Dance Like Fools
Awaodori is a dance that is performed in summer festivals throughout Japan, but originating in Tokushima Prefecture in the southwestern island of Shikoku. Shikoku is one of the four main islands of Japan, but the one that is often forgotten, because it does not have a major city like Fukuoka or Nagasaki in Kyushu, or Sapporo in Hokkaido. The biggest city in Shikoku is in Kagawa Prefecture, Takamatsu, the 41st most populous city in Japan. Tokushima City is the 3rd of 3 cities in Shikoku in the list of the top 100 and at 86 is not very high on that list.
Yet, despite its lack of population, Tokushima is the source of one of Japan's major festival traditions. In fact, the name Awaodori itself is based on the feudal period name for Tokushima, Awa. Odori, meaning dance, completes the name, which is what the dance is called throughout Japan.
The Awaodori, though the dancer's wear costumes that are not unlike those worn throughout Japan's many festivals and is danced to music played on common shamisen lutes, taiko drums, shinobue flutes, and kane bells, is extremely distinctive. Not only the dance itself, but the distinctive songs (chants, really) are enticing, charming, and fun. What the dancers are chanting (there are some minor variations), however, is quite wonderful:
Odoru ahou ni The dancers are fools
Miru ahou The watchers are fools
Onaji ahou nara Both are fools so
Odorana son, son Just dance (or miss out)
The Koenji Awaodori is one of several that are held in Tokyo and one of many held throughout Japan. It has been celebrated now for 58 years, so the Koenji Awaodori has a tradition that makes it a huge event in its own right. In fact, with around 1.2 million revelers enjoying the celebration each year, it rivals some of Tokyo's biggest annual events. The crowds, for the most part, remain on the sidelines. However, as the dance troupes march through the many town squares, many of the watchers heed the calls of the dancers and join in the reverie, becoming fools together.
Koenji is in the Tokyo Ward of Suginami. With a population of more than half a million people, it is one of Tokyo's most populous. Still, it is very unlikely that the Koenji area itself has more than, say, one-tenth of Suginami's total population. Yet, with more than 500,000 people visiting during each day of the Awaodori, it is amazing that there is any room at all to watch the dance. However, it is even more amazing that Tokushima's own event attracts around 1.3 million tourists each year, allowing it to remain the oldest and largest. For a city with less than 300,000 residents, this is no small feat.
The men and women who perform in awaodori make a series of similar steps, drawing triangles in the air with their hands, but with different postures. The women tend to be more upright, while the men crouch low to the ground and gyrate more. Some of the men dance in wild gyrations, reminding me of whirling dervishes of Persian origins.
Beauty and Power
The things that make the Awaodori the most attractive are its beauty and power. The beauty is quite obvious. The costumes, the elegant dance, and the young women are gorgeous.
The power in the music, the rhythms, twirling hands, and constant gyrations in the summer heat make the temperature rise. Great food and fine drink make the night glorious. I always hope that it would never end.
One of the best dance troupes I saw this year was Bikkuri-ren. Bikkuri, which means surprise, was a huge surprise. Their athletic moves in sync, were a joy to watch. Each of the groups of dancers within the troupe - the kids, young women, young men, frenzied and comedic dancers, and the musicians and drummers - in turn, made the crowds gasp from their performance.
With more than 150 dance troupes and 12,000 dancers, performing in eight different parade routes, I could only see a fraction of the performances. But the great food, raw power, mesmerizing music, and, ultimately, the awesome beauty will draw me back again next year.
For more information on Awaodori, there is a wonderful site Awaodori.net. Unfortunately, it is only in Japanese.
Tokushima's page on their festival is also in English: