Tokushima City is the site of one of the most famous dance festivals held across Japan during Obon, the festival to honor the dead. Awa Odori (阿波おどり) dates back to the year 1578 and is still extremely popular today, drawing over 1.3 million tourists annually to the four-day event taking place from August 12 to 15.
Awa is the old feudal name for Tokushima Prefecture and odori means dance. Drawing its name from the lyrics of a well-known song, Awa Odori is also referred to as the “Fool’s Dance.”
踊る阿呆に – The dancers are fools
見る阿呆 – The spectators are fools
同じ阿呆なら – Both are fools alike so
踊らな損、損 – Why not dance?
Although there are events scheduled during the daytime, the main attraction doesn’t start until 6:00 PM and runs until 10:30 PM. The city center shuts down and is turned into a large dance stage. There are seven different stage areas with either free or paid seating. The paid seating areas tend to draw the professional groups, while the free areas will have more casual dancers. You can also find numerous food and game stands that are common to Japanese matsuri (festivals).
Groups of choreographed dancers and musicians known as ren (連) dance through the streets, accompanied by the shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flute and the kane bell. Performers wear traditional Obon dance costumes and chant and sing as they parade through the streets.
The ren distinguish themselves with difficult variations of the otherwise simple dance steps and with colorful costumes. Women wear yukatas (cotton kimonos) while men wear happi coats (shorter versions of the yukata over shorts or pants).
Men and women dance in different styles. The men dance in a low crouch with knees pointing outwards and arms held above the shoulders. The women’s dance uses the same basic steps, but due to the restrictive yukata only the smallest of steps can be taken and the hand gestures are more restrained and graceful, reaching up towards the sky. Children and adolescents of both sexes usually dance the men’s dance. The dances are intended to welcome the souls of deceased ancestors.
Tourists and visitors may find it difficult to secure a hotel within Tokushima this time of year. Due to the popularity of the event, all hotels are booked months in advance and those unfortunate enough to not be able to secure a room in the city can choose to stay in Naruto (40 minutes away by train) or Takamatsu (1 hour away by train).
Awa Odori Kaikan is a museum dedicated to Awa Odori, located at the base of Mount Bizan. There is a gift shop on the ground floor and the museum itself is on the third floor. The building also houses a hall where four daily performances of the Awa Odori are given. Like the actual event itself, the audience members are encouraged to participate in the dancing!