Every year, in mid-August, some 80,000 participants and 1.3 million spectators descend upon the city of Tokushima for Awa Odori, a dance festival whose history goes back several centuries. For three days and nights, the streets are filled with colorfully dressed dance teams chanting, singing, and doing different versions of a signature dance step that is related to the festival’s legendary drunken past.
The popular origin story of Awa Odori involves a party held by the local daimyo in 1586 to celebrate the completion of Tokushima Castle. The party-goers drank too much sake and soon everyone was hammered, stumbling and weaving around. Musicians present started playing simple, rhythmic music to accompany the wild movements of the besotted revelers.
The authenticity of this account is questionable, as it apparently first appeared in written records only in 1908. However, the existence of the festival itself is well-established by the mid-17th century, and the fact that rules from that time forbid samurai from attending, prohibited participants from carrying weapons or wearing masks, and limited the duration of the event to no more than three days indicates that the festival already had a history of being a raucous affair. And, whether true or not, the boozy origin story is still reflected today in the festival’s music, dancing, and songs.
Awa Odori takes place from August 12 to 15 as part of the Buddhist observance of O-bon (Festival Of The Dead), during which Japanese people return to their family home to honor their ancestors. Almost 1000 different community dance groups come from around Japan and the world to participate. However, outside of the official presentations spectators are encouraged to join in the dancing as well. After all — as the most famous Awa Odori song puts it — “The dancers are fools / the watchers are fools / both are fools / so why not dance?” (踊る阿呆に, 見る阿呆,同じ阿呆なら,踊らな損、損)
Know Before You Go
Eight hours by bus or one hour by plane from Tokyo to Tokushima Airport; 3.5 hours by bus from Osaka to Tokushima City Station. The second closest airport is Takamatsu Airport.