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Raina's Japan Travel Journal
by Raina, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2016/08/27 - Fool's Dance at Koenji Awa Odori

Awa Odori dancers

Every year, on the last weekend of August, over ten thousand dancers converge in Koenji, a district in the Suginami Ward of Tokyo, to dance the lively and energetic fool's dance - or Awa Odori. The dance comprises women wearing yukata, straw hats and geta, men wearing more casual looking happi (shorter yukata over shorts or pants), fans and flat tabi shoes, and the musicians behind the dancers. There is no age limit for performing, and I saw dancers ranging from young children to retirees.

Koenji Awa Odori festival in force
Many children danced in the festival too
Entertaining the crowd with their dance

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the Awa Odori festival in Koenji. Its original location was the 200 meter long shopping street where the current Pal Street is located. Modeled after the Awa Odori in Tokushima, the Koenji version was originally called the "Koenji Baka Odori" and suitable for passing through the narrow shopping street.

Dancer waiting to start dancing
Tokushi - the Tokushima City mascot - leading a ren
Men dance in a half squat position almost all the time
Women performed fancy footwork in geta
Some wore bandanas with their group's name
Others had their bandanas tied under their noses

In 1957, the first year of the festival, about 2000 people came to watch the festival. Slowly, over the course of over half a century, more awa odori performing groups were added, and the parade route was expanded. The number of spectators greatly increased with the expansion, and the Koenji Awa Odori Festival established its status as one of Tokyo's best summer festivals. Today, there are over 160 awa odori performing groups, also known as "ren", including some from other parts of the country, with more than ten thousand performers dancing for around a million spectators over the course of festival. That's quite an impressive feat if you ask me!

The current Koenji Awa Odori festival parade routes are along the shopping arcade and main street between Koenji and Shin-Koenji stations, covering a total of eight performance areas (enbujo). The groups rotate between the areas and typically cover all eight enbujo in about three hours - which is no mean feat considering the crowds. The dancing takes place on both days from 5pm to 8pm when sounds of drums, flutes and shamisen (a three-stringed traditional musical instrument) fill the night air, energizing the dancers and revving the crowd at the same time.

Musicians playing the shamisen
Drummers had their work cut out for them that day
Leading a ren through the enbujo
Elegant footwork

Being a very popular festival, many spectators go early to ensure they have the best views. Note that laying out mats to reserve prime viewing space is a no-no. For first time visitors, it isn't too difficult to fully enjoy a day out at the Koenji Awa Odori Festival, here's how:

One, go to Za Koenji, a performing arts theater five minutes away from Koenji Station on foot. On the days of the festival, visitors can watch a variety of ren perform up close as well as participate in the dance at the end. There are two performances a day, and entry is on a first come first served basis. It tends to get crowded and visitors have been known to wait in line for over an hour before the doors open! Admission into the theater costs 1000 yen per person this year.

Inside Za Koenji designed by architect Ito Toyo
Watching a ren (awa odori dance group) perform
Must have taken a lot of practice to make it look easy
Animated male dancer with a lantern
Male dancer outfit, female dancer outfit
Spectators had a chance to dance the awa odori after the performance
Pepper, the robot, joined in the dance too

Two, partake in the delicious food. As with all festivals in the country, food stalls can be found where there is a festival, and the Koenji Awa Odori Festival is no different. Expect to see Tokushima products (in homage to the original Awa Odori). One of the local foods that Suginami Ward is famous for is yakitori, and it is evident from the outdoor grills of the numerous food stalls and izakaya. Underneath the train tracks near the station are many izakaya that are very popular with the locals as well as visitors. There's something about squeezing at a small table with your friends, almost elbow to elbow with other customers, sharing a meal and drinks that makes it an unforgettable experience.

Food options in the area
Yakitori stand smelling pretty good
Grilled meat from the Tohoku region
Vegetables from the Tohoku region
Gingko nuts on the grill
Food to grill on the table
The ebi and hamaguri (clams) looked and smelled amazing when I walked past
Street yakitori stall
Packed from wall to wall

Three, watch the Awa Odori Festival, of course! While it may be more comfortable to stick to one place and watch the dancers, different locations add their unique flavor to the festival. Spectators are not allowed to get in the path of dancers, but some enbujo (performance areas), like in the shopping arcades, are so tightly packed and close to the dancers that it almost feels like you're part of the group.

