The 17th Annual Shinjuku Eisa Festival: Experience the Spirit of Okinawa in Shinjuku

Every year, on the last Saturday of July, the streets of Shinjuku are transformed by the sights, sounds, and spirit of Okinawa. The Shinjuku Eisa Festival, a celebration of traditional Okinawan dancing, attracts over one million visitors annually and is a true spectacle to behold.


Eisa explained

Considering how jubilant Eisa performances are, you would never guess that the festival’s roots are anchored in ancient Buddhist funeral traditions, dating back to the early 1600s, when Okinawa was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Eisa is a Bon dance, and as tradition tells it, every year (July 13 according to the traditional calendar) ancestral spirits descend to earth. Naturally, they become reluctant to return to their world, and Eisa, with its booming drum sounds, was created to scare these spirits back to their realm (traditionally performed two days later on July 15).

The women in the short, brightly colored kimonos are performing te-odori (hand dances) alongside shimedaiko drummers.

Eisa evolved throughout the 20th century, growing beyond its traditional roots. The 1980s marked the birth of “creative Eisa” and the dances became more of a performance art, untethered from local communities. This led to the tradition spreading across the country and the world.

The 17th Annual Shinjuku Eisa Festival

Not even an impending typhoon could keep the crowds away.

For the past 17 years, Eisa performance groups have come from all over the country to show off their talent at this famous event. According one of the event organizers, “Over 20 teams have been practicing hard all year for this very moment.” Fun fact: only four teams are actually from Okinawa (and that’s a record high).

A performer holds up a shimedaiko (medium-sized drum).

So what is it like to experience the festival? Shinjuku Ward Mayor Kenichi Yoshizumi describes it perfectly: “The cries of the performers and the sound of the barrel drums reach down into your soul, and the sight of the dynamic dance in the midsummer sun is sure to touch your heart.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to be moved by the perfectly choreographed singing and dancing timed with the rhythmic thunderclaps of the taiko drums.

Something for everyone

Inclusivity and variety are some of Eisa’s most impressive characteristics. Men and women of all ages enthusiastically perform dances and play instruments—even children get in on the fun. Modern performances include not only traditional music but also lively takes on modern pop. With each team performing several routines, anyone who watches the show is sure to find something that resonates.
Speaking of spectating, don’t be intimidated by the crowds. Yes, one million spectators in the streets surrounding Shinjuku Station is a sight to behold, but this number is spread out over eight hours (noon to 8 p.m., weather permitting). The festival is fluid—there’s no assigned seating and people come and go as they please. Be patient, and you are sure to eventually get a front row seat, perfect for taking some unforgettable photographs.

Swinging odaiko (large barrel drums) is one of the many things that make Eisa dances physically demanding.

More to see and do

Need a break from all of the action? Although the festival is primarily about the Eisa dances, you can find food stalls selling beer and traditional Okinawan food. If the heat is overwhelming, you may still be able to get your hands on an Okinawan meal by ducking into one of the nearby department stores. For example, this year, Isetan hosted an indoor Okinawa-themed exhibition to coincide with the Shinjuku Eisa Festival.

Come on down

So, if you find yourself in Tokyo in late July, make it a point to check out the Shinjuku Eisa Festival. It’s free fun for the whole family and a rare chance to experience Okinawan culture in the midst of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most popular urban centers.

For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes additional location details:
The 17th Annual Shinjuku Eisa Festival: Experience the Spirit of Okinawa in Shinjuku

If you liked this article, please share it by clicking on one (or all) of the buttons below!

You might also like

AUTHOR

Anthony

Anthony

Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.

Information

Address -
Hours 12:00 – 20:00
Price FREE
Close -
Access East and west sides of Shinjuku Station
Phone +81-(0)3-6681-4858
Language Japanese
English
Website http://www.shinjuku-eisa.com/