Japan’s most famous traditional dance festival. Tokushima Awa Odori is the mother of all Awa Odori festivals, especially in the Tokyo/Kanto area where many are held. It’s the Big.Bon.Dance. When it comes to Tokushima, I can hardly think of anything else. Summer dance frenzy for four evenings every August 12th–15th. “Awa” is the old, samurai-era name for Tokushima Prefecture. (It doesn’t mean “bubble.”)
Awa Odori is a huge street dance parade held on the main streets of Tokushima city. It’s instantly recognizable by the trademark crescent straw hats worn by the women. The dance beat is also distinctive and complemented by the dancers shouting “Yattosa, yattosa!” (ヤットサー、ヤットサー). There are also male dancers and children.
Awa Odori is nicknamed the “Fool’s Dance” because their hand motions above their heads are similar to a gesture meaning “You’re/I’m an idiot!” And so you might see male dancers making an idiot face (lower left photo). (But the women don’t ever make idiot faces because they are highly intelligent beings.)
Each dancer belongs to a dance troupe called “ren” (連). They have names like Aho-ren, Aoi-ren, and Kikusui-ren. Each troupe wears the same uniform (yukata, etc.) imprinted with the name of their ren. They also have their own dance music and live musicians. They spend months practicing before the festival.
During the festival, the troupes dance on the main streets of the city in a long parade. They come one after another on festival evenings. There’s also a dance troupe open to the public, usually called “Niwaka-ren” or “Tobi-iri-ren.” Anybody can join in and dance in the parade with or without a costume.
You can watch the dancers for free along the streets. But the most comfortable and enjoyable place to watch it is at one of the paid spectator areas called “embujo” (演舞場) where they have spectator stands (top photo). That’s where the dancers do their fancy formations and tricks. Celebrity dancers also appear. Admission is charged, but it’s worth it. Seats sell out quickly, so buy tickets sooner rather than later.
So why are they all dancing like this? According to one theory, Tokushima Awa Odori originated in the 16th century when a local castle lord celebrated the construction of his castle by having everyone dance the night away. Awa Odori is considered to have origins from the Buddhist bon dance to greet the souls of the deceased returning to visit Earth in summer. However, Awa Odori today is not a religious festival and not organized by any religious organization.
Besides the city of Tokushima, Awa Odori is held in other locations in and outside Tokushima Prefecture. It has taken root especially in the Tokyo area where there’s an Awa Odori almost every July and August weekend somewhere in Tokyo, Kanagawa, or Saitama Prefecture. They were typically started by local merchants to attract more shoppers. The biggest one in Tokyo is Koenji Awa Odori held on a weekend in late August. I can never get tired of seeing and hearing Awa Odori.
In 2020 sadly, pandemic fears canceled Tokushima Awa Odori for the first time since the end of World War II. Since the festival normally brings over 1 million tourists to Tokushima, the cancelation was a huge blow to local businesses. Tokushima hotels that supposed to be fully booked were empty, and mom-and-pop factories that make festival-related clothing and implements suffered greatly. A Tokushima mom-and-pop factory making tabi footwear for dancers saw all their tabi orders canceled. Shamisen orders also fell drastically. The shamisen is one of the main musical instruments used in Awa Odori.
The cancelation of so many traditional festivals and concerts in 2020 was a major threat to the survival of traditional crafts in Japan. Many shamisen makers and other traditional craft makers are on the brink of folding. Shamisen making is a highly specialized skill. It takes 10 years to become a master shamisen maker. They also have custom-made tools for making different types of shamisen. The skills to make those special tools are also in danger of being lost.
So in 2021, I was very happy to hear that Tokushima Awa Odori and many other major festivals will be held despite the pandemic. It will be scaled back and Covid measures will be implemented, but they will hold it. That’s great. There’s always a workaround. It’s part of human nature to overcome adversity. We cannot afford to concede defeat to a pandemic.
Tokushima Awa Odori is held near the south side of JR Tokushima Station on Shikoku island. Closest airport is Tokushima (Awaodori) Airport. Closest shinkansen station is Okayama and Shin-Kobe Stations where you transfer to another train or bus.
In case you visit Tokushima when there’s no Awa Odori, visit the Awa Odori Kaikan Hall (阿波おどり会館) where you can see mini performances of Awa Odori year-round. (When it’s not closed due to the pandemic.) It’s walking distance from JR Tokushima Station. Admission charged.
Awa Odori video (Koenji): https://youtu.be/0-R4Tkzuw8I