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Dancing with the Dead & Firecracker Wars (T)


It’s Obon Season in Japan, a time to return to our hometowns and pay respect to our ancestors. In our summer haunt of Karuizawa in the Nagano Prefecture, a gang of us would walk the river to celebrate the summer Obon Festival at the local jinja shrine. Though we could have easily found our way without the heavy flashlight, we took it anyway to make the oyakata parents happy. The theory was that with the light of the living we could ward off any angry ancestral spirits who had come back for the season.


We dressed in summer cotton yukata or in jeans and a t-shirt, whatever the oyakata told us to wear. Passing the food stalls for a reconnaissance of the festival grounds, we went by the jinja shrine and the platform of drummers around which we’d dance. There was to be no food and games until we inspected the church next door and defied the megaphone-yelling missionaries telling us we were sinning for dancing with the dead.


After our face-off with the evangelism, we gorged on takoyaki octopus balls, yakisoba noodles and mizuame candy. Then it was time to go fishing for the impossible-to-catch tiny zenigame green turtles which we planned on releasing in the river so that they could grow up to become Gamera and take on Godzilla. Only after our bellies and minds were full of the supernatural were we ready to dance with the ancient spirits.


When we were a little older, we waged firecracker wars after the festival. It was our version of the traditional okuribi fires emblazoned on the side of the mountain to guide the spirits back home at the end of the Obon Season. The oyakata parents did not sanction spending all of our arbeit summer job money on firecrackers. Still, we crossed them, valiantly going to firecracker war in the blueberry fields near Mt. Asama and sneaking back home with holes in our t-shirts.


Variations of these Obon childhoods must have been firing in the hearts of many when the Obon dancing came on at the end of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 Closing Ceremony. My heart was busy responding to the chill of a passing ghost along the river and pumping hard from the sting of firecracker fire on my skin. Bye bye #2020 Tokyo Olympics, thanks for the goosebump moments and for reminding us about being stronger together.




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