Crowds and kimonos
Malaysia’s Bon Odori Festival is a celebration of Japanese culture featuring the traditional dance of the same name. The Bon Odori Festival began as just a small gathering among Japanese expatriates in an effort to foster the friendship between Malaysia and Japan. These days, it has grown into a much anticipated annual event that draws roughly 35,000 people from all nationalities.
How to Get to the Bon Odori Festival
Any method you take to get to Malaysia’s Bon Odori festival – car, Grab or KTM – will be a nightmare.
There is very little parking at Kompleks Sukan Negara Shah Alam. We saw many cars parked on the road to the east or west, up to a thirty-minute walk away. The police had blocked off the easiest, quickest turn into the stadium. Our Grab driver had to drive 15 minutes in the opposite direction on the slow-moving Persiaran Jubli Perak before he could make a U-turn, and cars were parked on the divider along this road. Absolute insanity. At the end of the festival, hordes of people were waiting for Grabs. Many of them, us included, were engaged in frantic calls with their Grab driver about their location.
There is a free shuttle to the event from the Shah Alam KTM station. Using the shuttle is probably fine to get to the Bon Odori festival. However, when the event was over, the queue to take the shuttle back to the KTM station stretched further than I could see.
Performances begin a few hours after the gate opens. Once the performances kick off in the evening, there’s no downtime until the festival ends. There is no long wait between performances where you can dash for food or a toilet without missing anything.
The highlight is the Bon Odori dances. The dance repeats three times during the festival, and it’s the same music and dances for all three of the Bon Odori performances. The dancers don’t teach the moves. You’re expected to follow along as best you can.
The ring of space around the stage is the dancing space. Even if you’re totally uncoordinated and don’t know the moves, joining the crowd in a Bon Odori dance is fun. There’s something enjoyable about hundreds of people dancing together, many of them failing as badly as you. It’s like an amateur flash mob. Let loose and join in for at least one of the three Bon Odori dances.
The rest of the night is filled with short, 15-minute drum performances (Wadaiko) and the opening and closing speeches. There was a scheduled “Guest Performance” at 8:30 pm, but nothing happened during that time.
Simple Japanese street food made up the bulk of the food tents at the Bon Odori festival. There was okonomiyaki, mentaiko, gyoza, taiyaki, and a large variety of grilled meat. A few vendors were selling food that is a bit harder to eat at a festival, like maki rolls and oden. Wondersnow, a liquid nitrogen ice cream vendor, seemed very popular and had multiple stalls.
Nearly every stall, even the drink vendors, had massive queues. It did not get any better as the night went on, either. We tried looking for a drink at 8:30 during the performances, but there were still long queues for everything.
Bringing drinks from home is allowed and highly recommended. There is no alcohol served at the Bon Odori festival, but you are allowed to bring your own. Although, I did not see a single person drinking as we walked around. This festival is a pretty wholesome event. If anyone was drunk, they’d stick out.
Stadium toilets are never good, but the toilets at the Bon Odori Festival are particularly grim. Since the festival takes place on the practice field (and not inside the actual stadium), the majority of the facilities are porta-potties. They are near one end of the food tents in long rows. There are also a couple of portable toilets on Persiaran Perkilangan leading up to the stadium.
There is one tiny washroom on the field. Look for the small concrete shack with a pyramid roof near where you enter. These toilets were horrendous but slightly better than a porta-potty. There were only two stalls in the women’s, both with leaking squatting toilets. The floor was all wet and was no toilet paper. There were basins to wash hands, but no soap at all.
The Bon Odori Festival in Malaysia is chaotic, but it’s a free event. It’s an enjoyable evening out if you can practise patience in the immense crowds and lack of seating. Have fun with your fashion when attending the Bon Odori Festival. If you own a kimono or any Japanese-inspired accessories, wear them!
This event desperately needs to relocate to a bigger venue. Still, I would consider attending the Bon Odori Festival in future years. Next time, I will make sure to arrive early to beat the traffic and bring more food and drinks from home.