Welcoming the dead –Awa Odori

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Prof Dr. Nusrat Majeed

Japan offers the most striking contrast between tradition and modernity. It is such a unique country with its own cultural flair and festivals. It’s all amazing and fascinating.

 It hosts stunning annual festivals, some of which have been celebrated for centuries. Festivals also known as MATSURI are steeped in tradition offering visitors a glimpse of Japanese culture that cannot be found in museums. There are still deeply important community gatherings and this is what makes it worth seeing. These celebrations are tied to culture, history and religion.

Each festival is unique and distinguishes itself from others through its history, rituals and dances. By joining these festivals you can not only immerse yourself into that kind of atmosphere that Japanese streets take on during a festival, but also live from the inside of an ancient and rampant tradition that is still part of Japanese people’s daily life.

In summer there is one such festival, the AWA ODORI, also known as Bon festival. Awa is the former name for Tokushima prefecture and Odori means dance. It is one of the largest celebrations and takes place from 12th to 15th 0f August. It is a Japanese-Buddhist celebration where the spirits of deceased ancestors are said to visit living relatives for a few days of the year. 

Tokushima city’s Awa Odori is the most famous of many dance festivals held across Japan during the obon season because of its size, exuberance and anarchy. It has been celebrated for more than 500 years as an annual event that commemorates ancestors. This three day festival is known to have Buddhist roots.

According to the story, one of the Bhudda’s disciples used his special power to see the spirit of his deceased mother. To his dismay, he learned she was in the Realm of hungry ghosts. Buddha tells the disciple to make food offerings to Buddhist monks which relieves the spirits of their sufferings

The Buddhist monk was able to save his mother and this act would become tradition with people leaving food offerings like fruits and vegetables, along with some pretty flowers for their ancestors in front of their home Buddhist alter [butsudan].

Chochin, a kind of round paper lantern are lit inside the houses and also hung outside the house or brought to the ancestors’ gravesite to help guide family spirits back to earth. It has now become a family event, where all family members reunite to celebrate those who have passed away

Between August 12 to 15 spectators and dancers come to Tokushima in thousands for the dance.

It was my good luck to be in Tokushima university for my cardiology training during this time if the year. Everyone from the dean of the university to nurses and paramedics very enthusiastically participate getting special dresses made for each department.

Our department had cotton kimonos with ECG tracings and a tiny heart.

It was fun.

Groups of choreographed dancers and musicians dance through the streets accompanied by Taiko drums, flute and kane bell. Performers wear traditional dance costumes and chant and sing as they parade through the streets.

They dance to the pounding rhythms and hypnotic melodies at this summer matsuri to greet their dear ones (the spirits of deceased relatives) who are visiting them for a short while.

Although some events happen during the day time, the main spectacle takes place between 18.00 and 22.30 when the group of dancers perform in the blocked off streets of downtown Tokushima. Women wear cotton robes (yukata), while men wear happi [shorter yukata over shorts or pants].

In the evening Tokushima’s city center shuts down and is turned into large dancing stage. Typical festival flourish, such as food and game stalls, as well as more dancing, takes place outside the stage area

These festivals are often a representation of Japanese art and folklore, accompanied by drinks, festivities and fantastic food making them one of the most direct connections with traditional Japan.