箸): a type of weedy plant. Chopsticks for the ancestors use. I also read somewhere that this can be set out for purification purposes as well.
ganshina ガンシナー: circular ropes so your ancestors can take souvenirs (foods) back to the spirit world; they are used to balance foods or gifts on your head. On the altar they are typically displayed by balancing watermelon, pineapple, oranges, etc. on them.
ukui kasa ウークイカーサ:Alocasia leaves. This is apparently used so your ancestors can wrap souvenirs to take back to the heavens.
uchikabi ウチカビ (打紙): Afterlife money! It is a Japanese paper with the design of coins on it. It is burnt on the last day (ukui) so that your ancestors have money in the afterlife.
eggplant cow (nasu no ushi ナスの牛) & cucumber horse (kyuuri no uma キュウリの馬): placed outside the home so the ancestors can ride on them from the spirit world home, then placed on the altar on the first day of Obon. This is actually more of a mainland thing than Okinawa, instead here uses the sugarcane since it seems Okinawa ancestors come on foot. In Okinawa, you may even see a variation using a goya ゴーヤー. With them is placed mizunoko 水の子, washed rice with diced cucumber and eggplant; although this is optional, it is supposed refresh returning spirits after their journey.
somen そうめん: somen (noodles) are usually place on the altar as well. I don’t know why exactly, but the theory seems to be because somen is easily used in summer cooking, so it is convenient. I also hear it is to use as reins for the ancestors to ride the animals back to the spirit world.
houzuki ほうずき, ホオズキ, or 鬼灯: Chinese lantern plant. It helps light the way for ancestors. These are really quite pretty, and really do look like tiny red lanterns.
senkou 線香 (ukou ウコウ in Okinawan): incense sticks (for purification). Often in Okinawa flat incense is used, called hiraukou ヒラウコウ (平線香).
bon-chouchin 盆提灯: lanterns; these are placed at the altar and the front of the house, so spirits don’t lose their way.
makomo まこも: mat woven from straw of wild rice, used in rituals.
Of course, flowers, seasonal fruits/vegetables, and your ancestors favorite foods (and drinks, usually beer or awamori) are also included on the altar. Typically UNRIPE fruit is used since it sits on the altar for 3 days… so sometimes it is not always so good to eat raw, but instead cooked. Also keep this in mind if you are fruit shopping at the markets during Obon, since many of these fruits will not ripen properly because they are picked so early! Look for signs that indicate 供え物 or 供え用 (translation: for offering/altar use); as well as signs like 青切り (translation: fruit picked early before becoming ripe) and 生食用ではありません (translation: do not eat raw). The 2 you must be MOST careful of are: sticks of sugarcane (it is not for eating and will not be tasty) and pineapple (can only be eaten cooked, do not eat raw). The bananas should be able to ripen somewhat but are also delicious cooked. Mikan (oranges) will be very sour, so maybe this is okay for some people. Unfortunately for many foreigners, the signs are always in Japanese explaining these things!
Below is a sweets offering set for the altar (お供え: offering, 菓子: sweets), easy to find in the grocery stores; unlike rakugan described above, these are in fact very tasty.
On unkeh, there is the custom of eating unkeh juushii ウンケージューシー, which is a type of Okinawa cooked rice with various things mixed into it. It is a simple, but popular dish.
There is usually a box of specific foods during the feast day (ukui) called “usanmi” 御三味 (ウサンミ) that contains: fried tofu 揚げ豆腐, burdock root (gobou ごぼう), kelp (usually tied in knots), fish cake (kamaboko かまぼこ), konnyaku こんにゃく, tempura 天ぷら, fried taro (田芋 taimo) and of course, pork. There also usually a second box of white mochi (rice cakes) set out as well.
Not on the altar, but commonly served for during Obon are your typical trays of sushi, sashimi, fried things, chilled zenzai (sweetened red beans and mochi), cold somen noodles, nakami-jiru 中味汁 (intestines soup).
The local grocery stores in Okinawa have ads for all your Obon needs… this is an example of an advertisement from SanA. Anymore, many people just order trays of オードブル (pronounced ohh-do-bu-ru), which comes from the word hors d’oeuvres, instead of making it all themselves.
While most “events” are private in peoples homes, there are a few goings on, mostly in the form of eisa dance. Traveling groups of eisa often visit various spots throughout the community; by our house, one group comes to the FamilyMart and performs for a nice little show before moving on to the next location. If you live near Okinawa city and the middle part of the island, eisa typically goes on for all 3 nights of Obon, and sometimes another night after that, so be prepared for the continuous sounds of drums and sanshin (click here for Where to see eisa during Obon…). Another fun/interesting event is the Miruku-kami ミルク神 “parade” in Shuri.
I often walk through my neighborhood in the evenings; during obon time, all the doors and windows are left open to the houses. Drums and eisa dance chants ring through the air. I see neighbors burning or wrapping up offerings and leaving them outside on the walkways. It is somehow a nostalgic summer feeling.
In addition, people do not go into the sea during Obon, lest they be dragged to the underworld by deceased souls in the water (typically those who died by drowning or water accidents).
This is the sound of eisa. Anyone who has lived in Okinawa will recognize it immediately.
As summer approaches, so does matsuri season. Eisa is a synonymous with the summer matsuri season here in Okinawa. Eisa エイサー is a type of “bon dance,” 盆踊り (bon odori). Bon, or Obon, (written in kanji as 御盆 or お盆) is an important time of year for Japanese people; it is a time to honor and commemorate their ancestors. They believe that each year during Obon, the ancestor spirits return to our world to visit relatives. Bon occurs the 13th through the 15th day of the 7th month of the year; for many places this is July (according to the solar calendar), however in Okinawa, it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so it occurs sometime in August or September. I will leave the details of customs and traditions related to Okinawan Obon holiday for another blog post, and for now focus on eisa. During Obon in Okinawa, many eisa troupes will perform all around the island to bid farewell as their ancestors leave to Earth to return again to the heavens. There is a local group that travels down our neighborhood and town, stopping at various points to perform; we are sure to watch them as they dance, chant, whistle, and play drums in front of the convenience store across the street.
Due to the large Japanese population in Hawai’i, Obon is also commonly celebrated all over Hawai’i throughout the summer months– so this holiday and bon dance in general is not really new to me, but I have learned about some of the more Okinawan traditions and especially eisa dance.
Although eisa originates as a bon dance, it is performed throughout the year and is considered an important aspect of Okinawan/Ryukuan culture. There are several eisa clubs around the island, and they are especially busy during the summer matsuri season. Already at my university they are practicing for summer during lunch and early afternoon, so I have some entertainment these days while I eat.
There are guys (and sometimes girls) playing larger (taiko) drums, as well as those with smaller hand drums. Usually the females are dressed in simple yukata with Ryukyuan designs. At least one of the guys will be dresses as “Chondara” (Okinawan clowns).
The role of the chondara is to cheer the dancers on and entertaining the audience, as well as guiding the group in the right direction. Sometimes also to scare the small children a bit.
The sounds of eisa wafting through the evening air, while sitting outside and drinking a beer sometimes feels a bit nostalgic as strange as that seems. It has that feeling, that summer has indeed arrived, and will soon be gone so be sure to enjoy the (hot and humid) weather now and the carefree feeling of lazy summer days, because soon it will be replaced by chilly fall and winter winds.