Sometimes I’m just completely overwhelmed by this place…and today was one of those days. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of stepping out of a train station to see tens of thousands of people dressed in bright kimonos, their war cries accompanied by earth-shattering drums and the sound of thousand-year old flutes and shamisen. The Awa Odori Matsuri may have topped my list of amazing things I’ve seen since coming to Japan – and that’s not an easy list to top.
For more hours than I could stay on my feet, the city of Tokushima was literally filled to the brim with people young and old, all here for one reason. To dance. As the old saying goes, “The dancing fools and the watching fools are foolish the same, so why not dance?”
I walked all over the city for most of the night absolutely speechless. While much of the dancing was just random flailing of limbs by drunken partygoers out for a good time, much of it consisted of beautifully choreographed and color-coordinated parades.
The real shocking thing, however, was not the skill or the energy, although both of these were amazing as well. The real shock was how far the festival stretched. It seemed almost endless. I would spend ten minutes walking along side a set of bleachers arranged for spectators to watch the parades, thinking about how surprisingly long they stretched. But after another thirty minutes of walking in the same direction, I’d come to another equally large set of bleachers. And then another, and then another.
Musicians paraded through every street and alley with giant taiko drums strapped to their belts, ensuring that every inch of the city would be filled with music. And even with the giant instruments, they never ceased jumping and dancing as they played for everyone’s enjoyment.
Even the young children had special presentations of dance, paraded around like celebrities, everyone showering them with applause…that is, before rushing in to join them.
Japanese festivals do continue to shock and impress me, and while it probably seems like every one I visit yields a new entry of “this was the most amazing matsuri ever,” the Awa Odori was truly different from anything else I’ve seen. Why, you ask? Because while people routinely celebrate by staying out all night drinking and partying, they always attend merely as spectators. And the central event that they’ve come to see – such as the Gion Matsuri – is usually a relatively slow-paced exhibit, enjoyed for its beauty but not for its action. This was different. This was all about action, and all about participation.
The Awa Odori Matsuri is about nothing more than going out and having a good time. The tens of thousands of people filling up every little corner of Tokushima weren’t there to watch anything; they were there to be a part of it.
It was just incredible.
I could not imagine a more horrifying time for my camcorder to break. Part way through the Hells in Beppu (from my previous post), just hours before Awa Odori, it finally ceased to function. As much as I love Canon’s Digital Powershot cameras (I’m on my third now), this Elura 70 has been a piece of crap ever since I bought it. By the time it finally expired this week, I had already had the zoom lever break, the internal speaker stop working, the battery pack fall apart, and the recordings fizzle out. In less than one year.
But I simply couldn’t let something as breathtaking as Awa Odori go unrecorded…so I toted my laptop and small still camera around with me (capable of taking 640×480 videos), regularly emptying the 512meg SD card onto my laptop. Hopefully they look decent when I get them onto DVD’s.
Eventually, I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I looked down at my feet and saw that they had become nearly black, with the exception of the very clearly visible line where the flip-flops went between my big and first toes. It was time to find myself a place to stay. Yeah, right…during one of the biggest festivals in the country? Some short discussions with other backpackers and a call to the local tourist agency revealed that I was absolutely out-of-luck, and so I was left with one option: A nice bench in Central Park just a few feet from the ruins of Tokushima Castle.
Thankfully this is Japan, so even during a time of city-wide alcoholism the park was virtually spotless. And the warm weather made it not at all unpleasant in shorts and a T-shirt, or so it seemed at first. I was overlooking one important problem. BUGS! Every ten minutes or so I’d be awakened up by a mosquito bite, and when I finally got up (at sunrise) it looked like the exposed portion of my legs had chicken pox.
But that’s OK! Time for an incredibly intense day of excursions, powered by two hours of sleep, no shower, and no breakfast (nothing near the station was opened at 5am when I took off).
Excursion number one: A no-name town called Anabuki about an hour from Tokushima. Wait. I guess Anabuki is a name, isn’t it? Apparently there’s an area where erosion “has formed a large grouping of curious pillars standing about 15 meters high,” and the only other pillars in the world this large are in the European Alps. Sounds worth a trip to me.
As the sun slowly rose I watched the concrete and lights be replaced with rice fields and mountains once again, eventually arriving at my destination. But before disembarking from the train, the courteous JR employee came around personally to apologize to the passengers for our late arrival – one minute and thirty seconds late, to be exact. Such tardiness is just unacceptable for such a reliable and smooth-running system. Don’t you think?
Smooth, yes. But a glance at the “perfect” schedule confirmed my fear that such a small town might not have as frequent trains as I need to stay on my tight schedule. In fact, there were only three express trains a day, and a local train would take forever to get back into town. I had exactly two hours before I had to be back at the station or I’d miss the last express and be stuck here until tomorrow.
“What’s that, Mr. Taxi Driver? The sand columns are nine kilometers away?? Fifty bucks by taxi?? I don’t even have fifty bucks with me…and I’ll NEVER make it that far and back in two hours on foot!”
But then, when have I ever given up so easily? I came this far, I couldn’t just head back without even trying. I threw my stuff in a coin locker and started sprinting. I sprinted until I felt like I was going to pass out, and that’s when the road started to get steep. Just when I was sure I couldn’t go any further, I had my first incredible stroke of luck for the day: in a ditch off to the side of the road I caught sight of an abandoned bicycle with two flat tires. In my eyes it looked like a brand new Harley.
I jumped on that rotting piece of tin and rode up and down the steep mountain hills until I started to get dizzy, then I rode a little bit more. Soon the remaining scraps of a front tire ripped apart and flew off of the metal rim. You should really try riding a bike with no tire up steep mountain hills. It’s quite an experience.
I made it to the columns in just under fifty minutes. Two minutes for sight-seeing and photos, one minute to take off my shirt and wring out the sweat, and I started back. And you know what? I made it. With one minute and thirty seconds to spare. Unfortunately the columns weren’t even that incredible, but I’m glad I went just because it turned out to be a pretty interesting story, don’t you think?
After waiting one minute and thirty seconds for Anabuki’s last express, I crawled onboard dripping sweat (to the horror of the woman next to me) and proceeded to my next stop: Iya Valley, aka “The Tibet of Japan.” The train ride there, just as my guidebook said, was absolutely spectacular. Everyone onboard pasted their faces to the windows to watch as we whisked along a track carved out of the cliffside in a deep gorge, half way up from a river with two huge mountains unfolding on either side. Constantly passing in and out of tunnels, we’d often emerge right onto a bridge and fly quickly over the river before disappearing into the darkness once again. Each time we did so, everyone would run back and forth with their cameras, trying to guess which side would hold the best view. Cool stuff.
While the whole Iya area is apparently huge, one of the things that makes it so spectacular is that it’s completely unspoiled…meaning that other than the single train line running in and out of the valley, it has virtually no public transport. With only a few hours to spare, and no car or motorcycle, my options were really limited. I had to skip the more distant ancient vine bridges, the white water rafting trips, the samurai villages and the clifftop statues in favor of a closer attraction: a short 30 minute boat trip down the river.
Unfortunately moments before embarking, it started to rain – which somewhat put a damper on the beauty of the area. I did however learn one thing from my trip out there: Shikoku is gorgeous, and it truly does feel like a foreign country. No English, no foreigners. I’d love to take a week off and just hike through that valley sometime. We’ll see if I can make it happen.
After a brief conversation with the man sitting beside me in the boat (once again about baseball) I started my soaking walk back to the train station. That is, until he saw me walking without an umbrella – at which point he insisted that I take his, assuring me that his car was no more than a minute or two away from where we were. Thank you, Japanese customs.
And now it’s back to Tokushima for one more night of Odori Matsuri, the final night being only slightly more insane and intense than the previous. This time, I learned my lesson about sleeping under the ruins of a castle – and chose to spend the night on a bench in front of the station with several Tokushima’s homeless. Hey, if I’m going to be homeless, I’m glad it’s in such a safe and clean country. And this time the bugs weren’t nearly as much of a problem; apparently bugs don’t like concrete. Either that or I was so rank that they no longer had any interest in me (two days of heavy exertion in the extreme humidity without a shower will do that to you).
The next morning, I woke up again at sunrise and was at last forced to confront a very difficult decision. It was now the sixteenth of August, the day of the long-awaited Kyoto Daimonji fire festival. There was no way I could make it to Dogo Onsen and back in time. Which should I skip? They’re both things that I’ve been looking forwards to for ages (Dogo Onsen being the actual place featured in Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away – the “bathhouse for the Gods”). I decided to skip Dogo, knowing that I might have a chance to return on some three-day weekend, and knowing that I’ll most likely never be able to see the Daimonji fire festival again. Plus, cutting Dogo opened up a few extra hours that I could fill up with a slightly smaller trip outside of Tokushima. I picked the Naruto Whirlpools.
The Naruto whirlpools are created by violently changing tides in a thin channel twice a day. This is awesome for two reasons: first, because they’re giant whirlpools. Second, because one of the most popular characters on Japanese TV and comics, Naruto, is based on…well…the Naruto whirlpools! Unfortunately some issues of timing brought me there on a day when the whirlpools were set on “intermediate awesomeness,” so I wasn’t able to see any of the truly deep ones that made this area famous (Here is a link to what the whirlpools look like on a GOOD day. Pretty insane, huh?). It was still a very pretty area, and well worth the short trip out of town.
But finally the time came for me to return to Kyoto. To be honest, I was ready for it – not sleeping for two nights in a row, not showering for three days, and exerting myself from sunrise until after sunset every day for a week definitely takes its toll. After getting my larger backpack out of the coin locker in Tokushima Station (which I didn’t realize at the time, but like everything in this country is digital and high-tech…meaning that it continues to charge you more and more the longer your stuff is in it) I jumped on the train that would carry me over the unimaginably long bridge spanning between the islands of Shikoku and Honshu and to the bullet train home.
I went back to I-House 2. I showered. I rested for thirty seconds. And I headed out to see a huge burning mountain. But fifteen seconds after walking out the door, a giant blister on my foot ruptured and made it excruciating even to ride a bicycle. Every part of my body was telling me “stop this already!” So what did I do? I pushed myself for as long as I could…and THEN went back to I-House to sleep.
Three hours of bullet train magic later, phase one of my Mega Trip was complete. I now have two days to “relax” before Nick meets me in Tokyo and we start phase two.
“What’s phase two, Justin?”