As the train doors opened at Koenji Station, a familiar sound immediately filled the air. Beating drums… whistling bamboo flutes… clanging bells… twanging shamisens… Ahhh, the sound of a Japanese summer festival!
The streets of Koenji were packed with hundreds of thousands of people this weekend for one of the most famous annual events in Tokyo, the Koenji Awa Odori. The wet weather did little to deter the masses – the drizzling rain of late has actually made it unusually cool for this time of the year! My friends and I donned our yukatas – probably for the last time this year – and joined the crowds to watch this exciting dance spectacle.
The festival lasts for 2 days, with events all day and the highlight, the dancing, in the evening. This year, there were 30 official dance teams, and roughly 80 general entry groups. In total, there were around 10,000 performers!! The groups begin from different start points and make their way around a circuit, chanting and pumping up the crowd as they go!
Each dance group is made up of a leader who carries lanterns on a long bamboo stick, followed by female dancers wearing a special straw hat, male dancers and entertainers wearing a bandana, and the musicians bringing up the rear. The main difference between the men’s and women’s style of dance is that the guys crouch down lower and are more open with their movements whereas the girls are more upright and elegant.
I love that even children got involved in this festival. Two hours of non-stop dancing is tiring even for adults, so it was really cute seeing the little ones doing their best to keep up! The colourful female dancers, in their high geta sandals and pointed hats, looked extra tall and beautiful. As a synchronised group, they were fantastic! The men were a little more rough and rowdy, but their happy nature and smiles were infectious!
The Koenji Awa Odori is energetic, vibrant and so much fun. It’s like the last hurrah, a farewell to summer.
The little performers: