Tuesday 17 November 2015

Brief Hiatus

This season ended well with an additional two performances, one as far away as Shizuoka, and a volunteer performance at a much closer facility in Haneda. Both were well received, and we're now back to training for next year's summer festivals with some new members that took a keen interest over the past few months. 

During that time, a new family member arrived which has been occupying most of my time, so for the immediate future my postings will be few and far between. My apologies to readers excited about hearing about the weekly grind of basic skill training, but sometimes sacrifices must be made for the next generation of odoriko.

Will endeavour to update occasionally so watch this space!

Friday 25 September 2015

Performance Report: Hatsudai Awa Odori

Hatsudai shares an unusual detail in common with the main Tokushima event that very few of the other Tokyo festivals do, and I've yet to work out exactly why that is. For some reason, it always takes place over the same two days, regardless of what day of the week they fall on. They're both public holidays, which helps of course.

Unlike the main Tokushima festival though, it also uses a varient spelling of "Awa Odori" in the festival name, that you would need to really be on the ball to spot. The preferred spelling is "阿波おどり", whereas Hatsudai uses the more conventionally correct "阿波踊り".

What's the difference? Well, to the branding conscious, rendering the "Odori" part in hiragana is the more pleasing choice, as it binds it inseperably to its "Awa" component, as part of a proper noun. Rendering the "odori" part in kanji + okurigana, like Hatsudai does, is the default for most text input systems, but it also serves to separate them into two distinct words of equal stature.

The knock-on effect of this is that the preferred rendering really puts the emphasis on "Awa"—it's not just a dance, it's the AWA dance; the alternative rendering removes that emphasis, turning the "Awa" component into a mere adjective for a common noun—this is a dance from the province once known as Awa. The difference is very nuanced, very slight, and I'm not sure why we care so much about it.

But we do.

This one came out fine!
Photo: Yuko Yamazaki
Hatsudai is also fairly unusual in that it only has one performance space—a relatively long at 300 meters high street where all the performers begin at the top and end at the bottom, before returning to the top via the backstreets and doing it all over again. The road is fairly wide compared to similar festivals, which gives us a lot more room to move and swing our dead cats around. It's also lit by ten light poles which are in the middle of the road, which is fine if you're moving in two columns, but can cause logistical issues when moving in threes. Apparently they're a blessing and a curse for the cameramen—they provide a convenient hiding space that allows them to photograph from within the performance space without getting in the way (or being told to move by staff), but as the light poles have quite a high colour temperature compared to the rest of the lights, they often end up with blue foregrounds and orange backgrounds, or vice-versa depending on which direction they point the cameras.

After the parade portion has finished, all the teams take up positions along the road, separated by the light poles, and perform a set piece for 15-30 minutes.

This year we performed on the second day, and started two light stands from the goal line. That gave us a nice casual warm up, and also meant we didn't need to fight for our stamina while also giving our best performances.

Our second run, which was from the top, was somewhat less easy. The teams in front by ripple effect were jammed solid, which kept us from moving for quite long periods of time. We ended up performing our parade set piece a total of six times in one run—three would be a lot under normal circumstances. Thankfully the weather was cool enough that nobody collapsed, but it was touch and go for a couple of people.

The long time spent on the wide parade ground did give me plenty of opportunity to try out some new material though, which I think I have well polished now! Unlike the onna odori, otoko odori have remarkable freedom to individualise their dance, and this is something I like to take full advantage of. And while it looks fairly random, it's more a case of having a repertoire of patterns of varying lengths which I'll sprinkle into the regular dance as the feeling takes me. If people are never quite sure what you're about to do, it keeps the dance more interesting I find.

However, it's important to distinguish between randomly selected patterns and actual randomness—the moves need to be both decisive and precise, almost like a series of carefully crafted poses, only the motion between them is of no less importance. And the key to this is practice, and practice with a critical eye!

My new power jump is still a work in progress, so will return to that on another occasion.

Well, that's the final Tokyo festival of the season for us anyway, but we still have more to come. Next month we'll be performing at the Yoshiwara-juku Shukuba Matsuri down in Shizuoka. We also have a couple more volunteer performances in the pipeline to look forward to. While that's going on, we're finally resuming our practice schedule starting on October 3rd, and already have a number of new members eager to get started!

Performance Report: Green Port EBISU

This facility for the elderly near Ebisu Garden Place is another of our regular guest spots—they often invite us to perform at their "Respect for the Aged Day" festival in September, and we're always happy to oblige!

