Koenji Street Festival

Hello everyone! So August has been RIDICULOUSLY hot and humid here in Tokyo. I’d like to give big props to mates of mine who came to visit early this month and managed to survive. However, I have to say that despite the heat, August is a fabulous month to be in Japan becuase of the Matsuri.

Festivals, or Matsuri, as they’re called in Japan, are just everywhere this month. Every tiny little temple seems to have an event. It’s the month of Obon, a Buddhist holiday in which it is said that dead ancestors come to visit their living relatives for a couple of days. Nice of them isn’t it? A slightly spooky holiday you might think, but the Japanese celebrate with big fireworks and dance festivals all over the country.

Last Saturday night Tamago and I went to the Koenji Awa Odori Dance festival. Koenji is only a few stops away from us on the Chuo local line. We really had no excuse not to go!

We got there about 7pm and it was super duper humid and really really crowded as expected. This is one of the three big summer festivals in Japan. The first thing we saw from the train platform was this:

People were dancing down the street to the sound of massive taiko drums as well as flutes and a kind of traditional string instrument (if anyone knows what that is feel free to tell me). [pretty sure it was a shamisen — Tamago]

We grabbed a couple of beers and fought our way through the crowds to wedge our towering gaijin selves in a prime viewing position.

The parade was organised into groups of performers from different parts of Tokyo. The dancers in the group go first. There are two different types of dance: a dance for men and a dance for women. It seemed that usually, the women who are dancing the womens’ Awa go first, followed by men and women dancing the mens’ Awa. There are also a lot of kids mixed in which is really cute! The dancers are followed by a walking band that plays their music, although to be honest most of the music is really similar.

The music itself has a foot-stomping rhythm that starts out slow and then gradually builds to a massively energetic crescendo where the dancers twirl their fans and lanterns ferociously in increasingly complicated steps and formations. I’m informed by reliable sources (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*) that the daytime performances are more sedate, but the nightime ones are more wild and are called Zomeki.

Above you can see a woman dressed in the traditional women’s Awa Odori costume. Beautiful right? The women dance in a very elegant manner, holding their arms above their heads the whole time. They also dance wearing the traditional Japanese shoes (geta) but on tip toes!

The men and women dancing the mens’ Awa dance wear short yukata (cotton robes) and dance crouched down with their knees sort of akimbo. They movement is much more free and the dancing is a bit more creative with different props and formations used.

It was so much fun to be a part of this atmosphere. Everyone was smiling and laughing and having a great time. Alcohol is freely available in Japan from every convenience store so people were drinking, but in true Japanese fashion only enough to be jolly.

The most delightful part of the night for Tamago and I were the expressions on the faces of the dancers. We spend a lot of time in our respective jobs hanging out with grumpy businessmen, and sometimes it can be hard to imagine my students or Tamago’s business colleagues having a genuine giggle at anything. Traditionally, Japanese culture doesn’t encourage the wearing of one’s heart on one’s sleeve. The performers in this festival were dripping with sweat, had been dancing with their arms over their heads for far too long and were wearing what I’m sure were not entirely comfortable costumes. But their faces were completely lit up. Pure joy was radiating from everyone and it was so much fun to see.

August Matsuris in Japan: highly recommended. However, I would recommend that you take a fan and a bottle of water. Also getting there early is a good idea. 7pm was getting pretty late to get a good viewing spot. Finally, the closest train station can get crowded so if it’s possible and you have comfy walking shoes it’s best to just grab a drink and hoof it to the next station on the line – much less stressful!

— Moon Tan

[For some reason, Moon Tan deleted the other photos from this post. I’m going to repost them because I went to all the trouble of photoshopping them. So there! –Tamago]

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