text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The various sources don’t agree about its exact beginnings; they do about its birthplace (it is Tokushima Prefecture in Shikaku Island) but no one seems to be sure about when it started or why. One thing is certain though: Awa Odori (阿波踊り) is the closest Japanese equivalent to Rio’s Carnival. For four days Tokushima City, the prefecture’s capital becomes an enormous dance floor and thousands of its inhabitants, organized in ren, crews with striking colorful costumes from older eras dance a frenetic dance accompanied by drums, samisen and flutes. Even if, as historians suggest, present-day Awa Odori bears no resemblance to the wild, uncontrollable orgy of the 16th and 17th centuries, what one can witness in its today form is still a unique experience for anyone who happens to be in Japan in the middle/end of August.
I have yet to get to Tokushima but I have been lucky enough to see the Awa Odori in Tokyo’s Koenji and Kanagawa’s Yamato; in both areas, communities of Tokushima migrants have brought the custom with them in their new hometowns and have managed to establish it as part of the local culture. I don’t think it was particularly hard, either: the Japanese are quick to accept any opportunity for celebration, especially if this is related to the O-bon, the period near the middle of August, dedicated to every family’s dead; one of the versions about the birth of Awa Odori is that its origin is the Bon Odori, the dance that welcomes the spirits of the ancestors coming to visit the living.
If the above sound gruesome and set the mood for something heavy and slow, nothing could be further from the truth. The vigor of an Awa Odori is one of the most intense experiences one can get in Japan, a true immersion in sound and colors (especially in the clothes of women, the leaders of this celebration with their characteristic dance steps on the tips of their geta clogs), in the cries and the drum rhythms, in the acrobatics and the teasing between the dancers and the 1,2 million spectators who are watching mesmerized and eager to join the dancing. And because this rarely happens during the ren’s parade, it is reserved for later when their members, costumes and all, visit the area’s bar and izakaya, drink, dance, play music and spread the party all over town until early in the morning, bidding farewell to the ancestors’ spirits and to the summer they take with them.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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