Posted by: chapmaar | August 18, 2010

A-wa-nderful Awa Adventure

It took a long time to get to Tokoshima Awa-odori Dance Festival. It was held in Tokoshima, the southwest prefecture of my island home in Japan, Shikoku. Driving me halfway there was Mitch, a Canadian in a seriously awesome black printed Japanese summer robe. I shook Mitch’s hand outside a Starbucks for about 23 seconds a week before. That’s pretty much how welcoming the foreigner social network is around here, as this night in particular was warming up to demonstrate to me. After parking outside Mitch’s favorite Japanese wine and cheese bar (“Japanese people eat cheese!?” I gawked), we took a train for a few more hours. When we stepped off the train, it was a little after 8 pm.

the crowded streets at one of Japan's largest festivals - period.

I had to rub my eyes a few times to believe it. There were paved streets instead of a sandy beach; the pulsations of the twenty foot speakers came instead from drummers who swung their entire body weight back and forth into the tuba-sized instruments strapped to their torsos. But the dancing, intoxicated crowd of around 200,000 took me right back to the Full Moon Party on the white sand shores of Koh Phang Nan, Thailand.

crowds clap and cheer as a group dances down a street

these women lead their group at the start of their street

After tearing through our first of many convenience stores of the night for our first round of Asahi beer (ahhh the taste brings back the TKE basement, Natty Light, PBR and all the corresponding nostalgiac college memories), Mitch began to weave his way through the mass of people. Every few feet, he would pause, look back, and laugh – chances were I was teetering on my tiptoes behind a row of Japanese people, camera out, filming yet another awa dance group. The groups danced endlessly – we would turn onto a street and find a group in colorful uniform halfway down it, fast approaching us. Or they would be bowing as they crossed the crosswalk, the crowd clapping and chanting furiously as the band approached, until an impromptu dance party could erupt amidst the observers as the awa band gave everything they had to one last round of music. Or there would be a band and a group huddled together, one lone boy out front waving a long pole with lanterns, chanting and cheering and getting ready to start their own dance path down the street. And this went on for streets, and more streets, and through tunnels and shopping centers, and over bridges, and more streets . . . the Asahi whirled with the drums and hovering flutes and I didn’t know if it was the old street or the new. Standing beside my last-minute friend, I didn’t know what to say or how to express the happiness I felt at seeing, near the end of the night, a brilliant dance group approach the end of their street, and behind them, bouncing and singing and doing their own moves, a huge group of drunk Japanese spontaneously forming their own awa troupe around the band the banged and nodded and banged some more. It’s one of those times where words, even pictures, in their stillness, fail. I hate it when people say it, but “you need to be there.” So come, lean over their shoulders with me – let’s weave through the crowds together.


Oh, I’m sorry, you thought the adventure was over? Well, for parents, family, and friends who want to see me only as a cultural consumer, instead of an alcohol-and-party- imbiber as well, you should probably content yourself with the above blurb, and not continue reading what turned into a debaucherous night with a surprising Winnie-the-Pooh message at the end of it.

The festival ended around 11:30. That means, last train was gone, kaput. I was staying in Tokoshima for the night. And there was no way I was buying a hotel. I was I don’t know how many beers deep. I wandered the streets with Mitch for a while, hoping to run in to people. We ran into a foreigner’s bar – some woman’s name that started with an I that now I can’t remember (this is a night without a lot of names at the end of it – and no pictures). Here’s what I know – I danced. I talked energetically with people I didn’t know at all. The floor was covered with spilled drinks (many of them probably mine). I fell – a lot, often into people. An African girl tried to fight me. I went outside and talked to more people – about how cool Brazil probably is, places I’ve been, the normal traveling jatter. I went back inside. The African girl apologized and tried to hug me. I settled for a shot. The bartender made it tequila. And free. I may have neutralized one enemy, but the raw hard alcohol in my stomach turned into a much more noxious one. The bar closed, and I wandered the streets with some more foreigners – their names are as lost as I felt, stumbling the streets of Tokoshima between maybe 3-5? 4-6? No one knows. Somehow we found the train. I bought a ticket – destination? Price? unknown. I tried to sleep sprawled out on some purple, horribly velvety cushions as I headed back towards my prefecture. The once-empty train slowly filled with Japanese people carrying shopping bags and listening to Ipods and pretending not to stare at the five guy-jin (foreigners) with green faces taking up way too much available seating. An hour away from my home town (so close), I couldn’t make it anymore. I needed off of that train. It was one of the foreigner’s stops, a Canadian with short blonde hair and a sweet Japanese girlfriend who had danced with me for hours at the bar the night before.  I think he leaned over to tell me to keep taking the train for another hour until I reached Kanon-ji, but I could only respond I needed off the train. He and his girlfriend led me down the station steps, out into the burning sun (9 am and hot as the dickens already), through curled streets that felt like they were crafted in the evilest pits of hell, and up a miniscule elevator to his fifth floor apartment. He walked in, flicked the air conditioner, threw a blanket on the floor. I toppled onto it. Out.

I woke up at three in the afternoon. Daniel (I found out his name) and his girlfriend snuggled in their underwear next to me. Was I being horribly rude? I felt so sick I didn’t care – we had wandered the streets and braved the night awake together – I felt bonded enough, and I was ready to take it if they wanted to kick me out immediately.

Instead, they made me pancakes! Delicious, pan-sized pancakes! From scratch! And! Coffee!

I had dinner plans a few towns over at seven. There was no point going home, so I texted Vivian, who I had plans with and happened to live in the same town as Daniel. She texted me back to come over immediately. She met me at the station and walked me, feeling considerably less nauseous despite the still escalating temperatures, to her apartment. “Would you like a shower? Do you want some water?” she asked me in her dark, sonorous Montreal accent. She gave me a clean body, clean teeth, clean water, clean clothes and even some make up. It was our second time hanging out. We went to dinner and had an amazing time (though I couldn’t drink a beer at the cute little local isakaya (Japanese bar)).

That night, as I finally boarded a train back to Kanon-ji, a group of friends standing on the platform waving goodbye til I faded from the distance (it’s Japanese tradition), I felt my heart overspilling with gratitude. Japan is an amazing place – because of the plethora of amazing cultural experiences, its natural beauty, its amazing food – but also, I found, because of its foreigners. In any other country, it takes weeks, months, sometimes years to build up intimacy with new friends. In one night, or one morning/day really, in a state of really dire need, these strangers took me in and made me their automatic friend. And it didn’t feel like a stretch, like an unfamiliar obligation. These people were used to extending every consideration, every bit of comfort to the people around them – it was so normal and expected. I appreciate how rare it is. And it makes me ready to really love, live up, and feel thankful for every experience I’m lucky enough to have with them.


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