One of Japan's great treats during the long and hot summer, offering plenty of local flavor and color, are the festivities surrounding Bon, when Japanese return to their hometowns to honor the spirit of their ancestors.
Among the many mid-summer Bon festival dances held around the country, Tokushima's Awa Odori is one of the most traditional and exciting.
The Awa Odori is noted for its feverish two-beat music of metal chimes, samisen, flutes and song. Hundreds of individual dance groups, called "ren," take part. The men wear "happi" coats and headscarves, while the women don kimono and tilted "amigasa" half-circular hats. Their nimble moves and distinct choreography make for great snapshots.
As an old saying goes in Tokushima: "You're a fool if you dance and a fool if you watch, so you might as well dance and enjoy yourself."
The festival, which is said to have 400 years of history, draws more than 1 million visitors each year.
If dance is what you crave, the city of Kochi is also a good bet, although its Yosakoi Festival has only a short 50-year history.
But unlike the Tokushima festival, these dancers opt for an individual look with outfits that sometimes are eccentric or just downright outrageous. Each group has its own dance steps.
Even though the music varies from group to group, the 20,000 or so dancers are required to include traditional tunes.
In Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture, if you look to the sea, there is the Kangen Festival, said to have started in the Heian Period (794-1185). Then, Kyoto aristocrats organized culture cruises on local rivers, where the assembled guests were treated to an evening of music, called "kangen," created by ensembles of flutes, taiko drums, the four-stringed biwa lute and koto.
Prominent late-Heian warrior and political notable Taira no Kiyomori is said to have introduced the art form to the Itsukushimajinja shrine, now designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in Hiroshima Prefecture. The shrine is located on Miyajima island in the Seto Inland Sea. Its deep red torii shrine gate stands stoutly in Hiroshima Bay, giving the illusion that worshippers must first wade across if they want to pray.
The sea parade includes a round trip to the mainland 4 kilometers away. While musicians work their magic, lanterns and bonfires cast a mesmerizing glow on the dark surface of the sea.
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The Awa Odori dance is held Aug. 12-15 in Tokushima. The flying time from Tokyo is 70 minutes. The main venue without an entrance fee is at Motomachi Enbujo near the Shinmachigawa river. All major venues are within walking distance of JR Tokushima Station.
Kochi's Yosakoi Festival is held from Aug. 9-12. The main venue is at Otesuji Honbu Kyoenjo near the Kochi City Hall.
The Kangen Festival in Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture, will be held Aug. 4. Take the Sanyo Line from JR Hiroshima Station and disembark at Miyajimaguchi Station. Miyajima island is a 10-minute boat ride.
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