One of the difficulties with this particular venue is that the performance takes place in a rather oddly shaped room. It's actually more like two rooms joined by a fairly small opening, and it's near that opening that we have a wide but shallow stage area to perform in, to two sets of audiences. That means we have to perform 1 dimensionally, in multiple directions, if you can get your head around that. Thankfully it was a little deeper this year so we could perform in 2 dimensions our normal routine without too much of a hitch.

The other issue we had this time was an absense of any melodic instruments. We had to rely entirely upon the drums and gong, which isn't easy for some of the more complex routines. Most of us remember the routines by time as well as melody though, so it wasn't a problem there so much. It just, can't have been that interesting to watch.

The audience seemed happy enough though, and I rather got the impression that most of them could only really hear the drums anyway, so I'll chalk that up as a partial success.

Next stop is Hatsudai Awa Odori on Wednesday 23rd. This is the last of the regular season's events, and it always gets a good audience turnout of other team members for some reason. After that we still have a couple of performances by special request, one as far as away as Shizuoka.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Performance Report: IM Japan

Though not quite as surreal as the performance we gave in May at a rakugo event, playing the part of some kind of corporealised voices of the underworld, our most recent performance at IM Japan on Sunday 6th was certainly something a little different.

The information we had to work with was that it was at the Indonesian Embassy School, and that the guests were visitors from overseas, in Japan for research purposes. They'd wanted some traditional culture to be added to the line up, and that's where we came in. When we arrived, you can imagine our surprise to see some 500 odd young Indonesian students crammed into a school hall, each of them wearing hachimaki around their heads.

Not to be perturbed, we got on with our preparations as per usual, but the atmosphere was a little more tense than usual. We're used to seated audiences of around 50 tops, and this was ten times that. And normally our audiences don't look like they're in the middle of militia training. What is it about a hachimaki that does that I wonder...

The previous week, the otoko odori had tried something a little different, adding a slow section in the middle of our usual routine. The music had been the Tokushima folk song "Iyano Kohiki Uta", performed on flute. As it had worked out so well that time, I decided we should do it again, only this time one of our most senior members, a Tokushima native, volunteered to sing it instead. We don't normally have vocalists, but many teams do, so sure! What could possibly go wrong?

Eventually it was time to begin. The people who had the stage before us were a pop group comprised of very young and energetic girls, who'd got the audience whipped up into a frenzy, which meant we could either ride that enthusiasm, or destroy it. Our entry, right through the middle of the crowd who had parted like the Red Sea, was very enthusiastically met, which was a very good sign.

There were some minor problems of course. 500 people crammed into a school gym hall meant it was very hot, it wasn't until a few minutes into the performance that somebody realised that 99% of the students couldn't see anything and got them all to sit down, and the mics were giving quite harsh feedback for a while. Overall it was a successful show though.

When it came to the new part, there was a slight delay while our singer struggled to find a mic that worked, but not enough to give any sense of unease. I would like to make that a part of our regular routine, but it may be better to stick to the flute. We'll see.

Finally, we had our dance class section where we teach everybody the moves. That would normally involve getting everybody to dance in a big circle around the room, but with that many people, it clearly wasn't going to go well. In the end, they all moved on the spot while we milled about among them. They seemed to enjoy it.

Next performance is in a couple of weeks, a volunteer performance at an old people's facility, and our final regular festival of the season at Hatsudai.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Performance Report: Shinjuku Awa Odori

I managed to get my outfit washed and dried, just. It was a cool weekend, which made Koenji very comfortable, but was less than ideal for laundry.

So today was the second time we'd been invited to perform at Shinjuku Awa Odori, a popular Tokushima themed restaurant with live shows every night. Under normal circumstances, the Koenji Awa Odori Association teams would perform there in rotation, but as they were all tied up for the weekend, they reached out to some other 'seicho' teams to fill in. Remember how I mentioned preferential treatment?

Unlike regular festivals, this was a private performance which customers were effectively paying to see, so it comes with a different set of considerations. The performance space is quite narrow which meant we had to limit our numbers. We only had about 5 minutes of actualy performance time, and had to schedule in time to teach the dance, give out prizes, and create a photo opportunity for anybody that wanted to be seen with us. The order of proceedings is all decided in advance, which allowed us only limited flexibility, but that's in no way unreasonable. They have a pattern that works, and it's up to us to accommodate it.

As our usual routine is about 10 minutes long and we only had 5, we had to rethink it a little. We quickly got changed into costume and that left about half hour to figure it all out. We were all experienced members though, so it wasn't hard to find 5 minutes worth of fat to trim.

Shinjuku Awa Odori
This much space
Space considerations were another factor of course, but we could mostly work around those by being really careful.

By 18:30, we were ready to go, and pulled off the partially improvised routine with little issue.

We did feel it was a little lacking though, so we revised and reinstated some parts during the break between performances. By 20:30, we had a solid idea of a much better routine, which went smoothly... for the most part.

Well, there was a miscommunication beween one of the dance parts and the musicians, that left them waiting for a cue that never came. It was unfortunately quite awkward, like 25 seconds of dead air on the radio. Still, once things got back underway, I'm sure the audience forgot all about it.

After the 20:30 performance had ended and a prize for best dancer had been awarded to a happy audience member, the secondary room out back had several tables of guests seated, so we repeated the process back there for their benefit. Rather than performing on a single stage though, it had two stages spaced a couple of meters apart and a moderately wide isle, which brought a whole new dimension of space consideration. With a little thought though, it practically rescripted itself, and we were able to perform the entire piece without a hitch.

With both part 2 performances, dance off, awards, and photos finished, it was already 10 o'clock, so I honestly don't know where the time went. It was overall a very good experience though, and the closeness we all felt with the audience was much more pronounced than at festivals—it was like hanging out with old friends, almost.

Next performance is next Sunday, by invitation of the Indonesian Embassy!

Monday 31 August 2015

Performance Report: Koenji Awa Odori

Koenji Awa Odori, as you most likely already know, is the largest festival of its kind in Tokyo, and this year was its 59th birthday. Each year, the number of teams and performers have been steadily increasing, making it by far the most diverse in style. Of course, it's also increasingly crowded, which can make it quite frustrating for spectators who face difficulties finding somewhere from which to view it, and even more difficulty in getting to such a spot.

As performers, we're mostly shielded from the crowds, but it does also mean being paddocked in to a large extent.

Koenji Awa Odori
A good turnout
This time, we had a number of special guests from Tokushima Ebisuren who flew in especially to perform with us. Among them were 5 otoko odori, 2 onna odori, and 2 shamisen players—it was nice to hear the shamisen again, as all of our own are temporarily assigned to drums, quit, or missing in action. Of course, this meant we had to prepare and bring along 9 extra costumes, but that was a very small price for the value they brought.

Four of my temporary teammates were people I'd trained and performed with in Tokushima quite recently, and the other I was already friends with from years back, so this made it much easier to get everybody organised. Everyone on both sides was cooperative and helpful, and I think the sense of solidarity came across in the performances.

One of the things I like in particular about Koenji is that several of the stages are modelled after the Tokushima stages—wide enough to move, and "jumpers" heavily discouraged. I saw the festival staff dealing with people who were encroaching on the performance space quite harshly on a number of occasions, which is most likely in the name of safety—all participants this year had to sign up for a mandatory insurance, but I don't know if this was a result of something happening during a previous year or not.

But I digress, the widest stages tend to have the most enthusiastic crowds, so we like to show them something special if we can. Because of the sheer numbers of teams though, any team that stops to perform a routine causes a caterpillar effect holding up all the teams behind, so it's been heavily discouraged in recent years. As it turned out, some space had opened up behind us at all the larger stages so we were able to stop and give a short set piece without causing a fuss. Similarly, as we approached the final goal point, I checked behind us and there was a space of maybe 30-40 meters open, so I gave the signal to perform an "abare" routine, a very high paced wild dance with jumping and shouting which is a huge crowd pleaser. Typically we start from a triangular wedge formation, and when the music speeds up we all run in different directions, leaping into action. Always nice to give the audience what they want!

Update: It seems a Mr Philbert Ono captured the precise scenario I just described on video.

We managed to complete 5 stages in total during the three event hours, but the final whistle was blown as we were preparing to begin a 6th. I was happy with the 5 we performed though, and the presense of our guests really motivated us and raised the bar of our individual performances.

We finished by taking our guests out for a celebratory dinner, which ended the day on a high note. Early departure for me though as I had to get my costume cleaned and dried for the next day.

Friday 28 August 2015

Koenji Awa Odori & Shinjuku Awa Odori

After a fairly quiet couple of weeks, we have another two day weekend starting tomorrow.

Saturday evening from 5 o'clock it's Koenji Awa Odori: three hours of parade style performance, with spaces ranging from super wide Tokushima style stages to narrow poorly lit backstreets. This year we have some special guest performers joining us.

Sunday evening at 18:30 and 20:30 we're performing at Shinjuku Awa Odori, a popular izakaya-style restaurant that has live shows each night. Also, good food and drink at a reasonable price, so drop on by, though you may wish to phone ahead as it fills up quickly. I did say it was popular!

One of the hardest things about a double packed weekend like this is not the muscle fatigue so much as the preparation. Washing, drying and ironing an entire ensemble of costume parts is surprisingly time consuming. Just as well it's summer—hanging them out at night pretty much guarantees they'll be dry by morning, and we have a very effective dehumidifier in case of rain.

Costume is a whole blog post by itself, and one I plan to go into at a later date. Needless to say there's something of an art to it, and it's certainly a lot more involved than putting on a shirt.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Performance Special Report: Tokushima with Ebisuren

As I'm sure you all know already, the main Awa Odori event in Tokushima takes place between 12th and 15th August, rain or shine. This year, by special invitation, I was able to join in the festival in the garb of one of the biggest name teams in the country, Ebisuren!

Ebisu vs Tokyo Ebisu Outfits
Can't deny there's a similarity...
As the name may suggest, there is some connection between Ebisuren and my own team, Tokyo Ebisuren. They've certainly made themselves available to provide advice and assistance over the years, but there's currently no formal affiliation, which is what made the invitation something of a big deal for me. In the nearly six years I've been learning Awa Odori, the opportunity to perform in Tokushima with Ebisuren as one of their own has been something of an ambition I've had from the start.

Now, Tokushima is pretty far away, and at the height of its tourism season it's not easy to find accommodation, and especially not of the reasonably affordable type, so we ended up entering via Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture, staying in a kind of local varient of a bed and breakfast the first night, a shrine the second night, and flying out of Tokushima on the final day. This meant I got to perform on 13th and 14th.

And probably just as well I didn't stay longer. It was absolutely exhausting!

But from my limited two days of experience, I noticed a number of significant differences between the main Tokushima festival and the various Tokyo festivals, which I'll briefly outline in no particular order as follows:
  • Parade grounds are much shorter, wider, well lit, and the audience are seated. Mostly they're situated in riverside parks. Despite the shorter length, I found them to be much more exhausting, which I put down to a number of factors: the shorter length meant I could concentrate my efforts rather than pacing myself to preserve my strength; there was room around me to move—Tokyo performance spaces are often quite cramped allowing insufficient room to give a full performance range; audience expectation was very high, as was the level of expertise of all my team mates, and I certainly wasn't going to let the side down.
Plenty of room, and check out those whites—kind of bluey white...

  • Number of performances are fewer than in Tokyo, despite the longer time frame. Some Tokyo festivals have us perform up to 7-8 times within a two hour window. In Tokushima we only performed 3-4 times over a four and a half hour period. This meant there was a lot of time to enjoy the festival as a festival, eat food from the stands, drink beer, chat with other guests etc. A lot of the time was spent carrying drums from one end of the city to the other, which was really quite tiring though.
  • No water. This was a big deal for me. It meant I was burning through money trying to stay hyrdrated.
  • Team captains dance at the front. This may only apply to the big name association teams, but there's an expectation that team captains will lead the procession behind the giant lantern. This just isn't seen in Tokyo.
  • 徳島新聞写真映像部
    I'm in there somewhere...
    Photo: Tokushima Shimbun Shashin Eizobu
  • Soh odori. The very last event of each evening is a grand finale called the soh odori (general dance). Here, a whole bunch of the association teams parade through together, filling the performance space entirely. It's impressive to watch, and it's always the sounds of the many many shamisen that gets me. What's less well known is how chaotic it is behind the scenes as people with megaphones are trying to get everybody in with some kind of dignity. As I'd gone from having a third of the width of a performance space to myself to only a sixth, it did feel more like a Tokyo festival. Very cramped! One cute detail is the ritual of "cleansing" the performance space before the finale. This is done by a local university team called "Rererenoren" who are modelled after a very minor character in a long running popular cartoon series. It's a curious dance they do, and this year they were accompanied (perhaps unwittingly) by one of the best Awa Odori flutists I've heard, from about 1 minute in on the above linked to video. 
  • Wa Odori. This is similar to the set pieces we have in Tokyo. Everybody forms a large circle and the performers come on in groups and do a part each, but it seemed to me to be more relaxed, more like the B side of a record. There's a lot of humour to it, and a lot of trying out of new material to see what works. Generally it's a lot of fun. I was suddenly asked to perform with the rest of the out of towners for one section, with the instruction to play it by ear. That seemed to work out ok.
That's most of the chief differences. All in all it was a great experience, and one I can hopefully bring some lessons back to Tokyo from.

Calling it a night

My next performance isn't for another couple of weeks now, Koenji Awa Odori on 29th August. Returning the favour somewhat, several members of Ebisuren will be joining us in our costumes, to help give our team a little more impact. Which ones they are you will have to work out for yourselves.

Monday 17 August 2015

Performance Report: Shimokitazawa Ichibangai Awa Odori

Despite taking place during the hottest weeks of summer, Shimokitazawa this year was unseasonably cool and dry. This meant that it was much more pleasant to perform in, and also that we had a larger crowd than most years.

Indeed, last year's performance started just minutes after typhoon related torrents cleared, and the streets were practically empty for the first half of the event. This year there were so many people watching that we had to parade single file in places.
2015 Shimokitazawa
Photo: Tokyobling
The festival itself went on from 6:30 to 8:30, with the last half hour taken up by a set piece in a prime location. That earned us a lively crowd who were more than willing to join in for a finale.

All in all another successful performance. Next stop for me personally is Tokushima, for something a little bit special!

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Performance Report: Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri

Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri is probably the most laid back festival we attend. As the Awa Odori portion only features three teams, there's a lot more flexibility over the precise timing and positioning of our performances. And as a former team member has a shop in that particular high street, it's a good excuse to hang out and enjoy the other festival elements a few hours ahead of time.

That doesn't mean it wasn't in its own way gruelling though. It wasn't quite as hot as the night before, but it was pretty close. And due to that flexibility I was waxing lyrical over not one paragraph earlier, it's very easy to overdo things. Indeed, we began at one end of the street and warmed up for several minutes as a way of attracting interest, paraded for 100 meters, did a full set piece, then paraded for another seven or eight minutes (mostly on the spot), then did some freestyle performance on the spot, and finally paraded the final 30 meters to the goal line, all without any opportunity to replenish fluid levels.

Despite such minor issues though, the parade area is plentifully wide, and comparitively short, each stretch no longer than about 180 meters. Having the freedom to move around as needed is strongly motivating, especially in front of a good crowd like we have at Nabeyoko.

We finished as we often do with a final set piece, a few bonus parts, and then invited spectators to join in. Many did, and they all soon gained a fresh appreciation of how much effort goes into it. Many stayed behind after to chat with performers which is always welcome.

With the performances over, it was nice to gather back at the shop and enjoy some food with cold beer that was laid on for us. Another job well done.

Monday 3 August 2015

Performance Report: Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri

Having finally solved with some reasonable success the problem of dehydration, now it's just the sheer heat and fatigue I have to contend with. But despite the temperature being the mid 30s, Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri went off without a hitch.

In fairness, we did have a number of fortunate factors on our side. As previously aluded to, Nakameguro has three routes with lengths varying from 170 meters to 350 meters. We started at the shortest, and worked our way up, which gave us plenty of time to get warmed up. We had an additional advantage that as the first 100 meters or so of the longest route is all but empty, and a large gap had formed between us and the team ahead, we were instruted to RUN! This shortened it significantly enough that we could breeze straight through the rest of it.

We also had one of the prime spots for our final set piece, right in front of the station. There was already a good crowd gathered, and the humorous elements of our setup resonated well.

As usual the spectators were very enthusiastic, which is always encouraging. At times though, some were a little too enthusiastic, as compared to most events, there were a considerable number of 'jumpers'.

Very very dangerous!
As with photographers, it's good form to try to avoid entering the stage area during a performance unless unavoidable or specifically invited. I really cannot stress this enough, but interrupting a performance in progress to take a 'selfie' with the performers is very dangerous, and not just to yourself, as many of the costumes allow only limited peripheral vision, and the routines feature fast movements in directions that can't always be seen. The performers are relying on their own coordination and well rehearsed teamwork, and if you enter their space during a performance, you might suddenly find somebody's foot in your face because they weren't expecting anybody to be there. You may also cause them to injure themselves.

And if they do happen to see you, and you're right in the way of where they need to be, is it really fair to make them alter their highly polished routine, damaging the experience for the rest of the audience, just to accommodate you?

Please be mindful when enjoying these performances.

All in all though, this was a very successful event, and I look forward to returning next year.

Friday 31 July 2015

Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri and Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri

This weekend is a double whammy of fun, with Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri on Saturday, and Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri on Sunday.

Nakameguro features three main parade routes, the shortest being approximately 170 meters, and the longest around 350 meters, uphill. It's always a fun atmosphere and one of the more enjoyable events. We'll be performing from 6pm to 8pm on all three parade grounds, then a set piece at 8:10pm near the station.

The Nabeyoko festival goes on all weekend and features many other kinds of entertainment such as jazz, Okinawan Eisa, dance etc. We perform from 7pm until 8:45pm together with two Koenji teams. The routes are comparitively short, and the roads are wide and crowded with spectators.

No signs of bad weather for either festival, so as per usual it'll be the heat we have to fight against.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Seichō Awa Odori

If you've ever spent any time around Awa Odori enthusiasts, a word that will often come up is seichō (正調), most commonly in description of an individual team's style. Tokyo Ebisuren, the team I'm a member of, is an example of a seichō team (but not necessarily a good example...).

The word can loosely be translated as formalised, classical, orthodox, or if you want to get really extreme, purist, but I don't think any of these really capture the true meaning of the word though. In fact, I don't think even a description in either language would ever really do justice to its true meaning in this context.

At its essence, it represents a concept that is beyond articulation.

Yet, its meaning is widely understood. Seichō teams know that they are seichō. Those that aren't know that they aren't. It is politically neutral, so it is neither a badge of pride, nor its absence a cone of shame. It appears to merely represent a simple preference.

Despite this, the seichō teams in Tokushima are afforded considerably more validity than the non-seichō teams. So what's it all about?

After five and a half years, I can so far conclude the following:
  1. Seichō is about being 'true to the roots of Awa Odori'. That's no less vague really is it. Actual dance styles have changed considerably since the dance began (whenever that was), and in fact, they've changed considerably just over the past decade. Services such as YouTube have enabled performers to get instant visual feedback of their own performances, both as individuals and as a team. The knock on effect has been huge in terms of consolidation of styles, precision and coordination!

    * When pressed, experts have conceded that being 'true to the roots of Awa Odori' boils down to using the Yoshikono Bushi melody, which I'm sure you're all already familiar with.
  2. Seichō is not so much a state of being, but an aspiration. Thus, a seichō team only ever strives to be seichō.
However, there are a number of areas that most seichō teams have relatively in common. In no particular order, these are:
  • Instrument and musical choices. Seichō teams rely exclusively on traditional Japanese style instruments, with only minor variation between them. Likewise, music is predominantly in the Japanese scale, and has a slightly syncopated beat.
  • Pacing of performance. Seichō teams constantly strive to achieve a harmonious balance. For every loud, high tempo aggressive part, there's an equally quiet, slow and serene section of comparible length. Much of the performance is of moderate tempo and volume.
  • Dance styles. Seichō teams try to reflect the higher ideals of the traditional Japanese aesthetic, as found in other performance arts such as Kabuki, Nihon-buyo, Noh etc. This is a whole subject by itself, but there are many rules regarding composure, the balancing of motion with stillness, and the animating of nuanced emotional expression into a heavily restricted physical form.
Whether any of these points make the style 'true to the roots of Awa Odori' is beyond me, but I find they do make for a much more enjoyable experience. Art styles require internal rules and restrictions, because when you decide to intentionally colour outside the lines for convenience of expression, then you have to stop and question whether we really even need the lines at all? And why stop there? Next time you see a government funded art project containing nothing but a pile of bricks, that's why you colour inside the lines.

A similar discussion can be found among sushi chefs in Japan, whose ideas about what constitute sushi differ considerably from those of the staff and customers of many heavily exoticised 'sushi' restaurants around the world. If the food tastes good, then it's all good, right?

And likewise, similar discussions can be found about journalism. There are those that strongly believe journalists should strive towards objectivity in reporting, and there are those that believe objectivity can never be achieved so there's no point even pretending to try. But as long as the news is entertaining, it's all good, right?

So goes the argument.

Monday 27 July 2015

Performance Report: Kitamachi Awa Odori

As expected, Saturday was hot! Around 35° in the afternoon with high humidity. And from the looks of things, performers and spectators alike were dropping like flies!

Thankfully, I was well prepared, and most of my team came out unscathed. Plenty of liquid throughout the afternoon and a couple of salt tablets per hour kept us in good condition.

The parade routes were still long and tiring, mind you. And it was still very very hot. As with every year though, the spectators lined the sides of the roads and very enthusiastically cheered us on, fanning us as we passed. It's hard not to put on your best performance.

The routes at Kitamachi also haven't changed since previous years. One long stretch of road is divided into two parts, with performers starting at each end and progressing towards the centre. As one is noticably shorter than the other, it additionally curves and heads up towards the station. After reaching the goal line of one, we walk round the backstreets to the start position of the next and enjoy some cold tea before restarting. We probably do more walking here than any other festival, and it really fills out the time.

Unfortunately, after our third parade, we moved on to the start position of the next parade route, only to be told there wasn't enough time for us to perform again, so we had to walk all the way back to the gym hall we'd got changed at from the furthest possible location, nearly a kilometer away. That's a long way when you're carrying heavy equipment...

All in all, a successful night. Next stop is Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri on Saturday, and Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri on Sunday. Nakameguro has the longest parade route of our summer season, a whopping 350 meters, mostly uphill, and with frequent stops while teams in front perform routines. Last year, we were performing that route for about 30+ minutes continuously. Nabeyoko is much kinder, and a total of just three teams. Both have a great atmosphere and enthusiastic crowds!

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Kitamachi Awa Odori

Just a few more days to go now before Kitamachi Awa Odori this coming Saturday, near Tobu Nerima station. This is another of our regular events, popular with both spectators and performers, and notably different from last week's Kyodo Matsuri in several key areas.

  1. This is primarily an Awa Odori event, so there are a lot more teams.
  2. The roads are much wider, giving a lot more space to perform, and a lot more space for spectators to set up camp and relax with a delightful beverage and some grilled chicken.
  3. The roads are also much longer. Kyodo averages 180 meters from start to goal line, whereas Kitamachi is closer to 280 (which is still far from the longest...)
  4. It is very very hot.

This last point came to become a serious issue a few years back, when I had to drop out part way through for fear of heat stroke. I was fine in the end, but missed out on the second half of the performances. Since then, I've been sure to take necessary precautions ahead of time to prevent a repeat.

One such precaution is to ensure I'm properly hydrated throughout the afternoon. Thankfully most rooms we're provided to change in (over the course of a couple of hours) have some kind of air conditioning which takes a lot of the edge off. Kitamachi, unfortunately, does not provide such a place. A local school lets us use their gym hall, which has excellent airflow, but you're still contending with the humidity. A two litre bottle of tea (not water) that is sipped from frequently gets me off to the best start.

The other precaution is a supply of salt tablets which I keep on my person. They're not actually tablets of salt, but more like a solid sherbert sports candy containing salt and other minerals lost through sweat. What often happens is after a particularly gruelling portion, I'll find myself parched, but no matter how much water or tea I gulp at the provided water stations, I feel no less thirsty. What I found is that in such situations, it may feel like I'm thirsty, but what I really need is salt. Crunch on a salt tablet and I'm instantly better. Another cup of water to wash it down? No, I'm good. What always surprises me is just how quickly it works. It's literally the moment I crunch into it, everything is suddenly well with the world and I'm good to go.

Alternating between sports drinks and water can also be effective, though the option isn't normally available, unless I want to spend all my money at vending machines.

Now, having reviewed video footage of last week's festival, there are a few parts of our staged piece that I wasn't quite happy with. I'll be setting aside a bit of time before we begin to try and get everybody cleaned up, so we should be able to open with a nicely polished routine.

The festival goes on from 18:25 to 20:30 this Saturday evening, about 30 seconds walk from the south exit of Tobu Nerima station. You won't regret it!


A lot of people think of me as having been an Awa photographer before I was a performer. This is partially true, in that I took photography seriously as a hobby and occasionally photographed Awa Odori performances at Koenji and other events, but 'Awa photographer' is far too grandiose a title for me to claim.

The real Awa photographers are a dedicated bunch, and it's a real privilage to call many of them my friends. Every festival I attend, whether it's pouring with rain or scorchingly hot, I get to meet the same photographers time after time. They know who all the teams are, they know many of the individual performers, they know the routines....

They also give up their own time to get some amazing photographs, and for the most part they let us use their photographs free of charge for any reason we like, including our own publicity.

And true to the art, each photographer has their own style and leaning that they add to the mix. Some are adept at capturing the human energy of the performers and their environment, others at capturing the beauty and form of the dance. Some take images that are visually striking, while others are more documentary in nature. The styles are almost as varied as the dance styles they shoot, and getting to see them in the days and weeks after a performance is always a joy.

One thing many have in common is a disproportionate number of pictures of me floating high in the air while shouting. It's a very specific image that comes up often.
2013 Kitamachi Awa Odori
Very specific!
Photo: Ken'ichiro Sugiura
With all that to one side however, two very specific styles of photography emerge, which very few photographers ever seem to mix. There are those that shoot from the spectator’s viewpoint (which on a parade portion will almost always be off to one side looking in), and there are those that shoot from within the performance space. Both bring their own unique challenges and rewards.

Spectator viewpoint photography, assuming an unimpeded view, significantly limits your creative options such as framing. When done well, the pictures can be both striking in their own regard, and still recreate the enjoyment of the spectacle.

