I had heard that there were a lot of festivals in Okinawa but didn’t really understand how many until I took a late night stroll on a quiet summer evening and accidentally ended up in the middle of one. Colorful costumes, dancing, drumming, and the singing of local folk songs made it a pleasant surprise. As it turned out, this was Eisa, a uniquely Okinawan dance that dates back more than 500 years.
Eisa dancing is usually performed by community youth groups at the end of the season of Obon. Obon is the Buddhist tradition of welcoming back ancestors from the dead. Dancers go around to each house in their neighborhood to pray for the safe departure of their ancestors into the next life.
A festival too big to sneak up on is the All-Okinawa Eisa Festival where Eisa dance groups come from all over the island to perform. It takes place at Koza Athletic Park in Okinawa City, lasts for 3 days, and has over 300,000 spectators. The festival began in 1956 as a way to lift the morale of the people in the Koza area of Okinawa. Eisa has a special way of bringing warm feelings to Okinawans. Originally, the festival was set up as a contest where judges based their scores on things like formations, techniques, and costumes. This layout was later removed in favor of a less competitive format that helps foster camaraderie among Eisa groups.
My first All-Okinawa Eisa Festival experience felt like something out of a movie. The day started out with a comedy of errors. My first mistake was underestimating the 300,000 people they said would be there. I have lived in Okinawa for over a year and this was easily the largest number of people I have ever seen in one place. I thought that if I got there relatively early, I would be able to park at the venue. I couldn’t park anywhere near it. After an hour of driving around aimlessly, I decided I was desperate enough to try a shopping mall over a mile away. I only found out after I parked that the mall was actually one of many designated parking areas throughout the city. Another designated parking area was the hotel I was staying at on the other side of the island. I didn’t even have to hop in my car because all of the designated parking areas have free buses taking visitors to and from the festival. There are several reasons for the large crowds with the biggest being that two major festivals were going on at the same park. The Orion Beer Festival, a beverage themed rock concert ending with fireworks was held on the same weekend. Both festivals attracted a huge number of Americans as a U.S. air base with a population of more than 20,000 is right across the street.
The All-Okinawa Eisa Festival had a major sporting event atmosphere. Food stalls were set up serving local street food favorites like andagi, the Okinawan version of a doughnut and taco rice, an Okinawan invention that is a tasty fusion of Eastern and Western flavors. Once you satisfy your appetite, you have the option of seeing the show on the field for free or paying a nominal fee to sit in the grandstand. I opted to see the show on the field because if it’s free, it’s for me. Being on the field also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle with the performers. They were very gracious with their time and I saw many tourists getting pictures with them.
Eisa performances have many different elements. The elaborate costumes are just the beginning. Eisa group members each have a unique role. The heartbeat of the show are the drummers who also sing and dance. They have to pay close attention to the musicians playing the sanshin in order to stay in rhythm. Sanshin is an Okinawan musical instrument similar to the banjo. Also in the group are flag bearers, girl hand dancers, and clown-like performers called Sanaja. These face painted Sanaja performers in zebra colored outfits always get the audience laughing with their funny style of dancing.
You can still see Eisa in Okinawa even though the 2012 All-Okinawa Festival has finished. Eisa is part of the fabric of Okinawan culture and is performed somewhere on the island everyday. The Gyokusendo Kingdom village in Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura in Onna are popular places for tourists to see this traditional Okinawan performance art. So the only thing you need to do in order to experience Eisa is get here. ANA has an ongoing special of 10,500 yen to fly anywhere in Japan. With that kind of deal, you will have plenty of money left over to eat as many Okinawan doughnuts as you would like.
By Stan Byme