Gujo Odori - Japan’s Longest Summertime Dance Festival

The Gujo Odori, one of Japan’s three most famous “bon odori” traditional summertime dance festivals, unites the remote township of Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture for more than thirty nights between mid-July and early September. With over 400 years of history, this lengthy celebration has long captivated spectators far and wide, and its fun and friendly nature invites all to participate. In 2022, the Gujo Odori returned after a three-year pandemic hiatus, and we visited to see how it shaped up!

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Japan’s Symbol of Summer: What Are Bon Odori?

Bon odori dances are some of the most anticipated summertime events in Japan. They are held all over the country, with the three biggest considered to be the Awa Odori in Tokushima, Nishimonai Odori in Akita, and Gujo Odori in Gifu. Bon odori are part of larger “obon” festivals, which involve several rituals spread out over July and August to commemorate ancestors and deceased relatives while strengthening family and community bonds.

Bon odori dances differ significantly throughout the country, and each region has its own unique take on the tradition, so checking out more than just one is almost a must. Some encourage spectators to join, while others are reserved for professional dancers who have trained long and hard to put on a grand show.

What Is the Gujo Odori? The History of Japan’s Longest Bon Dance

While murky, traces of the Gujo Odori first appeared over 400 years ago, around the beginning of Edo Period (1603–1867). It’s believed that, to promote social harmony between classes, the lord of Gujo Hachiman Castle, Endo Yoshitaka, combined all the local dance events under his domain and centered them around a unified obon festival beneath his castle. The festival grew and evolved over time, gaining influence from other dances through traveling pilgrims and performers. 

In 1922, the Gujo Odori Preservation Society was established to refine and popularize the tradition, and its current format took shape in a more official, organized capacity. Held for over 30 nights, it is considered to be the longest running obon festival in Japan. It was registered as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset in 1996, and it remains a prominent icon of Gujo Hachiman today.

When Is the Gujo Odori Held?

The Gujo Odori is held for over 30 nights between mid-July and the first weekend of September. Small-scale dances on weekdays and Sundays start from around 8:00 pm and run until 10:30 pm (until 11:00 pm on Saturdays), while those held on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of August run well into the early morning. Dates and times can be confirmed in advance on the official calendar.

*The festival was shortened in 2022.

Where Is the Gujo Odori Held?

The Gujo Odori takes place all throughout Gujo Hachiman, from the front of the Former Government Memorial Museum (pictured above) to the central streets of Honmachi, Shinmachi, and more. As the venue will differ depending on the date, check the official website for a schedule with maps in English before heading out.

Back After Three Years! Checking Out the 2022 Gujo Odori

After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Gujo Odori at long last returned in 2022. Curious about this ambitious relaunch, we ventured through the dense mountains of rural Gifu to see how the 2022 Gujo Odori would materialize.

The Gujo Odori Festival in the Pandemic Era

Of course, with the pandemic being far from over, the 2022 Gujo Odori came with a slew of COVID-19 countermeasures to ensure both safety and fun. The number of festival dates was reduced to seventeen, and finishing times were brought forward, wrapping up the “all-night” dancing at a respectable 1:00 am. Temperature checks, mask wearing, disinfecting, social distancing, and more, were also enforced.

Despite regulations, the event still retained its trademark jovial atmosphere, and not even masks could hide the merry faces of locals. Only halted twice before - once when the Meiji Government deemed it unsuited to the modernization of Japan in 1874 and again during WWII - it was clear that this unstoppable ancient tradition had once again stood the test of time.

What Is the Gujo Odori Actually Like?

We visited Gujo Hachiman on the opening night of the 2022 Gujo Odori, which was Saturday, July 9. The warm glow of paper lanterns faintly illuminated the darkened streets, abuzz with yukata-clad dancers and casual onlookers. Tonight was the “Opening Ceremony,” held by the grand Western-style Former Government Memorial Museum, which was constructed in 1936 and currently serves as a tourism information center, dominating the center of town.

Despite the wet summer weather, there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air, and the crowd grew as the sun set. The adjacent Yoshida River roared ferociously, serving as a bassline for the enchanting sounds of shamisen, taiko drums, and flutes as the band began warming up. Peering above the dazzling facade, we noticed the brilliantly illuminated Gujo Hachiman Castle in the background, watching over residents as a symbol of the town’s rich heritage.