Performance space photography offers a lot more freedom of movement, from which the photographer can exercise a wider range of creative options. When done well, it’s conducive to high impact images that people would pay to see displayed in galleries. However, many festivals require a permit which can be difficult to attain. The individual photographer must also be wary of the responsibility that comes with the freedom, specifically to the audience. The moment you step foot in a performance space, you become part of the performance, so you owe it to the audience not to impede their view and enjoyment of the performers any more than is absolutely necessary to get the pictures you require.

Most of the performance space photographers I know are real life ninjas. They plan their moves carefully, and at the last second they appear out of nowhere, get the specific pictures they want, and then disappear into a figurative puff of smoke. It’s an impressive act to watch.

But with that said, most of my favourite pictures have been from spectator viewpoint. It's simple logistics really—the audience is off to one side, so that's the direction we target our performances at, and therefore the direction you'll get the best angles from.

Monday 20 July 2015

Performance Report: Kyodo Matsuri

Despite the weather forecasts constantly shifting their goalposts, and rain ultimately continuing right up to kick-off, it cleared up just in time for the opening.

2015 Kyodo Matsuri
Ready to go, just.
That's not to say it went off without a hitch though. We, and a number of other teams, normally use a local temple to change into costume and undertake other preparations. This year, the temple was closed, that is to say, demolished, and in the process of being rebuilt. Another building connected to the temple was made available for our use, but was even more cramped than usual. One team even got changed under the stairs outdoors. Still, can't grumble—they were kind enough to let us use it, so we didn't have to get changed in a back alley like we do at one of our regular festivals.

Additionally, the performance schedule was changed around at the last minute, so rather than doing a couple of road parades before performing on the elevated main stage, we went straight to the main stage with barely a moment's notice. Unfortunately this meant that some of the details had yet to be ironed out, and I think we can all agree that mistakes were made.

2015 Kyodo Matsuri
"That didn't hurt much."
Photo: Ken'ichiro Sugiura

In spite of this, I decided to try something a little bit different this year. There's a comedic element we put into our stage piece to break the tension and it normally gets a few laughs. To prevent the act from stagnating, I threw in a "carefully staged" fall which ended up with me laying on my back with my feet in the air, while a bunch of people whacked me with fans, by way of pointing out my error. It got a very positive crowd response, which means I probably have to do that every time now, and this raises concerns as to whether or not my staging it was just a fluke. It didn't hurt, twice, and I need to keep it that way.

Other than this though, both parade and stage piece portions went smoothly, and we were able to progress straight from the start line to the goal line each time without holdup. The crowds seemed more impressed with us than usual, which I'll put down to the months and months of practice we put in.

Next stop, Kitamachi Awa Odori on 25th, which with wider and partially sealed off roads and twice as many teams performing, is an entirely different experience altogether.

Friday 17 July 2015

Kyodo Matsuri

2014 Kyodo Matsuri
Photo: Takanobu Yanagihashi
Tomorrow is our first major festival performance of the year, Kyodo Matsuri.

It's one of our regular annual slots, and particularly popular for its elevated and well lit stage, that protects us from the one element that occasionally threatens to, literally, rain on our parade.

For the road portions of the performance, there's a real sense of closeness to the crowds—the high street really is quite narrow. But all the better for soaking up the enthusiasm.

The festival itself goes on all weekend, but the parts we're involved in are from 7pm to 9pm on Saturday 18th. The nearest station is Kyōdō Station on the Odakyu Odawara Line.

Sunday 12 July 2015

About This Site

2014 Haneda Airport
Photo: Ken'ichiro Sugiura
I've been learning and performing Awa Odori since early 2010 with Tokyo Ebisuren, a team based in Shibuya, Tokyo. I've been in charge of leading and teaching the otoko odori (men's dance) for around 3 years now. It's an enormously rewarding hobby, and one of those artforms where the more you learn, the more you realise you don't know. It requires a lot of dedication and discipline, and hard work with frequent muscle fatigue all year round.

Every festival I've performed at has had a significantly exaggerated representation of visitors from other countries watching from the sidelines, and I'm often approached by people to ask what's going on, what it's all about. People from around the world, it seems, see Awa Odori for the first time and they're instantly hooked, but it's very rare to see any actually getting directly involved.

It occurred to me that there just isn't that much information about Awa Odori available in English. General information you can find on Wikipedia, sure, but that barely even scrapes the surface. It also only talks from the perspective of an outsider looking in, and gives no sense of what it's like to actually participate in the festivities first hand.

So that's where this site comes in. My team's summer festival season for 2015 begins this coming weekend, so I'll be sharing some of the experience here.