Dancing in the Tokushima streets

by Chris Bamforth

After being in Japan for a while, you get to know a place by its festivals.

See a gaggle of folk in a TV clip freezing their extremities off while gawping at vast, whimsical sculptures carved from snow and ice, and you recognize immediately they’re in Sapporo.

Catch shots of a high-class harlot (oiran) exquisitely gowned and teetering on improbably high footwear in a grand procession of others likewise historically attired, and you know it’s Kyoto.

See kimono-clad women, hands fluttering skyward as they dance while wearing basket-type headgear shaped like supersize wedges of Dutch cheese, and you know we’re talking Tokushima.

As the Snow Festival is to Sapporo, and the Jidai Festival to Kyoto, the massive annual Awa Odori Festival is to Tokushima.

This city in the prefecture of the same name in northeast Shikoku is not the only spot in Japan fond of dancing the Awa Odori, but it is its home. The four-day Awa Odori Festival takes place in August, and as more than 100,000 dancers take to the streets it draws well over a million visitors.

So strong is the tourist lure of Awa Odori that the city astutely decided to cash in on its cachet outside festival times through its Awa Odori Kaikan hall. In the “every day it’s Awa Odori” ambience of this venue, visitors year-round can get a flavor of the festival spirit and dancing styles courtesy of professional performers. The dances are by turns comical and elegant, brash and refined, as dancers move to the brisk tone and beat of drum, flute, shamisen and kane bell.

As well, tourists with a burning desire to make fools of themselves in public have ample opportunity here, when the performers invite members of the audience onstage to give it a go. However, since the words to Awa Odori point out, “It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing!” there is perhaps little room for sniggering at the hapless visitors’ terpsichorean endeavors.

Awa Odori Kaikan is also devoted to the crafts of Awa, the name by which the prefecture was formerly known. On sale here are products featuring the subdued tones of its handsome indigo-dyed fabrics, in marked contrast to the exuberant shades typical of Awa washi (handmade paper). This is a place to check out the local specialty of take chikuwa, a fish sausage fire-grilled on short sticks of bamboo. While not exactly light years apart in flavor from any other chikuwa you ever have had, it is quite tasty and, with a beer clutched in the other hand, makes for perfect post-Awa Odori R&R.

Tokushima is attractively situated between the green dome of Bizan, the mountain at whose base Awa Odori Kaikan stands, and the delta of the huge Yoshino River. This is not only Shikoku’s biggest river, but now, as it has for untold centuries, its valley serves as the island’s main communications corridor. Bizan, meanwhile, may be pin-cushioned with telecoms antennae, but its slopes are ruggedly dense with old-growth woodland, not the drearily regular plantations of sugi (Japanese cedar, or cryptomeria) cloaking so many of the island’s mountainsides. Treewise, too, like other Shikoku cities, Tokushima is pleased to display its southern credentials in stately boulevards flanked by arrow-straight rows of palms.

Also at the foot of Bizan is attractive Zuiganji. Shikoku is home to a famed pilgrimage route of 88 temples encircling the island. Zuiganji is not one of that number, but it’s the most charming temple in central Tokushima Prefecture, with its engaging tea garden, gently meandering stone paths, carpets of moss and Japanese maples harmoniously dangling over wooden gateways. And you can often enjoy the place by yourself without having to share it with a garrulous throng of pilgrims from Osaka making their ascetic assault on the famed 88 in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.

Remains of a structure of a decidedly more secular nature can be seen not far from the city’s station. Tokushima Castle was the seat of the Hachisuka clan, who lorded over Awa and nearby Awaji Island for 280 years — one of the few clans to retain their lands right through the Edo Period (1603-1867) of feudal rule by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Theirs was a prosperous domain, with a yearly rice production of over 257,000 koku (1 koku is about 180 liters and the amount, in theory, required to feed a person for a year). Of course the size of the koku isn’t everything: it’s what you do with it that counts, and the Hachisuka wisely used their wealth to patronize local indigo dyeing and paper production, and — according to one version of history — to launch the Awa Odori at a celebratory feast following the completion of Tokushima Castle in 1587. All that remains of that castle today are reconstructions of the major Washinomon gate, its gracefully arched Sukiya Bridge, the willow-lined moat and, within the remains of its walls, the pleasant parkland now dotted with cherry and camphor trees and black pines.

The grandest local sight, though, demands a short trip out of town. The Naruto Strait connects the Seto Inland Sea and the Kii Channel, an arm of the Pacific, and this is where Japan’s most famous whirlpools are to be found. The whirlpools are caused by the Pacific high tide being unable to completely enter the Inland Sea via the constricted Naruto Straits, and instead flowing around Awaji and gradually raising the water level on the Inland Sea side. Then, by the time the Pacific begins to ebb, there is a water-level difference of up to 1.5 meters between it and the Inland Sea across the straits, and the resulting flux creates the whirlpools.

To see the whirlpools at their best demands timing it right with the tides. But even outside the optimal period, they are a magnificent sight from the specially built walkway below Ohnaruto Bridge, the waves shaping and reshaping vortices like swirling fluid-green marble as tourist boats with catchy names like Aqua Eddy gingerly edge their backsides toward the maelstrom.

As a transport link, the bridge itself linking Shikoku with Awaji may be a white elephant — at times it looks completely bereft of traffic — but as a sight it is one of the more spectacular in Japan with its sweeping span of ferroconcrete arching over cargo ships making their incremental progress against the powerful turquoise current between the ocean and the Inland Sea.

Getting there: From Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Takamatsu Airport is reached in about 80 minutes. From there it’s a 45-minute bus ride to Takamatsu Station, from where the bus to Tokushima takes about an hour.