Nishimonai in the Off-Season: Preserving Musical Memories in Akita

Ugo is a ghost town.

In the first full week of November, I headed back up to Akita prefecture to meet the president of the Nishimonai Preservation Society for the Nishimonai bon-odori Buddhist festival of the dead. This was my first time leaving the “concrete jungle” of Tokyo for months, and I was naturally beyond excited to be out in the woods and mountains for which Akita is known. I was also eager to reconnect with the nearly magical music and dance of this festival. I’ve been to Ugo several times, but this would be the first time I would see the town without the enchanting smokescreens of the festival and the unique atmosphere it creates.


Riding a rented bicycle around Akita’s Tazawakō, the deepest lake in Japan. Save for a few passing cars, no one was around for miles.

 


An abandoned boat on the shores of Tazawakō.

Ugo is hard to reach. To get there from Tokyo requires a three and a half-hour ride on the Akita shinkansen bullet train, which I suspect may be the slowest bullet train in Japan due to the mountains and valleys it traverses in the wilds of Tōhoku, or northern Japan. Once you reach Ōmagari city in southern Akita, you have to transfer to the local Ōu line that boasts just two cars and, if you miss the train, you have to wait at least an hour for the next. Get off at Yuzawa, one of the larger townships in southern Akita, and find the tiny bus stop behind the station to wait for the bus to Ugo; this may take over an hour. Enjoy the bus that you’ll likely have to yourself, and after half an hour of bumping along local roads that trace the rice paddies, you’ll get off at Ugo – but only if you know what you’re looking for. It’s a small town.

The organization of territorial boundaries in Japan is quite different than it is in the United States. Prefectures function similarly to states, but within each prefecture exists a series of subdivisions that have no clear comparison. A feudal society until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, much of Japan’s geography – especially in the northern countryside, which was not heavily industrialized in the twentieth century – is still conceived as concentric districts with unique characteristics. These subdivisions exist even in the same village. For instance, in Yokote, Akita, it is widely considered that the hyōben, or speech pattern, is different on the west side of town than it is on the east.

The Japanese countryside, or inaka, is also different from that of the United States insofar that you’ll rarely find an isolated house here surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland, as you might in New England or out west. Instead, the inaka is dotted with clusters of houses or businesses, with acres of rice paddies separating one village from the next. This adds to the strong sense of local identity in rural Japanese towns, something I experienced first-hand when I lived in Fukura, the tiny fishing village at the southern tip of Awaji Island off the coast of Shikoku island. People around town often vehemently explained to me the difference between people from Fukura and the nearby villages of Ama, Kasshu, Nada, and the dreaded rival Mihara, often with a charming hint of haughty superiority.

Unfortunately, the limited infrastructure and isolation of these towns has created a domino effect of economic collapse. In the 1990s, the Japanese government restructured much of the countryside into larger (and often arbitrary) townships that some fear sucks the life out of villages that, at least to some degree, pride themselves on uniqueness. Moreover, the Japanese countryside has experienced urban flight to nearly devastating consequences, especially in Tōhoku where farming, fishing, rice production, sake brewing, and logging are the primary industries. Many towns in the inaka are lined with boarded-up or abandoned buildings that were once successful businesses.


The streets of Ugo, Akita Prefecture.


The streets of Ugo, Akita Prefecture.

Interestingly, Ugo has managed to remain autonomous in an extremely economically depressed area of the country, and for one reason: Nishimonai. The festival is one of the “big three” (三大盆踊り, sandai bon-odori) bon festivals in Japan along with Awa-odori (阿波踊り) in Tokushima prefecture and Gujō-matsuri (郡上祭り) in Gifu prefecture, although Nishimonai is by far the most rural. From August 15th to 17th every year, the town comes alive with thousands of people coming to hear the beautiful music and see the beautiful dances from Japan’s past. The rest of the time, however, the souvenir shops that rake in Ugo’s most important revenue are closed. The town is on the brink of financial ruin as a result, with nearby Yuzawa eager to absorb Ugo and the cash-cow of Nishimonai into its ever-expanding boundaries.


A shop closed for the season, with festival posters from years past haunting the windows.

I visited Ugo on the second Saturday of November, which is when a monthly performance of the festival takes place inside the nicest building in town: the Nishimonai Preservation Society Auditorium. There were about twenty people in the audience, all of them well over age fifty. It seemed like many of these people were from Ugo, and the rest from other places around Akita. After the performance, two videos were playing on loop in the atrium that explain the history of the festival and show clips from festivals past. I had some time to kill before meeting with the president of the Preservation Society, so I settled in to watch the videos. The narrator emphatically discussed how Nishimonai is a beloved symbol of Ugo, and that all around this lovely little town lost in time you can find tiny homages to the festival in the form of statues, manhole covers, lampposts…


A statue of a Nishimonai dancer, spotted on top of a bridge.

It became clear to me that Ugo is Nishimonai and Nishimonai is Ugo. During our meeting, the president of the Preservation Society enthusiastically told me all about the musical structure of the festival’s two songs, about their monthly performances, and about the monthly dance rehearsal sessions (which he personally invited me to attend in preparation for next year’s festival), and the various projects the Preservation Society has undertaken to spread word about the music, including a big band jazz recording of the festival music (I’ve heard it, and it’s as bizarre as you’re imagining). It’s obvious to anyone who visits Ugo that the town’s morale would likely be destroyed should it become a mere district of Yuzawa. If Ugo ceases to exist, Nishimonai would then become obscured by another layer of historical circumstance, a representation of musical sensibility from both an era and place of the past.

My week in Akita has me thinking about two things. First, I’m interested in how Nishimonai gains meaning from what it represents: as a beautiful ritual, as a treasure to be protected, as an important (and fun) mode of artistic expression, and as the heart and soul of this town.


The Preservation Society’s performance of “Kange.” Although most people would argue that the “real” performance only happens in August at the actual festival, these performances happen much more frequently. In the end, what constitutes an authentic performance of tradition?

People connect to music in so many different ways, even if these ways are not always romantic. Would these monthly performances take place if Ugo didn’t face financial pressure to preserve the festival? Who is this performance for, and what is really being performed? These questions lead to the second thought I’ve been considering since my trip to Akita. If so much of Ugo’s identity and autonomy is tied up in the festival, how would people connect to this festival if it were no longer a part of Ugo?

Now that I’ve received enthusiastic permission to dance in next year’s festival (“We’re becoming so international!” the president exclaimed upon my agreement to dance next August), I’ll be heading up to Akita once a month for dance lessons, at which point I’ll have many opportunities to dig further into these questions. It also goes without saying that I’m incredibly excited to learn how to dance to this music and to become close with the people who know this music better than anyone on the planet, all while trying my hardest not to be a total klutz. I’m rooting for Ugo, and I’m looking forward to diving into the heart and soul of this beautiful little ghost town.

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