There is nothing more refreshing and exciting than randomly running into the sounds of bells and drums of cultural festivals while walking around Tokyo. Whether it's a local festival with only a few stalls, or one that takes up several city blocks, each are unique and provide an upbeat atmosphere for you to enjoy.
Although there are hundreds of festivals occurring during summer in Japan, I decided to head out to a popular cultural neighborhood known as Kagurazaka, which is near Shinjuku, to check out the 45th annual Kagurazaka Awa-odori Festival! Held on the fourth Friday and Saturday of July, people gather at an alley adjacent to Zenkoku-ji Temple to participate, watch, and enjoy the Awa-odori festival and I wanted to be among them!
Dancing, Celebrating, and Entertaining
One of the things that I find fascinating about Japan is how it's culture is intricately woven into society. It's not every day you see a group of men and women carrying a portable shrine in the middle of a busy intersection or clap along with the beat as kimono-clad dancers perform their elegant moves for all to enjoy. When I get the opportunity to see these events first-hand, the first thoughts I have is: "This... is truly Japan." It puts a smile on my face and although I may not understand all the lyrics and fun chants, I'm very happy to join in with the many participants and onlookers.
Traveling Back in Time
The "Awa-odori" part of the festival is actually a dance that originated from the prefecture of Tokushima, which lies on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Groups of dancers and musicians perform throughout the streets, playing a variety of musical instruments such as bells, drums, flutes, and more. The music filled the air with a somewhat lost sense of nostalgia.
It felt like I had been transported from the high-tech world of today's Tokyo to the past. The traditional clothing that the groups were wearing composed of light yukatas, with the dancers wearing a straw hat called an "amigasa". If it wasn't for the hundreds of other onlookers with their cameras and phones pulled out to take pictures, I would not be able to recognize what year I was in.
About the Dance and Song
The dance that they performed looked very fun. Originating from the traditional "Bon Odori", which is a Japanese Buddhist celebration where spirits of ancestors are believed to come back from the grave, the Awa-odori is believed to have its roots in the last part of the 16th century (around 1586). At that time, the lord of the Awa province held a drunken celebration of the opening of Tokushima Castle and as the people swayed to and fro, and others joined along with instruments, Awa-odori was born.
The song that can usually be heard in the celebration goes like this:
Odoru ahou ni The dancers are fools
Miru ahou The watchers are fools
Onaji ahou nara Both are fools alike so
Odorana son, son Why not dance?
It's very light-hearted and meant to promote and easy-going atmosphere where everyone can participate and have fun! What an amazing way to enjoy the summer nights!
A Magical Atmosphere
After enjoying some of the performances, I took a quick walk around the neighborhood and was amazed at the detail that went into decorating for the event. Just about everywhere you looked, you could see red lanterns lighting the grounds. This, mixed with the music and the dancing created an atmosphere that made me also want to join in with the chants as well! This is definitely an experience that you have to witness first-hand when visiting Japan during the summer.
A Memorable Experience
After a while, I looked down at my watch and I realized that I had lost track of time! I was at the event for 3 hours, but it felt like I had just arrived. Overall, the Kagurazaka Awa-odori festival was an amazing and memorable experience. The smiling faces of everyone in attendance, the infectious music, and chants from the onlookers and performers put me in a great mood and made my trip out to the Kagurazaka area well worth it!
When you hear the sound of a festival
So the next time you hear the faint, distinct sounds of drums and bells while walking around Tokyo, it just might be worth finding the source.
Kagurazaka dori 神楽坂通り
- Address Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 162-0825, Japan