Each year more than 100,000 festivals take place in Japan. Of these, the Tokushima Awa Dance Festival is the best.
The people of Tokushima (on Shikoku island) put their all into the festival. They’ve even named the airport after it: Awa Odori Airport.
Many people who call Tokushima their hometown (working in Tokyo and other large cities) return home for the festival. The festival also attracts large numbers of domestic and international tourists. In total, around 1.3 million people flock to Tokushima prefecture for the Awa Odori (the population of Tokushima City is only 263,372).
The Tokushima Awa Odori is held from August 12th to 15th as part of the area’s Obon festival (a Japanese Buddhist festival that honors the spirits of ancestors). Obon festivals in the area have incorporated dance for many centuries. In the Edo-era, Tokushima’s Obon festival was famous for its size, energy and rowdiness .
Samurai Can’t Dance
The Tokushima Awa Odori began in 1586 when the local Daimyo hosted a drunken party to celebrate the opening of Tokushima Castle. It soon became an annual event. The Edo-era rules for the event are interesting:
Dancing in the streets is permitted for only three days.
Samurai are forbidden to attend the festival. They may dance at home but must keep their gate shut. No quarrels, arguments or misbehavior are allowed.
Dancing is prohibited at all temple properties.
It’s forbidden for dancers or attendees to carry swords or wear masks.
The Samurai of Tokushima may be gone but the but the festival is still a massive city-wide dance party.
The dancers and crowd often sing (or chant) the Awa Yoshikono, a traditional song associated with the festival that goes like this:
Odoru ahou ni (踊る阿呆に) ~ The dancers are fools
Miru ahou (見る阿呆) ~ The watchers are fools
Onaji ahou nara (同じ阿呆なら) ~ Both are fools alike so
Odorana son, son (踊らな損、損) ~ Why not dance?
It’s also common to chant sounds (with no meaning) such as Yoi, yoi, yoi, yoi!
The Awa dance is characterized by irregular steps (said to have its origins in the drunken history of the festival). There are daytime and nighttime versions of the dance. The daytime version is restrained and elegant. The nighttime version is frenzied and energetic.
There are also different Awa dances for men and women. Spectators are encouraged to join the dances.
The downtown core of Tokushima is closed to traffic on the nights of the festival. The festival runs approximately 18:00 to 23:00 each evening. There are seven stages in the festival area with reserved seating available at four of the stages. Tickets can be purchased onsite, at the tourist information center in front of Tokushima Station or at convenience stores in the area.
There are also plenty of free spots to view the festival from the street. However, the dance groups are at their best on the stages.
Keep in mind that the festival attracts over one million people to the town of Tokushima. Hotels in the area book up early. It’s also possible to stay in towns in the area such as Takamatsu (1 hour). Alternatively, it’s possible to visit the festival from Osaka or Kobe (both about 2 hours).
The festival is spread over a wide area between the Awa Odori Museum and Tokushima Station.