Posted: 02/08/2021
Category: Japanese Festivals

I enjoyed two special experiences at Awa-odori (Awa-dance) in Tokushima, on Shikoku Island, in August 2000. It is one of Japan’s most important summer festivals. I must admit it is to Mayo Nishiike and her family that I owe the special emotions. They received me with utmost consideration. It is not easy at all to join a Japanese familial milieu, but once accepted, I think there are no other hosts in the world more hospitable than the Japanese. My exultation became still greater when I understood I found myself in a noted family of haijin (“writers of haiku”), with a background of over a century – all of them extremely refined and sensitive. I got thus spiritually prepared for the following day, not to speak of the tickets for the grandstand that Mrs. Midori Nishiike bought whilst I was still in Romania.

Awa-odori originates in a folk dance that features the happiness brought forth by the belief in the salvation of the soul. The main purpose of such a dance is not only to express gratitude, but also to manifest the hope in future blessings; not only to be grateful towards the ancestors’ souls, but also to make them extend their magic protection further.

I was deeply impressed by the dancers’ colourful silk kimonos called yukata, which fit them perfectly whilst waving charmingly to the rhythm of the dance. The combination of colours and hues is really amazing. The sashes are properly matched, whilst the little purses on the side seem to belong to the costume, being at the same time functional, as long as the latter has no pockets. The umbrella-shaped hats hide the dancers’ faces almost completely, making one watch the dance as a single whole. The professional dancers wear geta (“wooden clogs”), but they are sprightly. I just kept wondering how many hours of training they needed to acquire such skill.

The drums and gongs make the earth resound; the shamisen (the three-stringed instruments) send light and pleasant accords through the general excitement; the flutes sound like genuine pearls. Almost each group of dancers has its own band – a characteristic of Awa-odori. They have trained together and feel the dancers’ pulse very well, keeping in with their gestures and steps. The onlookers have a word to say too, because their response can change the dancers’ mood and the rhythm. The melodies seem the same, but I did not get bored as the groups followed close upon the other, each of them having its particular freshness.

Group of dancers in front of the grandstand

 The dance of the hands

. I was really spellbound. The dancers’ strength lay in their fingers, wrists, and elbows. Looking down, my eyes stopped for a moment on their geta, but immediately returned to their charming hands. The gracefulness of the Japanese dancing hands is unique.

After the parade of the groups in front of the grandstand, onlookers start dancing in the streets of Tokushima, letting themselves away with an enthusiasm that is more catching than a contagious disease. Irrespective of age, people gather around professional dancers and try to resume the steps of the dance that entertained the ancestors’ souls for over three hours. One cannot ignore the cheerfulness around and can’t help stepping into the dances, enjoying to the full each rhythm, each step, each hand waving.

Though I felt awfully tired at one time, I did my best not to hurt the person who eagerly wanted me to participate body and soul and, last but not least, not to miss one of the two experiences I have already mentioned.

There remained few onlookers, because almost everybody gave himself to the general enthusiasm, feeling the dances up to the tips of the fingers as they were soaring to the sky whilst endeavoring to commune with the world of the spirits. Like anybody else present in the streets, I felt like making both ends meet…

Photos: Angela Hondru©

Angela Hondru
Letter to Japan
UMC, Bucharest, 2020
Pages 45-48

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