Awa Odori: Japan’s Biggest Dance Festival

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“It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing!”

The lyrics to the Awa Odori’s thematic “Fool’s Song” are a fitting invitation to join Japan’s largest dance festival, where it is said that as long as you can raise your hands and move your feet forward you are doing the 400-year-old folk dance.

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Every year on Aug. 12-15, Tokushima city (formerly known as Awa) in Tokushima Prefecture turns into a huge dancing platform. Numerous dancing groups (“ren”) from around the country and even overseas descend upon this usually sleepy small town for this summer matsuri that welcomes the souls of ancestors during the Bon season.

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Men wear what’s called a happi coat, don a headcloth in the stereotypical manner of a thief and dance in exaggerated motions – sometimes the drunk, and sometimes playing the fool, while women cut a much more elegant figure in a yukata and crescent-moon shaped straw hat with graceful rhythmic motions. Selected professional groups perform on elaborate indoor stages during the daytime, and there are temporary outdoor enbujo or performance stages set up throughout the city.

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The highlight of this festival is in the evening when the city center streets start pulsing with thousands of frolicking dancers adorned in colorful yukata uniforms moving as one across parks, closed-down streets and plazas. Feel your pulse raise in tune to the hypnoptic cries of “Erai yatcha erai yatcha yoi-yoi-yoi-yoi!” resounding across the city, accompanied by gongs, beating drums and the tunes of flutes and shamisen.

Choose from paid or free viewing locations to watch and snap this revelry, or several Odori Hiroba (dance plazas) where you can feel the energy as you circle around the dancers up-close, and even an Odori Road along which groups dance their way from stage to stage.

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Yet as the lyrics of the song suggest, the best way to participate in the heated excitement is by taking to the streets yourself and become a dancing “fool”!

Awa Odori

Date: Aug. 12 to Aug. 15, 2016
Location: Dances are performed at various venues including ASTY Tokushima and Tokushima Arts Foundation for Culture.
Time: 11am, 3pm and 7pm (ASTY Tokushima), 11pm, 1:30pm and 4pm (Toushima Arts Foundation for Culture).

Access: JR Tokyo Station to JR Okayama Station via Tokaido Shinkansen, JR Okayama Station to Takamatsu (Kagawa) Station via JR Marine Liner 29, Takamatsu (Kagawa) Station to Tokushima Station via Limited Express Uzushio 13. A 5-min walk from JR Tokushima Station.

Onsen Oasis: Dogo Onsen

Get spirited away at one of Japan’s oldest hot springs

At Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture, you soak in the historic atmosphere just as much as the hot spring itself. While Matsuyama as a whole has become a vibrant, modern city, the Dogo area remains the laid-back hot spring town it has been for over 3,000 years.
It is said to be Japan’s oldest hot spring together with Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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At Dogo Onsen Honkan

When stepping out of Matsuyama City’s streetcar at Dogo Onsen Station, you make a time slip to the late Meiji Era, with a quaint old Western-influenced station building and a nostalgic locomotive. Here, you can hop on the “Botchan” locomotive named after the novel by Natsume Soseki, who used to frequent the onsen when he was working nearby as a teacher. The foot baths under Japanese parasols at Hojo-en park complete the package for a classic hot spring station.

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Standing in the center of this hot spring town is Dogo Onsen Honkan, which is without a doubt the most imposing public bathhouse I have ever seen. The 1894 wooden architecture, looks gorgeous enough to be mistaken for a small castle.

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Ghibli Studio fans might notice that the building’s facade has a mystic feeling to it similar to that of Aburaya, the bathhouse in “Spirited Away”. This is not a coincidence; Ghibli Studio has acknowledged that Aburaya was roughly modeled on Dogo Onsen Honkan.

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Not only the facades have spirit in common. Much like Aburaya, the inside of Dogo Onsen Honkan is a maze with many different baths and other rooms. The two main baths go by the divine names of “Bath of the gods” and “Bath of the spirits”, but probably the most famous – and at the same time least used – bath has to be the Yushinden, a bath exclusive to the Imperial Family, which can be viewed by guests.

After you’ve had your fill of the bath, wrap yourself up in a yukata and cool-down at the tatami salon with some Japanese tea and dango (a rice-cake sweet), or observe the street view from a private room that novelist Natsume Soseki used to relax in. 

In front of Dogo Onsen Honkan, is a cozy hot spring town where one can walk around in a yukata without standing out from the crowd. Souvenir shops and restaurants fill the nearby shopping arcade, and the Dogo-Biru-Kan serves local brewed beer you won’t easily find in Tokyo, let alone your home country.

dogobeerAnother thing that you might want to note on, is that while the Dogo Onsen Honkan is by far the most popular bathhouse among tourists, locals tend to prefer to soak at the Tsubaki no yu nearby because it is cheaper and less crowded. If the Dogo Onsen Honkan is too full, how about rubbing soap and shoulders with the locals?

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*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot Information

Name: Dogo Onsen

Location: Dogomachi 1, Matsuyama, Ehime (Dogo Onsen Station)

Access: From JR Matsuyama Station, take the Jonan Line streetcar for Dogo Onsen Station.

Picturesque Japan: Feel the suspense in the air with this bridge walk

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Like a crossing out of an Indiana Jones movie, this primitive bridge made out of vines can be found hanging over a roaring river in the Iya region of Tokushima Prefecture, and is a popular summer trek for adventurous nature lovers.

The Iya no Kazura Bashi was built by samurai who escaped into this area over 800 years ago with the intent of it being easily cut to prevent pursuers from crossing. It is now designated as a national important tangible cultural asset – and you’ll be relieved to know the 45 meters long and 2 meters wide bridge is completely replaced every three years to ensure its sturdiness.

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That said, it will still take some courage to cross this bridge when you reach it as each step is shaky and rocky. Look down, and you can see the river coursing through some 15-m below!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Great Seto Bridge

Spot information

Name: Iya-no-Kazura Bashi
Address: 162-2 Nishiiyayamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima Prefecture
Access: Fly into Tokushima, then take the Shikoku Kotsu Bus from JR Oboke Stn, bound for either Kazura Bashi or Kubo, get off at Kazura Bashi Bus stop and walk 5 minutes to Iya-no-Kazura Bashi.