Koenji Awa Odori: The Essence of Summer in Tokyo
It may be hard to remember the name of this festival, but you will never forget the amazing feeling when you see it for the first time. The exotic costumes and bone rattling drums will leave you in a trance, wanting to soak up more of this amazing Japanese festival culture. This year the festivities take place on August 23 and 24. Here are some quick tips about how you can get the most out of this great outing, even with small kids.
The history of the Awa dance dates back over 400 years, with this particular festival celebrating its 58th year this year and estimated to draw over one million attendees over the two days. Each day starting from 5 p.m. there is a three-hour parade of rhythmic music and dance involving over 10,000 dancers, including some adorable children’s groups. The performers start simultaneously around the route, so you don’t need to wait for the parade to reach you. Each dance group has its own unique style, chanting, music and matching yukatas, and after about an hour you will have seen a decent representation. The graceful dance of the women with their precision hand and foot movements is matched by the more wild and energetic dance of the men. Don’t let the high participation figures scare you away; the course is spread out over almost five kilometers, so we didn’t find it too crowded.
The little neighborhood of Koenji is just 10 minutes northwest of Shinjuku and has a nice mix of narrow shopping streets surrounded by residential housing. The festival is in the area immediately surrounding the JR station, so there is no guesswork once you exit the platform. The town starts bustling fairly early on, with locals staking out their favorite viewing spots and yakitori grills firing up hours before the actual parade begins.
My suggestion would be to arrive at least two hours before the start of the parade and do like the locals, claim your viewing spot. I attended the festival with my husband and two children (ages one and three), so we took the opportunity to arrive early, check out the area then sit down in some air conditioning for ramen in one of the many small restaurants in the area. A large radius of streets is blocked off from traffic, so it was nice to let the kids safely lead the way. We even found a great playground—complete with a splash fountain that the kids loved playing in—just a five-minute walk north of the JR station. This was a lifesaver from the heat. Once back near the parade route, ice-cold beverages and classic festival food are always near at hand. Munch on a little street-side picnic and enjoy the performances!
When: August 23-24, 2014, 5-8 p.m.
Where: Koenji Minami 2-, 3-, and 4-chome, and Koenji Kita 2- and 3-chome, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. The parade route follows along the shopping streets north and south of JR Koenji Station on the JR Chuo line. A map of parade route (Japanese only) is available here. The playground mentioned above is at 3-20-9 Koenji Kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo (see map below).
How much: The parade is free to view, but be sure to bring ample cash for buying food and drinks from the street vendors.
More info: Additional details are available on the festival’s official website (Japanese only at the time of publishing, but an English site is under construction).