Dance of Fools: Awa Odori Festival, Japan

Awa Odori is a dance which takes place in various locations throughout the prefecture of Tokushima in Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands that comprise the Japanese archipelago. The largest celebrations are held in the city of Tokushima itself.

Dance of Fools: Awa Odori Festival, Japan

Festival Essentials

When: Annually, August 12 – 15
Where: Tokushima City, Sikokou, Japan
What’s it about: Dance of drunken fools turned serious tourist attraction
Remember to bring: Your dancing shoes

How To Guide taken from the book Great Festivals of the World

Where’s the Party?

Awa Odori is a dance which takes place in various locations throughout the prefecture of Tokushima in Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands that comprise the Japanese archipelago. The largest celebrations are held in the city of Tokushima itself.

Dates for the Diary

Awa Odori is held annually in Tokushima City between August 12 and 15.

 

What It’s All About

Awa Odori takes place during the Buddhist observance of O-bon, when the spirits of the dead are thought to return to their ancestral homes. In Tokushima the departed are welcomed back with a performance of the Dance of the Fools, which dates back more than 400 years.
In 1587 a feudal overlord decided to throw a party to celebrate the completion of his new castle. His guests got so drunk that they began to dance, arms and legs flailing about all over the place. Once they had recovered from their hangovers it was decided to make it an annual event. The feudal government of the time, afraid that the gatherings could easily turn into a mob that would try and oust them from power, imposed restrictions on Awa Odori. Yet their legislation was unable to subdue the joyous spirit of the people, and the tradition lived on.

In Tokushima City, most of the action happens along the city’s main drag. Over the four days of the festival around 990 different community dance groups known as ren put on dance displays between about 6pm and 9pm. Dressed in yukata (cotton summer kimonos), participants form an arm waving, feet shuffling procession, playing traditional musical instruments as they go. After the official presentations everyone is welcome to join in the dancing. Stalls and fairs line both sides of the Shinmachi River the parties rage well into the night, particularly on the last day of the festival.

Be Prepared

Japan operated a visa waiver scheme for visitors from 56 different countries, including the UK, Ireland, USA, Australia and New Zealand, provided you are staying for no more than 90 days. You must carry with you your return or onward ticket, and evidence of sufficient funds to support yourself for the duration of your stay. If you are in any doubt or wish to stay in Japan for more than 90 days contact the Japanese Consulate or Embassy in the country you are travelling from before you leave.

If you plan on travelling around Japan by train, make use of the Foreigners’ 7, 14 or 21 consecutive day JR Rail Pass (valid on most JR trains and bullet trains). You must buy this from an authorised travel agent in your home country before travel for validation and use in Japan and you will require your passport stamped with Temporary Visitor visa status when validating the coupon at one of the main JR stations. Passes cost around US$130, US$410 and US$525 respectively.

Many of the hotels in Tokushima are booked up well in advance of the festival, so it¹s a good idea to make a reservation a few months beforehand.

Joining In

Visitors who want to take part in the formal dance displays can join the Arasowa-ren (which means ‘do not quarrel’), who perform on August 14. You should contact the TOPIA in advance to organise this. (see below for contact information). The Tokushima International Association (TIA) also organises a group to dance on August 12. For more information, telephone: + 81 88 622 6066.

Tickets for the spectator seating areas go on sale in early July and are advertised in the local newspaper. For information about booking your ticket in advance contact the TOPIA (see below for contact information). Tickets also go on sale at Saiwaicho Park near Tokushima Central Hall, from 9am on the day of the performance, but be sure to get there early as they do sell out.

Getting There

There are frequent express coaches to Tokushima from various cities, which are quite cheap and follow a direct route. Local coach companies also organise group trips from all over Japan but you will need to ask a Japanese speaking friend to make the booking on your behalf.

You can travel to Tokushima by train if you prefer, but as the town is not on a major train line it’s a rather roundabout route.

Where to Stay

There are a good range of accommodation available in Tokushima, including internationalstyle hotels, family-run guest houses knows as minshuku and traditional-style inns called ryokans. Rates start from as little as US$50 per person per night, but they usually increase during the festival.

 Other Expenses

You don¹t need to pay to watch the Awa Odori if you’re happy to stand, but tickets for the seating areas cost about US$8. See above for information on buying a ticket in advance. If you decide to take part in the formal dance displays the only cost you¹ll incur is hiring a costume, which costs around US$8.

If you stick to eating in simple noodle bars around Clement Plaza, close to Tokushima station and buying drinks from vending machines, you can keep costs to a minimum. A decent meal of noodles, meat and vegetables would cost around US$7.

Once You’re There

To watch the dancing, head for the terrace seating along Shinmachibashi-dori, the city’s main street. Soak up the atmosphere in the side streets leading up from the river, which are lined with stalls and exhibitions throughout the festival.

Japan is hot and humid in August, so take light clothes, sunblock and a hat. Carry a bottle of water with you at all times.

Very few people in Tokushima speak English. Bear in mind that Japanese people are generally shy of trying out their English, so if they appear to be ignoring you they probably don¹t mean to be rude. If you travel with Japanese friends they will be able to explain goings on more clearly.

 

Local Attractions

Awa Odori is by far Tokushima’s biggest claim to fame. The Awa Odori Kaikan, which is close to the station, has displays and exhibits relating to the history of the festival, however it is closed during the festival itself. At other times there is an entrance fee of US$ 4. When it is open, Awa Odori performances are put on every evening.

If you’re keen to explore the rest of the prefecture, head for the whirlpools and craft villages of Naruto north of the city. The pretty coastal village of Hiwasa and the island of Awaji-shima in the south have some decent beaches and traditional Japanese villages.

More Information

For more information about Tokushima and Awa Odori, contact the Tokushima Prefecture International ExchangeAssociation (TOPIA) which is situated on the 6th Floor of the Station building at 61-1 Terashima Honcho Nishi, Tokushima, 7700831.
Tel + 81 88 6563 303.
Staff speak English and are extremely helpful.

Japan National Tourist Organisation runs an English language help line which is open from 9am-5pm daily Tel: 0088 224800. It is toll free outside of Tokyo and Kyoto and cannot be called from overseas. If you’re in Tokyo call 03-3201-3331 instead of the above number, or 075-371-5649 in Kyoto.

 

main image: Group of female dancers at the Awa Odori Matsuri in Tokushima by Stemu2000 www.stefansblog.com

 

By David Atkinson

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