The crowd ranged from young children barely able to walk to groups of cheery teenagers and adults of all ages. Dress codes were surprisingly relaxed, balanced between extravagant, colorful summer yukata and casual T-shirts and shorts. While we spotted several yukata rental stores with dressing services, we instead opted for the simpler look of wearing “geta” wooden clogs and a “tenugui” hand towel draped around our necks, which we purchased earlier in the day. Yukata, geta, and tenugui are the three icons of the Gujo Odori, and diehard fans will often go the extra mile to procure the best and brightest of each.

Assuming that only the inner circle were planning to participate, we navigated our way to the front of the crowd for a closer look. However, as soon as the music started, the entire crowd broke into dance, suddenly putting us right in the middle of the action. Surprised and overwhelmed, we withdrew as far back as we could, hoping to observe from a distance before plucking up the courage to reenter. As the songs continued, the dancers spread out to form several lines, slowly extending from the Memorial Museum down Shinmachi Street. Once they reached the end of the street, they looped back around to return to the front of the Memorial Museum, repeating this sequence over and over again with each new dance.

The Gujo Odori is traditionally performed in a procession circling around a road, square, or float. Emerging from several local rituals, it’s made up of ten different dance routines - each with its own distinctive music, tempo, and movements. While a lot when compared with other festivals, each of the Gujo Odori dances are straightforward and repetitive, making it easy to join by following the lead of locals.

Unlike most of the obon festivals I’d seen, where audiences outnumbered participants, we actually felt more out of place as bystanders, and it only took a few minutes of watching to feel confident enough to give it a go. Despite cultural and language barriers, we were welcomed into the dance, and the surreal feeling of synchronizing with such a large group drew us into a serene, trance-like state. After an hour, we had enjoyed our fill, and headed home for the night as the locals gleefully continued with their proud tradition.

More Than Just Dancing! Making the Most of Gujo Hachiman

While the Gujo Odori dominates the limelight, it’s just one of the many charms of Gujo Hachiman. Thankfully, we had plenty of time before and after the festival to dive into the town’s nostalgic, rustic streets. Each was lined by quaint traditional townhouses reimagined as hip cafes, guesthouses, bars, and more, beyond which extended maze-like alleyways and canals, tempting us deeper into the heart of town. All this is encircled by vast, powerful rivers, dotted by fishermen catching “ayu” sweetfish and allowing a breath of fresh air amongst blissful nature. Aside from the deluge of delicious cuisine, we recommend checking out the following spots before the Gujo Odori!

Accommodation in Gujo Hachiman

Accommodation is plentiful throughout Gujo Hachiman, ranging from quaint guesthouses to grand hotels with plenty of creature comforts. However, the popularity of the Gujo Odori means that accommodation is often booked out by midsummer, so we suggest reserving your stay as early as possible.

One popular choice is Hotel Gujo Hachiman, a large-scale hotel boasting meals of extravagant local ingredients, gorgeous open-air hot springs overlooking the Nagara River, and traditional Japanese tatami rooms with ample space to spread out. Plus, for those whose stay doesn’t line up with the festival, Hotel Gujo Hachiman runs small-scale Gujo Odori dances with live music every night outside of festival dates. Learn the moves in advance, and then revisit in summer to show off your skills!

A 10-minute drive from the Former Government Memorial Museum, Hotel Gujo Hachiman will shuttle guests to and from Gujo Odori venues, making it a convenient place to base yourself during the festival.

Gujo Mokuri: Grab Your Own Customized Geta

The quickest way to blend in with the Gujo locals is by slipping into a pair of traditional wooden “geta” sandals. Geta are a must-have for anyone seeking to join summertime festivities in Japan, and are one of the three symbols of the Gujo Odori.

Gujo Mokuri, just a brief walk from the Former Government Memorial Museum, specializes in customizable geta crafted from locally sourced “hinoki” cypress wood. A splash of color is then added with your choice of “hanao” strap, which is fitted to the shoe on the spot by one of the master craftspeople.

Created to withstand long periods of energetic dancing, each geta is chiseled from a single block of wood and is extraordinarily tough. If damage does occur, customers can bring them back to Gujo Mokuri for maintenance or adjustments, ensuring their service for years on end.

Alongside strength, hinoki wood produces a buoyant trotting sound on paved roads and cobblestone streets, said to usher in the spirit of summer in Japan. Raised five centimeters off the ground, they frame the wearer as tall and elegant, while the hanao, colored using techniques like silk screen printing and embroidery from local artists, radiates with eye-catching flair.

Inspired by the local rivers, I settled on a calming blue hanao for my geta. After trying on a few pairs and finding my size, the craftspeople set about attaching the hanao, their hands a blur as they pulled, tied, threaded, and hammered. My geta were ready to wear in an instant, imbuing each following step with a rhythmic click-clacking and nourishing wooden aroma. While taking a bit of getting used to, they’re surprisingly comfortable, and being able to effortlessly slip them on and off is a big help in Japan.

Takara Gallery Workroom: Design a One-of-a-Kind Tenugui

During the Gujo Odori, Gujo Hachiman locals often wrap tenugui towels around their collar to accentuate their yukata, while also serving the practical functions of wiping off sweat and blocking rain during the wet summer months. While there’s plenty to browse from talented local artists, the more creative-minded will no doubt wish to try their hand at silk screen printing at Takara Gallery Workroom, a short stroll from Gujo Mokuri. With the pioneering industrial screen printing machine invented in Gujo Hachiman during the 1950s, silk screen printing has deep local roots, and the artform still flourishes to this day.

Aided by the affable staff, I recreated the landscape of Gujo Hachiman on a light blue cloth, with mountains in the background, streetscape in the foreground, and a river filled with dark red koi carps in between. All in all, the process took around 30 minutes to complete, and I was able to bring my tenugui out to the dance later that night - although the staff suggested waiting a few days for the ink to fully dry before washing. While the process was easy, I felt a great sense of satisfaction as my creation came to life. Whether you’re artistically talented or not, there’s no doubt you’ll be wearing your silk screen printed tenugui with pride.

Takara Gallery Workroom encourages reservations, which can be booked up to a month in advance via telephone (Japanese only) or by email in English. The basic fee is 1,000 yen for a single-design tenugui, with each additional pattern a further 500 yen.

Gujo-Hachiman Hakurankan: Everything Gujo Hachiman in One Place

To learn more about the history, culture, and industries of Gujo Hachiman, we recommend heading to Gujo-Hachiman Hakurankan. While the facility unfortunately lacks any English signage, it’s still packed with fascinating exhibitions and dioramas, and will leave you with a well-rounded understanding of the region despite language limitations.

Each section is split between a different theme, starting from the bountiful river and spring water of Gujo, then leading into the town’s history, arts, and crafts, and finally the Gujo Odori. 15-minute live Gujo Odori performances are also held every hour between 11:00 AM - 3:00 PM on the weekend (see details below), giving you a taste of what’s to come later in the night during the Gujo Odori festival period, along with a chance to practice the moves for yourself with professional guidance.

With over 1,000 years of history, another one of the most fascinating elements explored at Hakurankan is “Gujo tsumugi” silk weaving, which uses cocoons of silkworms dyed with grass roots and bark to yield unique colors. Traditional looms, fabrics crafted by expert dyers, and more, are on display, which will no doubt serve as inspiration for your own yukata choice that night.

The museum also hosts a gallery of shockingly lifelike plastic food “samples,” which are commonly used in Japan to model restaurant menus. The creator and pioneer of plastic food samples was born in Gujo, and today the town produces around 50% of all those used across Japan.

Reveling in the Traditions of Gujo Hachiman

After three years of postponement, the idyllic township of Gujo Hachiman once again burst into buoyant song and dance with the long-awaited return of the 2022 Gujo Odori. Alongside the spectacular festival itself, we were delighted at the fascinating traditional crafts and culture complementing these ancient, local traditions. From customizable geta sandals to silk screen printing experiences, and even the opportunity to join in the Gujo Odori festival ourselves, Gujo Hachiman is the ideal destination for those who want travel to be as interactive as possible.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Steve
Steve Csorgo

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