Energy and elegance take to the streets of Tokushima each August for the Awa Odori. This summer, we were lucky to be able to join over one million people to enjoy Japan’s largest dance festival.
Awa Odori is one of the most famous celebrations which makes up the Buddhist Obon festivities where people return to their home towns to welcome the dead’s brief return to Earth. The streets in Tokushima on Shikoku island are filled with people of all ages dressing up and dancing together from 12 to 15 August.
Dancing in the rain
On arrival at Tokushima, we were greeted by the first rain that we’d seen in Japan throughout the two weeks of our travels. We were told that the dancing was in the balance and they would make a decision at 5pm…
But as soon as we drifted into the streets of Tokushima it was clear that the dance was on.
We did not realise that the Awa Odori would be the same repeated dance from each troop or ren. Rather than being dull however, the repetition was enthralling. Before the end of one performance, we were cranking out necks for the next ren to come along, picking out the subtle changes in the movement. Hours passed without us noticing…
What are the origins of the Awa Odori dance?
There are a few theories on the origins of the Awa Odori with Awa being the old name for the Tokushima prefecture and Odori meaning dance. The one that seems most prevalent is that it was invented during the celebrations on completion of a new castle for the Lord of Awa in the sixteenth century. During the party, revellers’ inebriation caused them to stumble back and forth with their arms moving in the air.
The dress defines the dance
The women’s traditional costumes were stunning, notably the striking amigasa (semi-circular hats) which were so eye-catching as the women moved in unison. Yukata (summer kimonos), beautiful obi often containing fans, and geta (wooden sandals) were also part of the show. The kimono restricts movement encouraging a graceful dance as participants stretch upwards on tiptoes in formation with the triangular hats forming patterns as they dance down the street.
Whilst the kimono-clad women are choreographed to reach upwards, the men move down in a squatting motion with much more freedom. Many women and children took on this dance too and dressed in the men’s costumes of happi jackets, shorts and split-toed socks. The men wear the scarves around their heads which are tied under the nose and the women wear little scarf crowns.
Only fools don’t join the dance…
The lyrics, “Odoru aho ni miru aho; onaji aho nara odoranya son son!” rang out across the city. In other words, it’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches; if both are fools, you might as well dance!
So throughout the event, freestyle dancers from the crowd joined in. This beautiful woman in the blue and white yukata with green obi was sitting just along from us and I was pleased to catch her on camera as she joined the dance procession.
The beat is created by shamisens, gongs, taiko drums and flutes.
“Yattosa, yattosa” was called out throughout the performances. This is a hayashi kotoba call and response pattern stays in your head long after the dance has ended.
How to join the Awa Odori dance festival
If you’re in Japan from 12 to 15 August, I’d highly recommend checking out the Awa Odori. If you want to stay in Tokushima itself, you need to book accommodation several months in advance. When we looked a month before, we had to widen our search and stayed in Takumatsu, just over an hour’s train journey away. There are other Obon dances around Japan, including the second largest in Tokyo. You can also get in touch with the organisers in Tokushima and join the fools’ dance! If you’ve been to Tokushima’s Awa Odori or know any more about the traditions behind the dances, please feel free to comment and share your experiences.
I’ll leave the last note to the performers…