Party like a local at Japan's biggest dance festival

Web content written for Hikari Travel Agency, an independent travel agency specializing in Japanese travel. May 2020. < 600 Words.

Every August, a relatively unknown city on the island of Shikoku swells with over 1.3 million tourists and becomes home to Japan’s hottest summer dance party! The festival’s name is Awa Odori, but you’d be forgiven if it doesn’t sound familiar – it takes place on the most rural and isolated of Japan’s main islands, and the festival’s host city, Tokushima, is so small that it’s often overlooked by foreign tourists. For a 4 day stretch in the middle of August though, the city becomes a living canvas of dancers and street musicians, and summer travelers simply can’t afford to miss what’s become known as “the Dance of Fools”!

Tokushima is a quiet, peaceful city... usually.

The most notable sight of Awa Odori is obviously its dancers; female dance troupes drift through the crowds in wooden geta sandals and brightly colored kimonos, as well as their famous straw headpieces called torioigasa - ‘bird scaring hats’. Men (as well as children and an increasing number of women) don happi, or lightweight Japanese jackets with their dance troupe’s crest on the back. Since they’re not restricted by a tight skirt, these dancers are free to incorporate complicated jumps and high kicks into their dance sets.

The classic Awa Odori silhouette

Don’t feel like you have to sit on the sidelines just because you don’t know the routine, though! As they move along, dancers chant a traditional song with lyrics that claim, “the dancers are fools, the watchers are also fools; since both are fools, why not just dance?” It’s very common for impromptu dance circles to spring up outside the main stage areas, and more often than not you’ll be pulled in to join performers as they sway to the music. Since Tokushima is such a tiny city, the locals love to see foreign tourists appreciating their culture, and you’ll probably get louder cheers than any of the professional dancers!

Although Awa Odori is a riotous swirl of dancing and fun, it takes place during what some might see as a more somber occasion. Awa Odori is a festival celebrating Obon, a Buddhist holiday meant to honor family members who have passed away. The Japanese see this as a joyous time though, as they believe the barrier between the worlds becomes weak enough that their deceased loved ones can cross over for a visit. This is why the holiday is often marked with dance festivals, as legend has it that a Buddhist monk began to dance with joy when his mother came to him from beyond the veil. As a foreigner, you may worry about intruding on sacred religious rites, but there’s no need – everybody is welcome at Obon festivals, and the Japanese will be touched that you’ve come all the way to their country to help them celebrate!

After Awa Odori, Obon finishes with a lantern festival.

Don’t let shyness get the best of you and sit this one out! Awa Odori is a rare chance to see the Japanese let loose and go wild for a bit, and you’re more than welcome to join in. So go ahead, live it up and dance like a fool! For help planning your trip to Tokushima, send an email to info@hikaritravelagency.com. We offer insider knowledge on the city’s best lodgings, restaurants, and tourist attractions!

Copyright © 2020 Abby Fisher. All Rights Reserved.