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Shikoku’s Summer Festivals

Turning up the heat with hot summer dance festivals

Shikoku’s Summer Festivals

Shikoku in summer is hot, with Matsuyama averaging about 33 °C in August. That’s cooler by a couple of degrees than Osaka for example, but it’s still hot. But despite the heat, the people of Shikoku have an urge to dance in summer, and they do it in high style. Here we look at the festivals that take place in Shikoku’s summer.

Japanese festivals held in summer are generally related to dancing. Although today’s dance festivals are resolutely secular, they’re based on the Bon Odori dance which has Buddhist origins. Mokuren, a disciple of the Buddha, was able to save his late mother from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts through good deeds, and danced with joy when she was freed. The movements of traditional Bon Odori are a stereotypical sequence, miming the actions of farmers, like digging and threshing. The dances performed in Shikoku today seem far removed from the sedate Bon Odori, but they’re based around a fixed set of gestures.

The Ushioni Festival in Uwajima

Name in Japanese: うわじま牛鬼まつり
Pronunciation: uwajima ushioni matsuri
Date: 22 – 24 July

The first major summer festival has a bit of dancing, but it mostly features ushioni, bull-devils. These are legendary monsters of murky origins. Whatever they once were, they’re recreated with a large domed body of bamboo basket work, and a wooden head with a snapping jaw on a long stick. The beast has a sword-shaped tail which waggles up and down driving away ill-fortune. The whole ensemble is covered by brightly coloured cloth or a shaggy brown coat, and is carried around by a team of men. Sometimes the ushioni charges, and its head swings down with its mouth clapping open and shut. Being attacked like this brings good fortune. It’s actually an impressive and rather intimidating thing.

The first day is called the Uwajima Gaiya carnival, and it features street stalls and a display of fireworks in the port. The second day is devoted to various parades of dancers and ushioni. On the final day, twenty ushioni make their way through the main streets, accompanied by trolleys of children playing instruments. At dusk the men enter the Suka River in front of Warei Shrine carrying divine palanquins. A rather brave man climbs a bamboo pole to retrieve a talisman tied to the top.

This wild summer festival offers an opportunity to mingle with the friendly people of southern Ehime and to experience the strangely real animality of the bull devils.

The Awa Odori Festival in Tokushima

Name in Japanese: 阿波踊り
Pronunciation: awa odori
Date: 12 – 15 August

The Awa Odori is the largest dance festival in Japan, attracting over 1.3 million visitors every year. It’s the original old Shikoku dance and the inspiration for all of the others.

Since Edo-period Tokushima was built on islands joined by bridges, there was no space to dance the usual circular Bon Odori, so a parade-style dance between the islands developed. This was jazzed up for a display at the 1970 Osaka Expo, dramatically setting it apart from the traditional Bon dance. The ladies’ hats were worn at a higher angle and they danced on tip toe. By contrast, the men adopted a low stance and gyrated with abandon.

Groups of dancers known as ‘ren’ dance through the streets, accompanied by musicians playing the shamisen, drums, flutes, and a bell that keeps overall time. Performers wear traditional clothes, and chant and sing as they parade through the streets.

For weeks in advance, you can see the participants practicing by the city’s rivers. The festival itself is very photogenic. Visitors are also strongly encouraged to participate, and you’re sure to take away vivid memories of this city-wide community event. Within Tokushima Prefecture, most people can do the dance and will perform it with a bit of encouragement.

If you’re unable to make it to the festival itself, a visit to the Awa Odori Hall in Tokushima City allows you to explore the origins of the festival and learn the dance under the patient guidance of their resident ren.

The Yosakoi Festival in Kōchi

Name in Japanese: よさこい祭り
Pronunciation: yosakoi matsuri
Date: Second weekend of August

The Yosakoi Festival in Kōchi is one of Japan’s most salient summer festivals. It was developed after WWII to restore people’s spirits, and the dance parade aspect was copied from the Awa Odori. What the word ‘Yosakoi’ means exactly is open to interpretation, but the general sense is ‘let the good times roll’, and there’s a strong hint of nocturnal naughtiness to it. Incidentally, Kochi’s births are concentrated nine months after Yosakoi.

During the festival, over 10,000 dancers in dozens of teams throng the main streets and thoroughfares, beating time with small wooden clappers called naruko. The costumes are colourful and fantastic. Each team is led by a decorated truck blasting out music from their huge speakers, and staffed by excited party animals.

Every team is free to arrange its own style of music, but it must include at least part of the festival’s official song, the Yosakoi Naruko Dance. The festival ends with a parade down Otesuji-dori Avenue and a huge fireworks display, lasting 90 minutes.

Especially good dancers proudly wear ribbons awarded by the judges, and there’s an overall winning team each year. Teams are organized by companies, businesses and localities, and a lot of them are put together by izakaya, the informal pub/restaurants for which Kōchi is renowned. A festival is really a way for a town to bare its soul and show the world what it’s made of and Yosakoi displays the quintessential character of Kōchi City – it’s loud, gaudy, cheerful, ever-changing and irreverent, with the women of the town definitely front and centre.

There’s a museum for the festival which is worth a look if you’re in the area.

The Matsuyama Festival

Name in Japanese:  松山まつり
Pronunciation: matsuyama matsuri
Date: Second weekend of August

Matsuyama is considered to be the first home of baseball in Japan, since the local haiku poet Masaoka Shiki was an early devotee. He translated baseball terminology into Japanese and gave the game its Japanese name, yakyu, and organized baseball games on the troop-drilling grounds within the castle moat. The Matsuyama Matsuri is a festival to celebrate this history, with various dances inspired by the game.

The festival takes place over the second weekend of August, beginning on Friday evening. Various companies and civic groups form dance troupes, which make their own outfits and devise their own dance routines. These involve some baseball-esque movements such as pitching, swinging a bat, and running around in a circle. It’s remarkable how felicitously these motions can be incorporated into a dance.

This is a huge community event involving practice and coordination for months in advance. Masses of people, from kindergartens and NPOs, to dance schools, companies, neighbourhood associations and local government take part over the three days, each with their own unique outfits and routine, making it one of the biggest cosplay events anywhere. All of the groups have their own sound system mounted on a truck, which plays two tunes. After hearing the same music over and over again, it gets fixed in your head and you’ll be whistling it afterwards. Fortunately, it’s not a bad tune.

After the parade down Chifune-Dori, the best groups perform again in the grounds of Matsuyama Castle where Shiki used to play his early baseball games. If you’re in Matsuyama in the summer, this is one festival that you should really see.

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