Dancing in the streets of Fukushima

Buying edamame (boiled soybeans) earnt me a dance with geisha on Saturday night.  It was a surprising turn of events. 

Lazily wandering the stalls at a Bon festival, in the resort town of Iizaka Onsen, I was looking for something green to eat.  A diet of yakitori (grilled chicken) and sweet mochi  (sticky rice cake) had given me a rare craving for nutrition.

Bon festival at Iizaka Onsen.

Edamame?”, a merry-looking man leant out from his stall, offering a tray of soybeans.  

I said yes, bought a beer, and found myself sat with the Lords of Iizaka – the male members of the kumiai (Iizaka Onsen ryokan owners union).  Invited to sit with them, they soon made me welcome.

“Have some konnyaku (devil`s tongue)”, a tray of skewered grey tasteless jelly balls were placed in front of me. 

“Have another beer”, a plastic cup refill arrived from elsewhere. 

A young-looking 36 year-old called Kazunari brought me the beer.  I had seen him earlier playing the shamisen on stage.

Geisha dancing to shamisen music.

Kazunari runs Horieya ryokan with his English-speaking wife.  Its wooden lodgings had impressed me when I had walked up from the station earlier.  Horieya is the oldest ryokan building in Iizaka Onsen which is one of the biggest hot spring resorts in Tohoku – big enough to have its own train line running from Fukushima City station.  

“Our hot-spring baths are very hot, about 48 degrees”, he told me.  Not knowing if 48 degrees is a good or bad thing, I responded with “Oh, really?”.  Later on, he would kindly offer me the chance to go in his Horieya bath.  (Only in Japan is an invitation to take a bath a polite gesture) 

Chewing the konnyaku, and glad of some friendly company, I asked him about the performing geisha I saw on stage earlier.

“Only three geisha work in Iizaka Onsen now.  There used to be 5 but two quit after the earthquake.  To be honest, there`s not work for 3 at the moment”.

Katsuhito Sawada leads 3 string shamisen performance.

His shamisen performance had been very popular.  The audience, sat on the grass, had loved it.  As well as traditional Tsugaru songs, the district Kazunari`s shamisen teacher comes from, the group also played several Fukushima folk songs.    

“We played traditional songs from Soma (a town on the coast near the nuclear plant)”, he told me.  The performers had specially learnt these songs as a welcome.  Evacuees from Soma arrived in Iizaka Onsen when the March 11th crisis began.

One owner told me he had 200 refugees in his ryokan at first.  About 50 of them are still there now, their future uncertain.

“After the earthquake, we couldn`t prepare onigiris (rice balls) for 200 people, so we asked the kumiai (union) for help.  The kumiai arranged for a chef to prepare onigiris, and for fresh water to be delivered from local wells.” (The earthquake had burst water pipes in the Fukushima City area).    

Suddenly people started leaving the stalls and heading towards the main street.

“Will you join the Bon dance?”, Kazunari asked me.  Expectant faces looked towards me.  However I responded, they were doomed for disappointment. 

Kazunari, his kumiai friend and all the geisha would be dancing.  It was a 45 minute simple parade, going up and down the narrow main street – no pressure at all.  In the alcohol-induced spirit of things, I decided to give it a go, and to be fair, I was dreadful.  

Residents, ryokan owners and guests of Iizaka Onsen perform Bon dance. At back of parade, one Englishman fails again to do the Locomotion.

Pretty girls smirked, drunk old men jokingly danced alongside me and grinning old ladies cheered, shouting “goodo goodo” and “jozu jozu“, as you would to a two-year old trying to use a knife and fork for the first time.  Embarrassingly, a lad, not much older than two, danced right behind me with far more grace.

“You seemed to have trouble with some of the movements”, Kazunari said to me after.  This was a politely dressed way of saying `you were shit`. 

The Bon dance, like the Locomotion twenty years earlier, is another group dance I should not join.  Not being able to copy Kylie harmed only my adolescence; I hope my Bon failure has not damaged far more.  I`d like to go back someday.

3 good men of the Iizaka Onsen kumiai. They tried their best for me.

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