by Raina, staff writer of japan-guide.com
2016/08/27 - Fool's Dance at Koenji Awa Odori
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.