Awa-Odori Festival, Tokushima
Anticipation has been building on the sun-baked streets and in the crowded cafes as locals, travelers and tourists arrive steadily throughout the day. As the afternoon draws on excitement is at an optimum, and the hordes; a mass of smiling faces and summer yukata; begin to arrive by train or on foot; others emerge from the city’s cool interiors; fanning themselves from the late afternoon heat, ready for the festivities of the night ahead.
The city of Tokushima on Japan’s Shikoku Island sparkles with pride as it welcomes thousands of visitors from across the country. Each summer Japan celebrates ‘Obon’ (festival of the dead), when from the 12th to the 15th August, spirits are welcomed back to revisit their ancestral homes. During Obon Tokushima hosts Japan’s largest dance festival ‘Awa Odori’ (dance of the fools) showcasing groups of costumed dancers, each jovially trying to outdo the others with their energy, passion and expression of joy.
The streets pulse with the rapid beat of Taiko drums, and the melodic shamisen, shinobue and kane. It is this intoxicating rhythm that drives the dancers forward, as the music envelops both performers and spectators in equal measure.
The musicians keep up the breathless pace as the performers move away from centre stage and encourage the festival revelers to become a part of the city’s celebrations. On the palm tree lined streets, men and women imitate the dancers, self-consciousness quickly over ridden by exhilaration and laughter, the people on the streets refreshingly unreserved. Chants of, ‘hayashi kotoba, yoi-yoi-yoi-yoi’ encourage the few remaining bystanders to join the height of the festivities.
As the motto of Awa Odori tells us – ‘It’s a fool who dances, and a fool who watches; if both are fools, why not dance.’
The 2012 celebrations will be from 12th to 15th August.
Iya Valley in Japan’s Hidden Mountain Region
The shallow, crystal clear and ice cool Iya river is dotted with Japanese holiday makers, standing ankle deep on the smooth, round stones of the river bed. Together we soak up the morning ‘s rays of sun, which flood the valley in light and high summer heat. Gigantic rocks are a reminder of nature’s unsurpassable beauty, and are also a natural playground to the children that clamber over them.
Steep steps from the riverside lead up to Biwa waterfall, which comes crashing down between moss-covered rocks, into a pool of cool green water. From here the aroma of grilled fish drifts over from the open-fronted eateries, that are selling skewered salt grilled trout and aromatic miso covered skewers of tofu, potato and konnyaku. The street leads tourists up from Biwa waterfall to the main attraction of the valley, the ‘national important folkloric property’ Iya no Kazura-bashi. It is believed, that this vine bridge was built by Heike warriors, who stopped the enemy from crossing by cutting the bridge’s vines. Tourists that venture across are rewarded with an uninterrupted panorama of the valley.
The Iya river is a tributary of the Yoshino river that runs through the island of Shikoku, cutting through the mountains to form the gorges Oboke and Koboke. The gorges’ names roughly translate as big and small danger, and are called this due to the real danger of the steep drops, were you to roam too near to the edge. In Japan, this part of Tokushima is known as one of the nations’ hidden mountain regions. I spoke to Nori Hosaka, the owner of eco guesthouse Ku-Nel-Asob. He told me that he was inspired to set up his guesthouse, after taking a trip to the Iya Valley and feeling content on first impressions. He added that, it is the plentiful nature, few people, and hidden setting, that makes the Iya Valley so special.
Climbing Mount Tsurugi
The region’s Mt Tsurugi is Shikoku’s second tallest mountain, at 1955m. Tsurugi is an area of Shinto and Buddhist worship, and there is a shrine at the top of the mountain; but it is also a popular hike for tourists. You can start this hike at the trailhead in Minokoshi.
Rafting on the Yoshino-Gawa
For a rush of adrenalin, try white water rafting through the gorge’s dramatic surroundings. Tours for first timers and experienced rafters can be arranged through Mont-bell, Japan.
Iya Hot Springs
Unwind at the end of your day by soaking in one of the valley’s hot springs. This can be arranged at most hotels and guesthouses in the area.
