@TokyoKawasemi Rick Martin
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Awa Odori in Koenji

Tokyo's biggest summer dance party is an age-old tradition

(All Photos by Rick Martin. Video by Havard Ferstad. Originally published on Ignition.co, now offline.)

The Awa Odori dance festival in Tokushima is perhaps the largest and most famous in Japan, taking place every year in August. Dating back hundreds of years, this festival features a 'dance of fools' with thousands of dancers and musicians in traditional summer dress with drums and other instruments.

For those who can’t make the trip to Tokushima, the rendition of Awa Odori in Koenji, Tokyo, is far more accessible and every bit as lively. Held every year since 1956, the 2015 event was the 59th annual event, taking place on August 29th and 30th.

Dancing fools, up close and personal

While most of the action happens in the evening (the dance is officially held from 5pm to 8pm), it's worth your while to get there early in the day. Even as early as lunch time you'll see eager visitors staking out their viewing area along the route, laying down tarps and taking shifts with friends to hold the spot. 

As you explore the surrounding side streets and alleyways, you'll find the entire neighborhood, which is already quite trendy and attractive, has become one huge party for this late summer festival, with Awa Odori as its centerpiece.

Some of the female dancers (pictured above) wear amigasa - or woven straw hats - and vibrantly colored summer yukata, dancing in close formation with hands in the air moving with each step. The geta, or traditional wooden shoes, that they wear are really put to the test as dancers perform elaborate dance steps and even jumps sometimes.

But beyond these dancers is a near endless range of supporting performers, all in traditional summer dress. Each group of performers has its own distinct colors, style, and routine, so there's lots of variety for the observer. The music is marked by lots of drums, flutes, and shamisen, as well as the distinct chanting and singing of the Awa Odori performers.

A true community affair

This writer's first visit to the event was in 2014, on a rather hot and sweaty summer evening. But thankfully 2015 was much different, with comfortable cloud cover and occasional sprinkles of rain ensuring that dancers and spectators alike kept relatively cool. I understand that even if it had rained, the show would have carried on as planned. Organizers distributed lots of plastic fans leading up to the event, encouraging viewers to cool off the dancers in appreciation and support as they perform. Likewise many of the performers play to the crowd, and if you’re standing roadside you might be inches away from a loud taiko drummer or a leaping gang of fools.

One of the most impressive aspects of this street dance is that participants span all ages, as you can see in the pictures below from this year's event. Some kids I saw must have been as young as three, most of them rather confused and distracted from their dance moves by the spectacle around them. Meanwhile, veteran dancers well into their 70s and 80s were old pros. In any other country, any one of them might be a feature story on the evening news. "Next up, he's 85 years old and still dancing!" But for this particular street party, it’s (astoundingly) rather normal!

For more information on the annual Koenji edition of Awa Odori, check out Koenji-AwaOdori.com (in Japanese). Or if you'd like to visit Tokoshuma to see the original Awa Odori, check out  JNTO's guide for the event.