Tokushima City's Awa Odori (阿波おどり) is the most famous of many dance festivals held across Japan during the Obon season in mid August. Awa is the former name for Tokushima Prefecture while Odori means dance.
Between August 12 and 15, spectators and dancers come to Tokushima in the thousands to see this "Fool's Dance" whose origins date back 400 years. This nickname comes from the lyrics to a common dance song, which translates as follows: "Fools dance and fools watch, if both are fools, you might as well dance".
Although some events happen during the daytime, the main spectacle takes place between 18:00 and 22:30, when groups of dancers called "ren" perform in blocked off streets of downtown Tokushima. Ranging from amateurs assembled just days before the event, to veterans who practice year round, the ren come from Tokushima, other parts of Japan and as far away as the United States.
The groups dance through designated spectator areas (enbujo) in a procession, playing traditional musical instruments as they go. Though the dance steps are simple, ren distinguish themselves with difficult variations and colorful uniforms. Women wear cotton robes called yukata, while men wear happi (shorter yukata over shorts or pants). Like the dance, these standards vary from group to group.
In the evening, Tokushima's city center shuts down and is turned into a large dance stage. There are multiple different stage areas with either free or paid seating. The paid stages are sure to draw the professional groups, while the former will have more casual dancers as well. Typical festival flourish, such as food and game stalls, as well as more dancing, takes place outside of the stage areas.
Visitors planning to see Awa Odori may have difficulty securing one of Tokushima City's hotels, as hotels are booked out months in advance. Many spectators have to stay elsewhere; options include nearby Naruto (40 minutes by train), Takamatsu (1 hour by train), or even Osaka (2.5 hours by car).
Tickets for the paid stage areas can be purchased in advance or on the day. The tickets range between 800 and 2800 yen for a two hour block of performances (first block from 18:00 to 20:00 or second block from 20:30 to 22:30). The tickets can be bought at convenience stores nationwide. Same day tickets cost an additional 200 yen and are sold by the tourist information center in front of Tokushima Station (10:00 to 20:30) and outside each of the reserved stages (17:00 to 21:30).
For visitors to Tokushima who miss the festival, a museum about the Awa Odori is located in the Awa Odori Kaikan. There you will also find a dance hall where dance demonstrations are held several times a day. In addition, the lower station of the ropeway leading up to Mount Bizan is located in the Awa Odori Kaikan building.
From Tokyo or Osaka, take the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen to Okayama. In Okayama, a switch to a rapid train is required to continue onto Takamatsu. From Takamatsu, both local and limited express trains complete the trip to Tokushima.
A one way trip from Tokyo costs about 19,000 yen and takes about 5-6 hours. From Osaka, the one way cost is around 10,000 yen and the trip duration is about 2-3 hours. The journeys are fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass, but pass holders will need to use Hikari or Sakura rather than Nozomi or Mizuho trains along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen.
Keikyu Bus and Tokushima Bus cooperate direct night buses between Tokyo (Shinagawa, Shibuya) and Tokushima Station. The one way trip costs between 7,500 yen and 11,200 yen depending on travel date and takes around 9 hours.
One or more highway buses per hour depart from Osaka (OCAT bus terminal and Nankai bus terminal in Namba and JR Highway Bus and Hankyu Sanbancho bus terminals near Osaka Station) to Tokushima Station. The one way trip costs 3800 yen and takes about 2.5 hours.
Both JAL and ANA operate out of Tokushima Airport. ANA connects Tokushima with Nagoya's Chubu Airport, while JAL flies from Tokushima to Fukuoka, Sapporo and Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The regular one way fare on the Tokyo route is around 37,000 yen, with discount tickets usually available for around 16,000 to 23,000 yen. However, most discounts are not available during the Awa Odori.