Yosakoi Sōran Matsuri 2011: Part 1

On the second weekend in June, I participated in Shakotan’s Sōran dance team, traveling to Sapporo to dance in the annual Yosakoi Sōran Festival (よさこいソーラン祭り).  Yosakoi (よさこい) is a very popular form of dance in Japan that you generally see at festivals. Typically performed by large teams, Yosakoi often features highly-energy, choreographed moves, incorporating both elements of traditional Japanese dance and newer, more modern dance moves. Colorful costumes and props also play a big part, and many competitive teams will wave giant flags, Les Misérables-style. The term “Yosakoi” actually means “come at night” (夜さり来い); the pronunciation is slightly altered by a southern dialect.

The Sōran Bushi (ソーラン節) is a traditional Japanese folk song, apparently one of the most famous ones. It was a sea shanty, a work song sung originally by herring fishermen in Hokkaido, so dances to it often use choreography depicting casting nets or hauling heavy loads around. I’ve come to find out that there is an endless supply of differing versions of the song, from plodding, down-tempo arrangements, to fast-paced techno remixes. Sapporo has hosted an annual Yosakoi festival since 1992, in which all the teams are performing version of the Sōran Bushi. It a great showing of 北海道プライド (Hokkaido Pride).

On Friday, the night before heading to Sapporo, the dance team was going to perform at Shakotan’s Town Hall, called the ‘Cultural Center’ (文化センター). The hall was located in the same building that seemed to house absolutely all of Shakotan’s administrative organization; the Mayor’s office, City Hall, the Board of Education, town paper, etc. Yamazaki-san had first showed me the auditorium a few weeks prior, and I was blown away by how nice the space was.

Shakotan’s hall wasn’t the biggest auditorium I had seen, in fact it was rather small, with seating for about 450 people. But inside, it felt quite spacious and extravagant, with fancy textured walls and ceiling, and even crystal chandeliers. Yamazaki had shown me not only the main auditorium, but also the control room upstairs, the dressing rooms backstage, and the loading dock. Everything looked brand new and barely used. The dressing rooms were especially impressive, complete with showers and a green room of sorts, done in traditional tatami mat style. In the weeks leading up to the Yosakoi festival, the townsfolk participating in the Sōran dance had met at the hall to practice, so I was very familiar with the space by showtime.

On Friday, I needed to be at B&G (the town’s YMCA-style gym) at 4:30, for one last practice. I arrived promptly, although in still street clothes, toting my Sōran costume in plastic bag. Yamazaki has briefly showed me how to put the costume on, but I wasn’t sure that I could properly do it myself. He reassured me that there would be other people willing to help me get the finer touches right. It turned out that Yamazaki-san wasn’t at this last practice, so I timidly approached Yasuda-san, the man acting as leader and emcee of our team, for help.

Yasuda-san directed me to a locker room to change. After I got the pants and happi coat (法被) on, I was going to have a go at getting the belt, hand guards, and shin guards right, but Yasuda-san appeared again and beckoned me into the gymnasium. There, in the midst of the hubbub of people rambling around before practice, Yasuda-san recruited some women help me with the rest of my costume. Two women got my shin guards place right, while an elderly lady helped me with the belt. I felt like a samurai being suited up for battle.

The back of the happi needed to be pulled up and tucked into the back of belt, thus creating a wave-like flow to the coat. While lowering and tightening my belt, the older lady laughed and said something that I only half understood. Yasuda-san smiled and translated for me, “She says that she’s never touched a foreigner before.”

After I was all suited and ready for action, Yamazaki-san appeared, in plain street clothes and a camcorder in hand. He asked me if had put on the costume myself, and when I shook my head for ‘no’, Yasuda-san said, “My wife did.” I hadn’t realized it, but his wife had been my primary helper. When I enquired about his costume, Yamazaki-san told me that he still had to work and wouldn’t be in this particular practice. What I didn’t understand was that he actually had to work backstage for the evening’s entire show.