A Lesson in Local Cuisine
Soba noodles are one of the culinary specialties of the region. Instead of just sampling this dish, why not experience making them yourself, and take a new skill home with you. Soba Dojo or Old Soba Juku both offer lessons for ¥2500/¥3000 per person.
In 1973, writer Alex Kerr bought an abandoned thatched farmhouse, dating back to around 1720. He decided to name the house Chiiori, which means ‘house of flute’. In 2007 the Chiiori project was set up with the hope to promote sustainable tourism and organic agriculture in the Iya region. The group also wanted to give the house’s visitors and volunteers a taste of rural Iya life. This project developed into the Chiiori Trust in 2007. The house welcomes volunteers, but it’s also possible to visit for a day, or for an overnight stay. Information on the house, the Chiiori Trust, and volunteering, can be found on their website: www.Chilori.org
Shikoku Travel Tips
Shikoku is home to a great number of specialties. The Iya Valley gives us buckwheat ‘soba’ noodles, which are served either hot or cold, depending on the season. Across the island you can find the celebrated ‘Sanuki’ Udon. These satisfyingly thick white noodles are most commonly eaten cold, accompanied by a soy sauce and lemon juice dip with grated radish and onion. The island’s local produce includes fresh seafood, giving Shikoku’s visitors a taste of high quality sashimi.
The climate in this region of Japan is ideal for growing citrus fruit, so sudachi, yuzu and Mandarin oranges are all grown in abundance. On a trip to the Iya Valley try the popular street food, ‘dekomawashi.’
These street snacks consist of tofu, potato and konnyaku, grilled on bamboo skewers in a thick, sticky coating of miso. Skewers of the river’s sweet trout are another popular snack. In Tokushima city don’t miss the delectable dried sweet potato soaked in honey, or the chocolate filled steamed buns. During Awa-Odori, the festival route is lined with vendors selling typical Japanese festival fare. This is the where you can get your fix of yakisoba, yakitori and takoyaki, not to forget the refreshing summer treat, sugary sweet shaved ice.
All budgets are catered for when booking accommodation in Tokushima City. However, hotels do get fully booked long before the Awa Odori festival period, so it’s advisable to reserve accommodation well in advance. If it’s still not possible to book a room, consider staying in one of the nearby cities. Naruto and Takamatsu both have good train connections with Tokushima City (Naruto – 40min, Takamatsu – 1hr).
In the Iya Valley you can gain an insight into rural Iya life by staying at an eco-guesthouse. Chiiori house is open to overnight stays on weekends; take a look at their website for further details.
Ku-Nel-Asob eco-guesthouse is well located in Oboke, making it a great base for exploration of the local area. From this 90-year-old Japanese house, you can sit on the porch for an incredible view of the valley. The guesthouse’s philosophy is to meet other visitors, while taking time to consider and enjoy life, foods and the nature around us. You can prepare your own food or take advantage of the vegan, vegetarian and macrobiotic food on offer. Accommodation rates all include transfers to a local hot spring each evening, which is an ideal way to unwind at the end of the day.
Alternatively there are many hotels and ryoken to stay at, around the valley. Often these hotels will have their own hot spring baths.
Chiiori house: www.chilori.org
Osaka – Tokushima City
Take the JR ‘Nozomi’ Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Okayama, then transfer to the JR Marine liner to Takamatsu. From Takamatsu take the ‘Uzushio’ limited express
From Osaka station take a highway bus to Tokushima station. This journey takes around 2.5 hours.
Tokushima has a small airport so it’s also possible to arrive by plane.
Osaka – The Iya Valley
Take the JR Shinkansen ‘Nozomi’ from Shin-Osaka to Okayama. You can then take the ‘Nanpu’ express to Awa-Ikeda station. This journey takes approximately 2.5 hours.
An expressway bus from Osaka to Awa-Ikeda bus terminal takes approximately 3.45 hours.
Lauren is in constant pursuit of adventure, new knowledge and experience fueled by her passion for travel, photography, writing and the world we live in. She is originally from England and currently living in Singapore, while striving to travel as much as possible. This passion for travel has so far taken her through almost 30 countries, with time spent working, studying or volunteering in Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica and Australia; and over two years of living, working and travelling within Japan. Visit Lauren’s website to find out more about her adventures abroad.