OKINAWA CITY — The island’s Eisa season ends with a bang next weekend with the 50th Annual All-Island Eisa Festival at Koza Stadium, near Kadena Air Base.
If recent years are any measure, more than 250,000 people will attend the three-day event packed with food, fun and music. And if your throat becomes dry from the excitement and semi-tropical summer heat, the Koza Orion Beer Fest will be going on at adjacent fair grounds.
Eisa is an Okinawa ceremonial dance featuring drums of all shapes, sizes and deafening volumes that originally was performed to soothe the souls of the islanders’ ancestors during the summer obon season. The dance evolved from a shaman’s rite to send the spirits back to the otherworld to a joyous celebration.
The festival also marks the end of summer.
The word Eisa derives from the sound dancers chant during the performances. It’s similar to “hurray” in English.
Dancers wear brightly colored costumes and high-step, leap and twirl athletically to the beat of the drums, shouts, whistles and the chords of the sanshin, the traditional Okinawan three-stringed banjo. Although Eisa festivals are held throughout the prefecture during summer, the Okinawa City event features Eisa groups from all over the island, including an international team made up of Americans, Chinese, Brazilians and Argentinians.
This year’s festival features one of the largest fields of participants — 34 teams — in its 50-year history.
The festival kicks off with “Street Eisa” on Friday, 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Okinawa City’s Gate Two Street. On Saturday and Sunday the fun will move to Koza Stadium on Highway 85, where the performances begin at 2:20 p.m. and last until 9:30 p.m. A fireworks display is to conclude each day’s festivities.
The Orion Beer Festival, in the park next to the stadium, will be open from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and feature various musical groups, and food and beverage vendors.
About 90 Americans, mainland Japanese and other foreign nationals will participate as members of the Okinawa International Exchange Club. This year about 35 Americans, most of them part of the military community, are on the team.
“Many Americans decided to join in the team after they were attracted by the sound of drums,” said Peter Ku, who’s been volunteer coordinator of the club’s Eisa team for 14 years. Team members have been practicing four nights a week since July, he said.
“What is most rewarding to me is to see the team members — Americans, Okinawans and Japanese — develop friendship through the practices,” he said.
The teams practice at Ryokuju-en, a senior citizens’ home in Okinawa City. Kazumasa Kinjo, the home’s director, said residents look forward to the annual sessions.
“Every summer, it is what they all anxiously wait for,” he said. “They are very grateful, and at the same time proud to see Americans putting their hearts into the dance and Okinawan culture.”