The New York Hanagasa Group participated in the Hanagasa Dance Festival in Yamagata City, this summer.The Hanagasa Dance Festival is one of the most beautiful and famous festivals in Japan. Twenty three members from the New York area joined in the parade/festivities This blog was written by the husband of Ms Momo Suzuki, who is the director of the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York, Inc., of which the New York Hanagasa Group is one of it’s parts. He had many wonderful experiences on this special trip to Japan.Although I have been to Japan many times, this recent trip was the first time I visited Yamagata Prefecture, my wife’s birthplace and childhood home.

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The main purpose of our trip was for my wife and her dancers from the New York Hanagasa-Kai to participate in the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival, held each year in Yamagata City, from Aug. 5th through Aug. 7th. I expected a few hundred dancers, at most, to participate in the parade. What I was surprised to find, was that thousands of dancers paraded down Yamagata City’s main street. On our night to perform, we walked to the staging area, a local park, where there were hundreds of dancers – men and women, young and old, all types of costumes – waiting to march. I was also surprised to discover that besides the traditional way of performing the dance, there is also a more athletic version of the dance for young dancers and even a hip-hop version for young children. The music, the colors, the dancing and the crowds were something I will never forget.

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After Yamagata City, my wife’s cousin booked us into a Japanese traditional hotel called Takinami, located in Akayu.
This new ryokan housed in a 300 year old building is the most authentic slice of old Japan that I have ever encountered in all of my previous trips to Japan. The owner, Mr. Suto, works as hard as any of his employees to make his guests feel at home, while also farming his own land; fruits and vegetables served at the hotel come from his farm and others owned by close friends. The area of Akayu is famous for its hot springs, from which Takinami draws water for its own hot spring baths. Pumped up from natural springs 300 meters below the surface, its wonderful waters, pumped into large tubs, will soothe and soak away all your worries. You will enter stressed and leave refreshed. With Takinami as our base, we visited various sites, with the magnificent mountains of Yamagata constantly surrounding us.

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We had a wonderful time visiting Yuzuru no Sato, the folk tale and folklore museum in Nanyo City. This museum is dedicated to artifacts from the well known grateful Crane Wife/Tsuru no ongaeshi of the tale. To further expand on what we had learned at the museum, the following day we were taken to the Soto Sect Chinzo Temple on Mount Kakufu, founded in 1460 by Kyokudo, the 2nd priest of the Rinno Temple. Our guide, Mr. Kaneko, was the narrator of the grateful Crane Wife fable at the municipal folk tale museum. This beautiful old temple is named after Chinzo, the main character in the grateful Crane Wife tale. An old cemetery, the rear of the temple had the most beautiful pond surrounded by bamboo trees and in the center of the pond, lotus flowers which only blossom for one day a year. Some of lotuses were open and displayed the most glorious shades of pink and red. While reveling is the serenity of the area, we were invited into the temple by the head priest and his lovely wife.

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The priest showed us a stuffed crane, which was enclosed in a glass case behind the altar. We chatted with his wife and enjoyed the marvelous view through the open screen. She enjoyed showing us a picture of their son, who was a priest in training at the famous Eiheji temple. She told us that not too long ago he looked very different; having hair below his waist and wearing hip hop clothing.

Looking back, I caught a glimpse of an older Japan that I had never seen before and is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

-Thomas k. Mooney

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