For the past few weeks, visitors and residents in Koenji have been haunted by a song — a plaintive, pentatonic melody that seems to circle endlessly, never quite resolving. You can hear it playing over speakers on the station platform just before the train doors close. It’s there again as you walk down the Pal shopping arcade, under banners advertising the area’s most famous event.
It’s the signature tune of the Awa odori, a dance that was born centuries ago in Tokushima Prefecture on the southern island of Shikoku, but which this bustling neighborhood in western Tokyo has claimed as its own.
This weekend, 10,000 performers and somewhere in the region of a million people will gather to mark the 60th anniversary of the Koenji Awa Odori, the capital’s greatest street party. Over two evenings, 163 dance troupes (known as ren) will parade through the streets and narrow arcades to the accompaniment of flutes, shamisen and thunderous drumming.
“You can’t do a complete circuit anymore,” says Kazunari Azumi, leader of the Kikusuiren troupe, who’ll be making his 41st appearance this year. “In the past, you could do a whole lap of the neighborhood without any problem — maybe go around 1½ times.” Such is the price of success.
Formed in 1964, Kikusuiren is one of the most venerable troupes participating in the festival. It has a sister group in Tokushima, and its members visit the city a few times each year to practice.
“Tokushima is the home of the Awa odori, so they take it to a whole different level,” says Azumi, with endearing humility. “We can’t compete with that, but we do our best.”
As with many great events, the Koenji Awa Odori was born from local rivalry. In 1954, the adjacent neighborhood of Asagaya held its first Tanabata festival, in a calculated — and brilliantly successful — bid to lure the summertime crowds. Concerned that they were losing out, Koenji’s storeowners elected to start an event of their own, centered on the narrow shopping arcade to the south of the station.
They wanted to have dancing, but the constraints of the location make it impractical to do a traditional Bon odori (Bon dance), of the kind that’s performed throughout Japan during the mid-August o-Bon period. That’s when somebody (alas, the historical record doesn’t give a name) suggested they pinch some moves from Tokushima instead.
The original Awa dance has been performed for more than 400 years. It’s popularly believed to have started in 1586, when the local lord celebrated the completion of Tokushima Castle by getting the townspeople drunk, leading to outbreaks of wild dancing. Historians point out that this tale is almost certainly apocryphal, but it makes for a good yarn at least.
Though it has many variations, the Awa odori is most typically performed to a two-step rhythm known as zomeki. Each troupe features a team of female dancers, wearing lightweight kimono and long straw hats that resemble taco shells, who advance in tight formation on the tips of their wooden geta clogs, arms held aloft.
The traditional men’s dance is performed in a low crouch with the knees pointed outwards and arms raised above the shoulders. One dancer I spoke to said it resembles the stance that fishermen would assume while hauling in their nets; either way, it looks exhausting.
The main problem for Koenji’s aspiring Awa odori dancers was that nobody knew any of this at the time. The inaugural Koenji Baka Odori (Koenji Silly Dance), held in 1957, was a cultural hodgepodge born of good-natured ignorance. Dancers ended up performing to the rhythm of the “Sado Okesa,” a folk song from Niigata Prefecture, sporting white face-paint more befitting of kabuki.
Such inauthentic touches were quickly corrected, as performers began to nurture ties with Tokushima. A dancer named Shoei Morita, who later founded the Aoi Shinren troupe, went to Shikoku to shoot 8 mm footage of the Awa Odori, which goes to show how much tougher life was before YouTube.
Yet as the festival’s proponents made a bid for respectability, they had to concede that their original mission had failed.
“Everyone was watching with their backs turned to the stores — no one was going inside,” says Takeyuki Tomizawa, a former troupe leader who now works full-time for the Tokyo Koenji Awa Odori Promotion Association. “The whole idea was to increase sales on the shōtengai (shopping street), but it didn’t work at all.”
That’s still true today: While local bars and restaurants can expect plenty of business, Koenji’s retailers might as well take the weekend off.
When he isn’t fielding complaints from irate locals (there are quite a few, apparently), Tomizawa’s most pressing concern is figuring out how to pay for the event. He reels off a few expenses: the lighting costs ¥15 million, security guards are an additional ¥9 million, and they spend around ¥5-6 million just on fencing and signs.
The festival accepts donations from the public — ¥6,000 gets you a seat in the stands — and has managed to wangle some subsidies from the local ward office. Troupes pay a standard participation fee of ¥50,000, plus an additional ¥500 per member per day.
“We only charge them because we don’t have any money,” he says with a shrug.
Of the 163 troupes appearing this weekend, 30 are members of the Ren Kyokai, an association of core groups that serve as standard-bearers for the festival. Others hail from different parts of the city or farther afield, and there are also corporate troupes; one highlight last year was the Microsoft team, who’d incorporated a shout-out for “Windows 10” into their chants.
While troupes are expected to use traditional costumes and instruments, they’re free to innovate in other ways. Maichoren, which is a member of the Ren Kyokai association, performs to an all-percussion accompaniment, using a series of musical cues that allow for spontaneous changes in its routine.
“I always found that when a group’s dancing was good, the music was boring — or vice versa,” explains leader Kazuo Suzuki, who composes all of the music himself. “We wanted to do something that sounded cool and looked cool, too.”
Tokyo Tensuiren has also stripped the Awa odori down to its percussive core, though the troupe tends to plunge into more head-banging territory. When I visit a rehearsal at Za-Koenji Public Theater, which has a dedicated practice space for Awa Odori groups, it’s louder than the average rock concert, but nobody seems to have thought to bring earplugs.
“I think our ears are probably wrecked,” laughs Taeko Shito, the group’s deputy leader.
Koenji has undergone many face-lifts since the 1950s. Once an epicenter for the punk scene, the neighborhood is now popular among the kinds of hipster dandies who used to flock to Harajuku.
However, the changes run deeper. As Tomizawa points out, between 80 and 90 percent of the local shops are now occupied by tenants, rather than owners. These include an increasing number of chain stores, whose managers don’t have the liberty to donate money from their tills to the Awa Odori, or get staff to pitch in with the event.
Faced with a drop in such homegrown support, the Promotion Association decided a decade ago to start enlisting volunteer staff. There’ll be 500 volunteers helping out this weekend, assisting with important tasks like collecting rubbish. But Tomizawa says that few of them will be local: “The locals are generally dancing.”
The 60th Tokyo Koenji Awa Odori festival takes place around Koenji Station in Suginami Ward on Aug. 27 and 28 (5 p.m.-8 p.m.). For more information, visit www.koenji-awaodori.com.
There’s a new dance in town
1957: Two-thousand spectators watch 38 dancers and musicians perform the inaugural Koenji Baka Odori (Koenji Silly Dance).
1959: The local youth association votes on whether to continue the festival. A narrow 10-9 majority guarantees its survival.
1963: Ending the silliness, the festival is renamed the Koenji Awa Odori.
1967: The first independent dance group, Aoi Shinren, makes its debut. It’s still performing today.
1976: Koenji dancers take the Awa odori abroad for the first time, appearing at U.S. Bicentennial celebrations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu.
2001: Torrential rain forces organizers to cancel the second day of the festival — the only time this has ever happened.
2011: With power-saving efforts in place after the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Awa odori shunts its start time forward to 3 p.m. It’s the sweatiest year on record.
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