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Touring the Kyu-Bon Eisa Drum Dances of Uruma City (2019)
post : 2019.08.31 20:00
Okinawa’s Obon is based on the lunar calendar every year and referred to as Kyu-Bon, but this year (2019), the three days of Kyu-Bon fell on the same days as the Obon according to the solar calendar that many regions in mainland Japan follow. The days this year were: August 13 (called Unkei which is on July 13 according to the lunar calendar), 14th (Nakanuhi, July 14), and the 15th (Ukui, July 15). Eisa drum dancing is performed during the three days of Okinawa’s Kyu-Bon, and is said to be a form of a traditional Buddhist dance. On Ukui this year, I went out to photograph mainly the Seinen Eisa groups in Uruma City. In this article, I’ll be introducing some of the recommended Eisa groups within Uruma City, in communities in and around Katsuren and Yonashiro. I’d be glad if you could use the information as reference on the best times to go and the types of camera equipment and settings that I recommend for you to take great photos.
At around 18:00, I first went to see the Heshikiya Seinenkai Eisa in Katsuren. When I arrived at the square in front of Kamiya in Heshikiya, it was already full of people. When going to any neighborhood to see their Eisa, it’s always best to arrive early. Also, don’t forget to go to the washroom before the performances begin, because some performances are long, like with Heshikiya Seinenkai whose performances are about two hours each for the West (Iri) and East (Agari) communities (at Heshikiya, there are public washrooms at the nearby park). It’s also good to remember there are no parking lots (so it’s best to take public transit).
Heshikiya’s Eisa kicked off with performances by Heshikiya Iri. It started just when the sun was going down and the moon was rising in the eastern skies. During this ‘magic hour’ when Mother Nature shows her changing expressions, the pounding of the Paranku (small drums) echo and the impressive Eisa performance begins. It would be difficult to take photos while moving along with the procession or when up close, so it’d be convenient if you could take your telephoto lens with you. You can basically get by with one standard zoom lens that lets you take brighter shots, but since the performance is in a large circle formation, you could capture great shots with a wide lens as the performers pass by. As the Iri performance begins to wrap up, the night has set in and day light gets dim, so it would be good to increase the ISO speed or use a strobe.
Before the performance by Heshikiya Agari begins, there is a short performance by the Iri Nakawachi (members of the performance group with painted white faces who are responsible for keeping the performers in formation and to make sure they stay hydrated). The Nakawachis’ performance vary every year, and this year, they used torches. Using the flash on your camera to capture scenes with lit torches will brighten it too much, so you can, for example, go without the flash and raise the ISO speed to about 1600 to 4000. This way, you can capture the solemn atmosphere of the performance (but you have to be careful if the performers move quickly because the photo will turn out blurry, and by raising the ISO speed higher than 6400, it will increase the noise in the shot as well).
At 21:00, I went a little further north from Heshikiya on the Katsuren Peninsula to see the Eisa performance by the Henna Seinenkai at the square in front of the pond (there’s also no parking available near the Henna’s performance area). Just like the Heshikiya Eisa which is also within Katsuren, the Henna Eisa uses the small Paranku drums. Upon closer observation, you’ll see their differences and unique characteristics in the dances, and that’s another fun part of seeing performances in different communities. Henna Eisa is known for the Teodori hand dancing by women wearing head cloths, but this year, due to decrease in the number of female dancers, the Teodori was absent. But there were women within the Heshi singers that were supporting the accompanying music.
Another characteristic of Henna Eisa is the Kokkei Odori dance (or Henna’s version of the Nakawachi performance). They move their bodies up and down in vigorous movements and are certainly entertaining.
By 22:00, you’ll want to be at the FamilyMart convenience store by the Ayahashi Kaichu Doro to see the Yakena Eisa in Yonashiro (because they usually schedule to perform there every year at around this time). This year, I didn’t make it to the FamilyMart by then, and so I found them as they were performing at a different part of their community and photographed them. Although the narrow street is lit up with floodlights, to capture the fast-moving Yakena Eisa performances on film, it’s best to utilize the flash. I also think it would really capture the essence of the scene by using the slow shutter while using the flash, too. Yakena Eisa also uses the Paranku drums, but their style of dance has more movement than that of Heshikiya and Henna, and is also full of spirit.
At 23:30, I had crossed the Kaichu Doro and was on Hamahiga Island heading for the hamlet of Higa situated to the left of the bridge that leads to the island. Their performance was at the large open area just before their community, and I parked my car across the street at the fishing port. Higa Eisa is outstanding and is said to be the original form of the Yakena Eisa mentioned earlier. Their movements are graceful and slower in tempo, and is quiet but impressive. Since this was a bigger venue, I used the tripod and utilized the lighting, opting to go without the strobe and then heightened the ISO speed to take my photographs.
An interesting aspect of Higa Eisa is the great changes in their dance formations. The rows change from two to four, and then the dancers cross and then transform to a large circle. At the climax of their performance, the Paranku drummers split into two rows on each side, and then four rows of Teodori hand dancers proceed in the middle, forming eight rows in all. Kyu-Bon and Obon is an event that welcomes back the spirits of the ancestors for its three days, and in the performance of Higa Eisa, the part where they see the spirits return back to the heavens at the end of Kyu-Bon is very beautiful and moving.
This year’s Kyu-Bon is over but on this last weekend from August 30 (Fri) to September 1 (Sun), the 14th Uruma City Eisa Festival is being held, so if you’re interested in seeing Uruma City’s great Eisa performances, you still have a chance!
The 14th Uruma City Eisa MatsuriFestival (three days from August 30 to September 1, 2019)
Pre-Festival: Aug. 30 (Fri) 18:50 to 21:00 (Venue: Front of Uruma City Office)
Festival: Aug. 31 (Sat) 17:00 to 21:00 (Venue: Track & Field @ Yonashiro Comprehensive Park in Uruma City)
Final Day: Sept. 1 (Sun) 17:00 to 21:00 (Venue: Same as above @ Uruma City Yonashiro Comprehensive Park)
Website (Japanese): https://www.city.uruma.lg.jp/culture/1249/9113/8746
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Hiroshi Kuwamura