If you haven’t been woken up by the beating drum of Eisa in the middle of the night in the summer, you haven’t lived in Okinawa.
Eisa is a form of parade popular among Okniawans of all ages especially during Obon festival in the summer. Though Eisa teams seem to be young folk’s activity these days, the easiest form of Eisa was performed by older monks during the 15th century.
Okinawans believe the sprite of ancestor comes back to our world to visit their family during Obon (July 13th -15th on the lunar calendar). Ancestors may not recognize the way in and out of the home where they used to live, so respected older monks followed by villagers form a parade. They match around town to “guide” the sprite of their ancestor to help find their way home at the beginning of Obon, and the way back to their world at the end of Obon.
To encourage young people to carry on the tradition, drums, chanting, music, dancing, formations, and costume were incorporated into the parade, and the parade has turned into performance. Eisa builds friendship and teamwork, keep young people out of trouble, it’s now an important part of Okinawa’s community program.
In Okinawa, each district and neighborhood has its own Eisa team. Okinawa city hosted the annual Whole Island Eisa Festival – the biggest festival of its kind. All district teams will compete for the honor of the best Eisa team in the prefecture. They will be judged on formation, synchronization, energy level, costume, etc. There are four key characters in an Eisa team, each plays an important role.
You can watch the best teams compete during the Whole Island Eisa Festival in Okinawa city, but you can only watch it from far away. If you want to watch Eisa up close, the best way is to follow the sound of drums during the summer. Between July and August, you can find district level Eisa performance everywhere in Okinawa.
Performers in Whole Island Eisa Festival, photo source: okinawastory.com
Follow the sound of drums and you will find an Eisa team performing on the street. It’s like a treasure hunt for access to tradition and culture. After a few years living in Okinawa, you will find yourself following the locals to look for the Eisa parade as soon as you hear the sound of the drum. Everyone in the neighborhood gathers to celebrate this century-long, never-gets-old event.
Watching Eisa performance up close in Okinawa
City of Eisa
Okinawa city is the city of Eisa. The entire city is dedicated to carry on and promote this pround Ryukyu tradition. You can see image of Eisa performers printed on buildings, water bottle, and billboards. In fact, Okinawa city has four mascots representing the city, they are the four key characters in an Eisa team. Okinawa city hosts the largest Eisa festival in the world, and it has the highest concentration of Eisa performance team in Okinawa. It’s the Hollywood of Eisa. Eisa is a big deal in Okinawa city, and that’s why the Eisa drum is added to the Okinawa Map to represent Okinawa city.
Okinawa Eisa Experience Checklist
- Visit the Eisa History Museum in Okinawa City
- Watch a street-level Eisa performance during Obon season (August – September)
- Participate in the Whole Island Eisa Festival or the Ten Thousand People Eisa Performance in Naha
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