Dancing in the street

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am

This is going to end in tears. Fifteen young men with a five-metre-high lantern balanced precariously on their shoulders sprint forward, scattering the crowd in their path. Among a crescendo of shrieking and whooping, they start spinning wildly, bright yellow shirts a blur, feet skidding on the wet road. Four men clinging to guide ropes attached to the top of the lantern are whirled around while desperately trying to stop it toppling over. Finally, exhausted, the group lowers the wooden structure to the floor, matted, wet hair stuck to their grinning faces, to gulp from large bottles of beer.

This is a Japan visitors rarely see. A giddy, joyous, playful Japan often hidden behind centuries of ritual and reserve. The reason for this exuberance? It's Wajima Taisai (August 23 to 25), one of many summer festivals held throughout the country.

The city of Wajima is near the top of the Noto peninsula, a bent finger of land that juts out from the middle of Japan's main island, Honshu. It's famous for its kiriko (lantern) festivals, in which dozens of ornately decorated sacred lanterns and omikoshi (shrines) are paraded through crowded streets by enthusiastic community groups.

The kiriko vary in height from three to 10 metres and are carried by groups of up to 20 people. Many incorporate a taiko drum on which marchers take turns pounding out a frenetic rhythm while the rest sing, whistle, cheer and drink. It's Honshu's answer to Rio de Janeiro's carnival.

One by one, the kiriko arrive at a large field by the sea and are lined up in rows, burning brightly under the night sky. The festival culminates with a huge wooden pole topped with straw being set alight while competing teams of young men try to topple it with ropes. It eventually comes crashing down and the men scramble among the flames to retrieve decorative strips of white paper called gohei.

In times gone by, this would have been how local bachelors proved their strength and eligibility to the families of neighbouring villages. Nowadays, a law degree and a couple of investment properties are a better bet.

Immediately preceding the kiriko procession is an even more bizarre but just as intriguing piece of traditional folk entertainment: the gojinjo drum performance. Normally held outside, the ceremony commemorates a last-ditch attempt by locals to scare off an invading samurai clan in 1577.

Hundreds stare expectantly at an empty stage. Suddenly, a man with wild, straggly hair wearing a grotesque devil mask leaps out from behind the curtain and starts hissing and yelling at the audience. He is joined by two similarly scary-looking individuals and they take turns beating like madmen on a large, ceremonial wooden drum.

It's a baffling spectacle but apparently it was effective - legend has it that when the invading samurai saw the group of seaweed-draped, mask-wearing crazies, they turned on their heels and decided to try elsewhere.

Although the format and origin of Japan's summer festivals differ, the essence is almost always to bring people together in a celebration of regional beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Gujo Odori dance festival in the small riverside town of Gujo Hachiman, in central Honshu.

Held over 31 nights (on alternate days; this year, from July 11 to September 5), Gujo Odori attracts thousands of people and is considered one of the most important dance festivals in Japan. For many, the festival's highlight is four special nights (this year, August 13 to 16) when revellers dance until dawn.

By mid-afternoon, the town is buzzing with anticipation as people prepare for the evening's festivities. At the museum, a demonstration of one of the 10 carefully choreographed dances that will be performed in the streets that night is taking place.

Two immaculately dressed women in traditional summer yukatas bound with scarlet silk waistbands guide the audience through the movements: look up, make the shape of a mountain, then a river, then clap. It's a little like step aerobics and the less able of us spend most of the rehearsal facing the wrong way.

After dinner we walk back into town to find the laneways have been lit with large cylindrical paper lanterns that sway gently in the evening breeze. Many shops are still open and people dressed in traditional costume are starting to emerge from their houses. One gorgeous little girl in a kimono struggles to keep up with her mother as she clip-clops her way down the cobbled street in wooden shoes.

Under the soft, shimmering glow of box lanterns the stream of locals leads down a narrow stone pathway towards a bridge. The area is crammed with people vying for a vantage point to see the first instalment of the evening's festivities: a celebration of the Sougisui spring, which flows through the town and allegedly has the purest water in Japan.

A great cloud of smoke created by fireworks thrown onto the river rises. As they float downstream they crackle, flare and skip across the water's surface to a chorus of 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the watching crowd.

While the fireworks are an interesting diversion, it's the people who are more compelling. Weathered faces of grandparents dissolve into smiles as they greet old friends and children dressed as little emperors chase each other through the crowd.

When the last firework has fizzled out, the crowd saunters back up towards the main street, drawn Pied Piper-like by traditional music emanating from a raised bandstand on which groups take turns to play tunes with flutes, drums and string instruments.

It's an arresting spectacle - hundreds of elegantly dressed locals dancing in unison through the streets under a moonless sky. Many of the women have bright flowers in their hair. The older ones have delicate fans wedged in the back of their tightly wound waistbands; the younger ones have mobile phones.

Suddenly it's my song. As I expected, I'm constantly one step behind, looking skyward when I should be clapping and mimicking a river when I should be a mountain, but none of the smiling locals seems to care.

It's a precious moment - a chance to learn about an ancient cultural tradition, not just by watching but by taking part. The band plays on and the procession dances into the night.

Getting there Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Nagoya, from where a train takes 5 hours 40 minutes to get to Wajima. Alternatively, fly Dragonair to Tokyo and connect with All Nippon Airways (www.ana.co.jp) to Komatsu airport, which is near Wajima. Gujo Hachiman is easily accessible by road and rail from Nagoya.