Awa Odori

Japan's biggest dance festival, Awa Odori, is a colossal spectacle filled with dazzling sights, amazing artistry and abundant joy. Discover the beauty with National Geographic's photographer, David Guttenfelder.

Behind The Scenes:
Awa Odori Festival

Join The Celebration

The centuries-old bon odori (dance) is a joyous blend of sound, movement, and tradition. While the dance is performed throughout Japan during the mid-August Obon week, a family holiday marking the return of deceased ancestors to Earth, the annual Awa Odori in Tokushima is the most famous, oldest, and largest Obon dance event. Called Awa in honor of feudal province that became Tokushima Prefecture, the four-day party on the island of Shikoku attracts more than one million spectators and thousands of dancers, who perform in troupes, called ren. For the best views, sit in elevated enbujo (spectator stands) at one of the nightly, ticketed events.


Alpha 9 | Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS | 1/640 sec | f/4.5 | ISO 800


Alpha 7R IV | FE 24mm F1.4 GM | 1/1250 sec | f/1.4 | ISO 500

Marvel At The Fantastical Hats

Among the most elegant Awa Odori performers are the ona adori (women’s dance) troupes who don fan-shaped amigasa (braided hats). Typically crafted from thick straw, reed-like sedge, Japanese cypress bark, and stripped bamboo, the traditional hat is a versatile accessory. The wide, circular brim of the amigasa is easily foldable and can be angled to block the sun’s rays or cover the wearer’s face. Historically, amigasa were a favorite of ninjas, who would conceal weapons and documents, and disguise identities under the broad brims. In early evening, stroll downtown among the amigasa-wearing performers making their way to the night’s main performances.


Alpha 7R IV | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/8 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 160

Be Dazzled By The Dancing

Awa Odori processions are performed to a merry, duple rhythm (two beats per measure). The up-tempo sound sets in motion a dazzling display of choreographed moves: wild and energetic in the otoko odori (men’s dance) and elegant and precise by the ona adori, or women-only, groups. Each ren puts its own spin on the basic Awa Odori steps, which, for men, requires crouching low, raising the arms above the shoulders, and pivoting the feet back and forth. One or more dancers in each ren carries a tall, takahari (paper lantern). In the men’s dance, the lanterns sometimes are wildly swung, creating mesmerizing swirls of light.


Alpha 9 | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/200 sec | f/4 | ISO 800

Experience The Energetic Spirit

Along with the men’s, women’s, and co-ed ren, Awa Odori processions also feature groups of young women performing a version of the boisterous, men’s-style dance. Wearing short happi coats and shorts similar to the men, the young dancers bend slightly at the waist and squat low to the ground while lightly waving brightly colored uchiwa (fans) above their heads. The young women wear split-toe, rubber-sole cotton socks, called tabi, without sandals or shoes. The practical footwear gives the dancers greater stability and control as they step along the procession route.


Alpha 9 | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/250 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 500

Move To The Rhythmic Beat

Each Awa Odori ren is accompanied by a narimono, or live band, whose musicians play traditional instruments, such as the shamisen (three-stringed, lute), yokobue (bamboo flute), kane (bell) and taiko (drum). Men’s dance groups often include o-daiko (a big, booming drum) players. These dynamic performers energize the crowd with their wild drum solos featuring frenetic arm and body movements. Spectators are encouraged to participate by chanting the traditional Awa Odori song, Awa Yoshikono, whose lyrics roughly translated mean, “It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches. If both are fools, you might as well dance.”


Alpha 9 | FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 2000

Watch The Toe-tapping Artistry

Listen for the clickety-clack tapping of the ona adori groups whose members wear black wooden sandals, or geta, with candy cane-striped straps. The geta, which are worn over white, split-toe socks, look somewhat like little tables with two legs supporting the center platform. The table-like design helps the female dancers stand on their toes, which is how the elegant ona adori dance is performed. Some geta have a strip of rubber on the toes and at the bottom of the two legs, or supports, to help prevent dancers from slipping and to protect wooden stage floors from dents and scuff marks.


Alpha 9 | FE 135mm F1.8 GM | 1/250 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 250

Attend The Pre-festival Extravaganza

For ren members, such as Naomi Kagami (pictured), participating in Awa Odori often requires year-round practice sessions. Dance groups from across Japan and around the world apply to be part of the Tokushima festival. Arrive the night before the official event begins for the iconic Zenyasai (“night before the festival”) stage performance featuring about 30 of the area’s top ren. The two-hour program is a sampling of the best of Awa Odori on one stage. While Zenyasai and the nightly ticketed processions are reserved for registered dance troupes, anyone can take a free dance lesson and join the Niwaka, or, drop-in, Ren.


Alpha 9 | FE 135mm F1.8 GM | 1/640 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 500

Admire The Exquisite Fashion

Members of the same Awa Odori dance troupe wear identical clothing, accessories, and hairstyles, creating a unique look for each ren. The name of the ren typically is printed multiple times on the outfit. Look closely as the ona adori, or women-only, troupes process by to see the short yukata (summer kimonos) and other traditional components that comprise the dancers’ exquisite uniform. Among the elements easily seen from the back are an obi (broad sash) intricately knotted at the waist; an uchiwa (fan), typically bearing the name of the ren; and a wooden inrou (small case) attached to the obijime (decorative cord) that is tied around obi.


Alpha 9 | FE 135mm F1.8 GM | 1/320 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 2590

Delight In The Fine Details

To achieve the signature fan shape of their amigasa (straw hats), ona adori performers first gather their hair into a tight bun atop the head. Next, they put a tent-shaped base (typically made from Styrofoam covered with a rubber matting) called a kasa makura (literally translated as “umbrella pillow”) on the bun. The straw hat is then folded into the fan shape and placed on the kasa makura, which firmly holds the amigasa in place. Hair adornments, such as the pictured starfish, help keep the kasa makura less obvious by drawing the eye away from the underside of the hat.


Alpha 7R IV | FE 24mm F1.4 GM | 1/320 sec | f/2.5 | ISO 1250

Embrace The Joyful Spirit

The sights and sounds of Awa Odori infuse downtown Tokushima with a festive energy. Several streets are closed to vehicle traffic during the event, making it easy for spectators and performers to stroll between venues. Walking also is the best way to get a closer look at the dancers; watch amateur dancers and local children rehearsing and dancing in city parks; and sample local foods at the yatai (mobile food stalls) set up on the streets, particularly around Hikawa Shrine. In addition to the street food vendors, many businesses set up little stands outside their shops to sell food and drinks during Awa Odori.

Behind The Scenes:
Awa Odori Festival

David's Gear For Awa Odori
Alpha 7R IV


Alpha 9 


FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS


FE 24mm F1.4 GM


FE 135mm F1.8 GM


FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS