If you make plans to travel to Sendai in May ~ July, it will be one of the best life choices you’ve made. Why? Because it is at exactly this time that Sendai is at its most picturesque and effervescent! I was lucky enough to experience this, not as a traveler, but from the unique perspective of an international student studying at Tohoku University. So, let’s get started with my story!
I have been living in Sendai for over half a year and have entered my second semester on the exchange program at Tohoku University. When it came to choosing classes for this semester, there was one class which really piqued my curiosity…
‘Understanding Japanese Traditional Culture through Miyagi’s Traditional Dance: Sparrow Dance’
Just reading the title of the class, I had no idea what to expect from it…would we literally just dance for two months?? Finally, I decided there was only one way I was going to find out! At first, the schedule kind of irritated me as it was an entire class dedicated to practicing, another class for literature study and another class spent outside school with local people – I thought it was all a bit too much for a ‘dance class’.
Let’s take a more detailed look at what we ended up doing!
The ‘Sparrow Dance’ or ‘Suzume Odori’ (雀踊り・すずめ踊り）is a traditional folk dance performed every year at the Aoba Festival in Sendai. The dance is meant to imitate the movements of flying sparrows. It originally derived from an improvised dance by stonemasons at the celebrations for the construction of Sendai (Aoba) Castle some 400 years ago.
Our class was lead by three teachers who have practiced and performed the dance for many years. Instead of instructing us about how to perform each movement in order, we were told to try and assemble the different steps we saw in a way that we thought was most beautiful. It was a really interesting method and relates to the Japanese cultural spirits of ‘Ganbari’ and ‘Do’ that we studied in a different class at school (I will explain about this later). We were divided into five small groups, and attended at least three practice sessions with locals, but I honestly wish we could have attended more! I loved the atmosphere there; the way the local dancers kindly tried to teach those of us who couldn’t really speak the language that well. At that time, I felt like I finally understood the Sparrow Dance spirit! We didn’t really know those around us and we certainly weren’t masters of dancing, but we danced and laughed together, sharing a feeling and connection that I have never felt before! There was a real sense of spirit between us and the local Japanese people, which I believe was the spirit of the Sparrow Dance. In one session alone we danced for three hours! It was so much fun – even if I woke up the next day with my entire body in pain from lack of exercise!!
The highlight was, of course, the real performance at the Aoba Festival itself! We performed three times: a formal performance on stage and then twice during the festival parade! For me, dancing on the street in the parade was much more emotionally charged! On stage, we had to try to execute our dance perfectly in competition with the other teams. However, during the street parade, the main point was finding a way to share your feelings with the audience. I think we achieved this very well – every sound or pose we made was met with clapping as we connected with our audience. It was then that I realised that, even though of course it’s important to try and dance correctly, if you mess up your steps it is okay because at least you tried your best!
I also understood why we had to study about Japanese culture during the dance class. The Sparrow Dance, like other traditional Japanese dances, is based tightly around Japanese cultural concepts. We respected group consicousness by wearing the same costume and make up; we strengthened our group power and proudly showed it to the world. The spirit of ‘Do’ (道・way or method) was also demonstrated strongly in the many hours spent practicing over two months for just five minutes on stage (although this is nothing compared to a real Sparrow Dancer!).
This was probably the happiest memory I have made here in Japan and one that I will remember for the rest of my life!
I want to say thank you to my ‘sensei’ and my team who made this such an outstanding and unforgettable experience.
Sendai’s Aoba Festival (Aoba Matsuri ・ 青葉祭)
Date: The Aoba Festival is held on the third weekend of May every year (this year, 2017, it was held on Saturday, May 20 ~ Sunday, May 21). The first day holds the ‘evening festival’ and the second day is the ‘main festival’.
Location: The events of the festival are held in many locations around the Kotodai Park, Citizen Square and Ichiban Street areas of Sendai City.
Attendance Fee: FREE
Homepage (Japanese): http://www.aoba-matsuri.com/