One thing I want aspiring or incoming JET participants to know is this: you need to show up in this country with your A-game, because more often than not, you are expected to head straight into an onslaught of activities upon arriving…jet lag, lack of sleep, churned-up digestive system, and culture shock be damned. I was lucky that I didn’t feel much of these (maybe lack of sleep), though my comrades certainly did. The biggest struggle for me was that I am used to SO much time alone, and SO much personal space, and from the moment I arrived in this country until about two weeks later, I got pretty much zero of each. Constant mandatory participation in all kinds of activities combined with having to share hotel rooms with actual strangers (yes, other participants on the program, but you don’t know them till you show up in your room!) really pushed my limits of genki-ness. While I am proud of slugging through it and mostly keeping a smile on, it was a real test for me.
Luckily, one of these activities happened to be something I really LOVE – dancing!
My prefecture (Tokushima) is host to the Awa Odori, which is a famous dance festival that is the largest in all of Japan. The city of 250,000 swells to over 1.5 MILLION people during Awa Odori. Different dance troupes (called ren) come from around Japan to perform. There is a women’s dance, men’s dance, lantern dance and more. I was fascinated by the history of this dance and the festival itself:
Awa Odori’s independent existence as a huge, city-wide dance party is popularly believed to have begun in 1586 when Lord Hachisuka Iemasa, the daimyo of Awa Province hosted a drunken celebration of the opening of Tokushima Castle. The locals, having consumed a great amount of sake, began to drunkenly weave and stumble back and forth.
Drunken dance parties? Yo, that’s my jam!
I also particularly enjoyed the story of the song that is sung during the dance. It loosely translates into English as “Those who are dancing look like fools and those who are watching look like fools, so you might as well dance!” Amen.
|the women’s dance|
Only a few days after arriving in my town, Naruto, we got a taste of it at the Naruto Odori which is a smaller version of the big one in Tokushima City. We were shuffled off to a steamy gym, where we learned the basic steps to the men’s dance (which is easier to do and has a much easier costume!) and the call-and-response yells in about ten minutes. We got a good giggle out of this, as we were put at the back of a childrens ren. To be honest, they were better than we were, but we had a good time. Basically, your ren dances through performance areas on the streets with the ren‘s live band playing on each side of you and spectators in the bleachers watching. We got more than a few bemused grins when people watching noticed the ten foreigners dancing at the back of the kids!
And the best part?
I managed to run into a guy with a Utila dive shop shirt on. Utila, as in THE ISLAND RIGHT FUCKING BESIDE ROATAN. He was doing his divemaster on Utila and had been to Roatan too, so we did some island and diving gossip for a bit until I started to tear up from homesickness. If that doesn’t prove it’s a small world, I don’t know what does.
I had an absolute blast dancing at the Naruto Odori and our ren managed to do three passes through different spectator areas. After returning the happi (the jacket thing I’m wearing in the photos), we were set loose to enjoy the rest of the festival. Which for me meant eating endless yatai, the street food vendors! I had shaved ice, grilled meat on sticks, takoyaki, and grilled corn. Happy Rika!
|takoyaki (octopus fritters!)|
And then I got to do it alllll over again. Part of our orientation a week later included dancing at the massive Awa Odori in Tokushima City – the real deal. We performed as part of Arasowa Ren, the international troupe of over 200 people. There were JETs, expats, a huge group of Harvard students who were in Japan for a few days and more.
We only danced twice but the stages were way longer and there were wayyyyy more people watching! This was a much bigger deal coordinating so many people. I thought the organizers did an amazing job and I had so much fun. I really loved the dancing and I’m determined to find a pro ren to join this year… I want to do the women’s dance next year! Or maybe play the drums. I can’t decide.
Here’s a video that sums it all up nicely – not my video, and I’m not in it, but you can see what the dance is supposed to look like (ours did not look like this) and what the music sounds like. This video features Gojahei Ren, which is the largest ren in Awa Odori:
I’m going to have the song in my head for the rest of my life. YATTOSA YATTOSA!
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