Awa-Odori dance festival
Held on the last Saturday and Sunday of August every year in Koenji, the Awa-Odori is one of Japan`s great festivals. Starting in the late afternoon and finishing in the evening, you will find over 12000 dancers organised into about 188 groups and up to and over one million spectators attend the event annually. It is a rousing, colourful and energetic spectacle that is thoroughly entertaining.
The Awa-Odori has its roots in the Bon-Odori which is the festival for the dead. However it really came into its own in 1586 when the daimyo, Hachisuka Iemasa hosted an enormous celebration for the completion of Tokushima castle (in Shikoku, one of the four main islands that make up Japan). According to legend, everyone drank so much that they began to stagger and stumble back forth waving their hands over their heads (as you do when really drunk …). People picked up instruments that came to hand and began playing a simple tune to which they invented the lyrics … and the festival was born!
Over the years, the festival developed its own rules for men and women both in dress and the way they danced. It became an annual event which lasted for something like three days in Tokushima and continued until the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912) when the indigo trade, which financed the event, collapsed. It was revitalised at the beginning of the Showa Period (1926) when Tokushima coined its modern name, “Awa-Odori”, and promoted it as a tourist attraction.
Immigrants from Tokushima in search of work came to Tokyo, settled in the Koenji area and brought the festival with them. And what a huge favour they did the city so long ago. Koenji is already a vibrant place, as any Tokyoite knows, but the Awa-Odori takes it to another level.
Once the roads are blocked off the dance groups assemble and prepare to dance for the crowd. Along with the dancers, there are the accompanying musicians playing a variety of instruments such as shamisens, bells and taiko. After they start they follow a figure of eight course between Koenji station, which is on the Chuo train line and Shin-Koenji station, which is on the Marunouchi subway line.
And they crowd that attends this event is insanely big!! Along the route when the festival is at its height, if you need to move … be prepared for it, because the streets are so packed with people it takes lot of time to make your way through. So it is better to find the best spot possible and settle in for the duration of the festival. And it is fun not only watching the dancers, but watching the crowd too! People eating and drinking, all having a great time watching the spectacle.
As a purely visual spectacle, it is in credible as there is so much eye candy. The dancers are just beautiful – the women in their yukatas and kasa (the straw hats), and the men in their happi coats. There are kids and even the elderly take part. Everyone dances along their designated route, and when they reach the end, the dancers and musicians bring it all together in a real deafening crescendo to the crowd`s enjoyment. It is extremely exciting, the crowds clapping and cheering all the way, encouraging the dancers. And each group is given tremendous applause as they make their way out of the streets to the next area. It`s easy to see how the crowd and dancers enjoy each other.
You`ll even hear the dancers chant these famous lines and others while they perform to encourage each other:
(The dancers are fools)
(The watchers are fools)
(Both are fools alike)
(So why not dance?)
The words might seem silly, but they really sum up the tremendous atmosphere of the festival … it`s nothing too serious, just everyone getting out and having some fun, really great fun.
If you have been in Japan for a long time and you haven`t been … well, you`ve been missing out on something really great. And if you are planning to come to Japan during a summer one day, put this event into your diary as it shouldn`t be missed. You can see the 2012 Awa-Odori dance festival (English) website here.
When is it?
The last Saturday and Sunday of August, every year.
The easiest way to get to Koenji station is by using the Chuo line. Shin-koenji (subway) station is located on the Marunouchi line. We have a Google map here to show you:
View Awa-Odori dance festival in Koenji and Shin-Koenji in a larger map