Awa Odori (literally "Awa Dance" - Awa is derived from the old Awa Province) is a great chance for tourists to come to Tokushima, discover its traditions, meet its people, and leave their garbage hither and yon all over downtown. This year, Tokushima played host to approximately 630,000,000 people, and there were some foreigners, too!
In all seriousness, the crowds are vibrant, pulsating, and asphyxiating, but you will be okay as long as you are of Japanese build and not sporting a loaded backpack. I, on the other hand, felt huge and clumsy – I hate feeling like I take up the space of three people, and though I don’t think there’s much I can do about it, I still feel like I’m being greedy for space. Being tall, though, which the Japanese are not known for (though there are tall Japanese people; they’re just rare), is an advantage.
On the second night of Awa Odori, I was late getting out, but I decided to try and meet my colleagues on the top of Mt. Bisan anyway. I went up the ropeway in the darkness. I stayed on the observation platform at Bizan-Sancho station and took some pictures, and then by chance I caught a glimpse of M. retreating from the washrooms. He led me to the others and we hung out over the lights and under the stars for a bit before heading back down to Bizan-Sanroku.
On the third night, I went to observe the TOPIA-organized dance group. Most of my colleagues were in it – Ch. wasn’t in it, because she’d just gotten here and it would have been too late to register, while I wasn’t in it because I didn’t like dancing.
I hadn’t counted on the legions of people I barely know being in it, which made things somewhat awkward – it feels really weird to be almost the only one hanging around without a costume. It was kind of like the time in June 2000 when I went to Safe Grad after the Prom, so I showed up for the school busses leaving Prom… in blue jeans and an old oversized t-shirt. Now, everyone else was changing into casual clothes for Safe Grad, but it was the height of oddity to show up like I did when everyone else was filing out wearing suits. (I didn’t go to the Prom in 2000 because it wasn’t my graduating year and I’d already gone in ‘99, but I felt enough a part of the class anyway as a returning grad that I still went to Safe Grad.)
I said that I didn’t sign up for the group because I didn’t like dancing. What I didn’t know was that the dancing was just a front for socializing – the group seemed to spend most of the time just standing around waiting for their next appearance. It would have been fun to be a part of it. Eh bien…
On the final night, by L.’s invitation, a few of us met up with Awa Connection at a little yakitori place downtown. Eating with L. (consummate gourmand that he is) can be an adventure in every conceivable way, and he seems to have a knack for picking chaotic places. Actually, maybe that’s more of a function of our sheer numbers – when it’s only he and I, things are quite manageable. Maybe I just need to make more of an effort to sit next to him in the future so that I can be within his bubble of understanding. I’m not one for mystery where food and drink is concerned.
Anyway, this yakitori place was nuts. It was cryptic and frenzied all at once. Ah, and the shouting! The Japanese members of the group would be shouting hither and yon constantly, and the servers would be shouting back, constantly. It got to be kind of jarring. And although this didn’t affect me much, as I had sat on the far side, the group surrounding our four tables joined together in a little alcove kept on getting bigger and bigger and bigger and eventually there were 22 people all jammed into an area … metaphors fail me, but I remember it being about four tatami square. I worried that the beams underneath us would give. And if there had been an earthquake, I’m sure we’d all have been done for. I’m sure all government buildings and schools have had or are having anti-seismic renovations where necessary, but I don’t think these little buildings have! I mean, I wasn’t extremely worried, but it was food for thought, which was sometimes the only kind I could have, as the wait times between dishes were understandably long.
At least this place didn’t have the Impatient Fellow™ to knock me over into someone using crutches. That was back when the shoes-on, shoes-off stuff still annoyed me, and that particular moment really soured me about any experience where you had to take your shoes off and sit on tatami.
After we ate, we found a place where there was a band that just played and sang the Awa Odori again and again and again (“Aaaaaaaaaawaaaa Ooooooodoooooriiiii…”) so that anyone at all could just jump in the circle and dance. Awa Connection amusingly made it their official dance and hauled their banner in and everything. But the important thing is that I did get to dance the Awa Odori, at least for a little while.
The festivities ended abruptly around 11; one by one the flood lights went out, and the traffic lights came back on, and the cops came out to clear people back onto the sidewalks. As L. put it, the drummers we were then dancing to didn’t want to leave. Their energy, vigor and enthusiasm will always stay with me. Oh, to be a performer!
* * *
Written from notes taken August 23rd. These anecdotes put the rest of this post out of sequence, but sometimes style has to trump logic.
M. has finished his term with S.G. and is going to work for GEOS somewhere in northern Kyushu. We had his going away party at… another yakitori place. <head slap> L. billed this place as having a very genki chef. Wow, he sure was – he must have known that our bill would come to over $200! Eeeeeeep. At the first yakitori place, we got off easily for only about $13 each; here it was $33. We certainly earned it, but it wasn’t the cheapest place to begin with. I think that the memories of that chef might be worth $20, though. Tip: When you go out to eat with L., bring along a fresh man.
I’m being a little bit hard on L. We owe him so much; he’s almost single-handedly made our experiences here a hundred times richer than they would have been without him. With this in mind, after I had decided to abort the Hiroshima excursion, I heard that one of L.’s friends was playing saxophone in a Latin Jazz concert. I had nothing to do that evening, so giddyup! I like jazz, but right then I was really just looking for adventure. (“Get your motor runnin’…”)
I called L. from the station – the pay phone made me rush things, as it had an insatiable appetite for coins and kept threatening to cut us off – and arranged to meet at an intersection on the way to the concert. As I sat on a curb waiting for him, I reflected on the dearth of congenial places to sit in this country. I think people just accept it – I see teenagers sitting on curbs or even just on sidewalks all the time – perhaps it’s more acceptable here.
The festival was put on by a local hospital. Hospitals here are private businesses in competition with each other, so many of them make an effort to give back to their communities, as they want residents to use the services of that particular hospital. (There is a national health insurance program here, and I am a subscriber, but it works on a 30% co-pay basis – the plan just covers 70% of your hospital / pharmaceutical bills. Doctors and nurses here are private employees, not civil servants in a nationalized industry.) This was an interesting concept to me, because in Canada the hospitals beg the communities to give back to them!
A representative of the hospital administered us a brief survey with questions like, “Do you ever feel stressed?” and “If yes, how do you cope?” The completed survey could be exchanged for a prize ballot. While L. was translating for me, his friend came on and performed his saxophone solo – so he surmised as soon as the surveyor left us. Nuts! I told him, “Well, at least we got to hear the performance; we just weren’t aware of it!”
After a very heavy downpour in which the remaining festival guests retreated under the vendor’s tents, we finished the night at an udon shop. I had some awesome niku-udon – the beef was tender and flavorful, and the noodles had a very satisfyingly firm yet penetratable texture. Somehow we got on the topic of Hawaii – L. is “pure” Japanese (his ancestors did not intermarry), but geographically he is 5th-generation Japanese-Hawaiian. Hawaii sounds like a fascinating place – I ought to find a way to get there sometime.
And the following morning [this morning, the 24th], I had an epic journey – perhaps one of the better days out I’ve ever had here. When I post it, that will finally bring us back up to date. (Let’s not even talk about photos yet.)