The practice started to get underway and I suddenly realized that there were a lot of new faces in our group. I had felt that the dance practices had given me a chance to meet a lot of new Shakotan people, which was part of motivation for volunteering, and at this moment I was wondering where these other people had been the whole time. I also didn’t recognize any of them from my other activities around town, so I was at a bit of loss.  When we got into our places for dancing, the new faces got a prominent spot, front and center. One man in particular seemed to have an important role, dancing with lanterns in hand, instead of the naruko (鳴子 – small wooden clappers) that everyone else had.

When we practiced the parade version of our dance, I found my place behind an older gentleman, one of the new people that I hadn’t met before. He seemed especially pleased to see me and a gigantic smile spread across his face. He was extremely friendly and asked me all sorts of questions. I did my best to keep up and he seemed amused by everything I said. After I told him that I wasn’t married, he asked me to marry a Japanese woman and stay in Japan forever. I concluded that these newcomers were just as nice as everyone I knew so far.

Our practice was finished up about 6:00, and the show at Cultural Center was going to kick off at 7:00. This gave me enough time to grab some food at the Seicomart on the way over, which I did. O-nigiri and inari-zushi, it was a little light for dinner, but damn tasty. In the lobby outside the Cultural Center, I sat down to eat my convenience store dinner, and a few youngsters sat down with me. Their mothers appeared not far behind them with bento boxes. Their dinner was a bit like mine, but made with love. One of the mothers, Hasagawa-san, I remembered from my experience playing badminton with her sons at 10pm, outside of her restaurant called “マミ” (Mommy). She offered a ball of Takenoko Chahan (竹の子チャーハン), or bamboo shoot fried rice. I humbly accepted, and as expected, it was quite delicious.

The main event of Friday evening wasn’t our Sōran dancing; it was actually a Taiko drumming group. The group was comprised on three or four men, and one woman. Their Taiko skills were actually quite amazing, and in addition to percussive instruments, they also played the flute (横笛 – よこぶえ) in super-traditional Japanese style. It was a real joy to watch them, and one of those moments where I smirk to myself and think, “Yeah, this is why I came to Japan.”

I found out that the Taiko group was from way down south, Nagoya, I think it was. They had to take a ferry to Otaru, which was said to take two days. Then they had driven from Otaru to Shakotan, and had only just arrived that afternoon. As soon as the show was over, they were packing up to move on again. Considering that their gear included a huge drum with a diameter of around 2 meters, I supposed flying was out of the question.

After the Taiko show concluded, there was a raffle for prizes. I’m beginning to think that you can’t have town event without prizes in Japan, where you give them away via raffle or bingo or whatever.  This might be an extension of Japan’s culture of ubiquitous gift-giving, but I think that it’s probably also related to their love of games, which I witnessed in all facets of society. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of both.

Finally, after Taiko and a raffle, it was time for us to dance the Sōran Bushi (ソーラン節) in front of an audience for the first time. I had been placed in the front row, albeit on the far left side. In the crowd I saw some of junior high school students spot me, and a look of shock and awe come over their faces. “What’s the American doing up there?” their expression said at first. Then they’d smile, as if to say, “Oh my god, he’s actually dancing the Sōran!”

The dance went well, and I was happily about to do it without any mistakes. The crowd cheered gaily, and then, as we were walking out, cries of “アンコール” halted our exit. The crowd was demanding an encore! This was especially amusing to me, considering our choreography repeats itself exactly twice in the song. As requested, we danced again, and the crowd went while a second time. Good times.

After the show was over, I tracked down Yamazaki-san backstage and confirmed when I show up for the bus the next morning. I also found out that everyone was heading across the street to Fuji Sushi for dinner, but since my money was looking very, very low, I decided not to join the party. Instead, I followed Yamazaki-san’s suggestion; I got noodles and a tall beer at the Seicomart, and had a quiet evening at home.

To be つづく’ed…

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