While this year's festival may be over, it's never too late to start preparing for next year! Only another 51 weeks till the next Koenji Awa Odori Festival. Until then, start practicing your awa odori dance moves, and your "yattosa yattosa" cries of encouragement.

Hard to tell where the spectator line starts and where the dancers are in the shopping arcade
The lantern bearer stands at the front holding the ren's lantern
Can't imagine having to dance in this position all night!
From behind a dancer
Still smiles after two hours of dancing

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List of Posts:
2017/04/14 - Sneak Peek from Ginza Six
2017/03/21 - A bit of everything in Fukui
2017/03/13 - Nikko Toshogu Uncovered
2017/02/15 - Subculture in Ikebukuro
2017/02/07 - Travel to the Goto Islands
2017/02/06 - Nagasaki Lantern Festival

2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/12/19 - Winter Illuminations in Tokyo
2016/10/24 - The way of old on the Kunisaki Peninsula
2016/10/11 - Following the Tadami Line in Oku Aizu
2016/08/27 - Fool's Dance at Koenji Awa Odori
2016/08/16 - The three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan
2016/06/20 - Train travel into the Ise-Shima region
2016/04/03 - Setouchi Triennale 2016
2016/03/08 - The hunt for Namahage on the Oga Peninsula
2016/03/02 - Sake Sangria
2016/02/20 - Tokyo Plum Blossom Report
2016/01/26 - Tour de Reinan: Obama, Oi and Takahama
2016/01/25 - Tour de Reinan: Tsuruga, Mihama and Wakasa

2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
2015/12/10 - 48 hours in Tokushima
2015/11/20 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Kankakei
2015/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Korankei
2015/11/17 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/10 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/09 - Autumn Color Report: Koyasan
2015/11/08 - Autumn Color Report: Miyajima
2015/11/07 - Autumn Color Report: Dazaifu
2015/10/28 - The 44th Tokyo Motor Show
2015/10/21 - Hirado, where East meets West
2015/10/20 - Kujukushima Islands and Winter Illumination at Huis Ten Bosch
2015/10/19 - Navigating the Christian sites in Nagasaki
2015/10/18 - Cosplay at Haco Stadium Tokyo
2015/10/15 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2015/10/05 - Autumn Color Report: Route 292
2015/09/28 - Autumn Color Report: Oze
2015/09/24 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2015/09/16 - Nakanojo Biennale 2015
2015/08/19 - Traditional culture and hot springs of the Aizu Region
2015/08/17 - Nature and Hot Springs at Naruko Onsen
2015/08/04 - Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 2015
2015/04/30 - Sapporo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/29 - Hakodate Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/23 - Kakunodate Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/22 - Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/21 - Kitakami Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/16 - Sendai Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/09 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/08 - Fukushima Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/06 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/03 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/02 - Nara Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/01 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/31 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/27 - Fukuoka Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/26 - Kumamoto Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/25 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report

2014/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2014
2014/12/15 - Seasonal Illumination: Sendai
2014/12/09 - Seasonal Illumination: Tokyo
2014/12/04 - Autumn Color Report: Kanazawa
2014/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/21 - Autumn Color Report: Osaka
2014/11/20 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Korankei
2014/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Miyajima
2014/11/17 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Fuji
2014/11/04 - Autumn Color Report: Fuji
2014/10/31 - Autumn Color Report: Karuizawa
2014/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Bandai
2014/10/20 - Autumn Color Report: Towada
2014/10/01 - Autumn Color Report: Oze National Park
2014/09/29 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2014/06/19 - Toranomon Hills opens in Tokyo
2014/04/24 - Kitakami Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/23 - Morioka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/22 - Aizu-Wakamatsu Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/16 - Matsumoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/15 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/14 - Yoshino Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/13 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/12 - Kanazawa Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/10 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/06 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/05 - Hiroshima Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/04 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/03 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/02 - Nagoya Cherry Blossom Report
2014/03/31 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/03/26 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/03/04 - Early Tokyo Blossom Report