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The dancing fools

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Every year in mid-August many Japanese return to their family homes for Obon (Festival of the Dead), which is as much a celebration as a remembrance of the deceased. Towns all over the country hold bon dances, but none can compare to Tokushima’s Awa Odori – the “Great Dance of Awa” – a four-day festival that runs every year from August 12 to 15. Over a million spectators come to watch the eighty thousand participants, dressed in colourful yukata (summer kimono) and half-moon-shaped straw hats, who parade through the city, waving their hands and shuffling their feet to an insistent two-beat rhythm, played on taiko drums, flutes and shamisen (traditional stringed instruments). With plenty of street parties and sideshows, this is as close as Japan gets to Rio’s Mardi Gras, and there’s plenty of fun to be had mingling with the dancers, who famously chant, “The dancing fool and the watching fool are equally foolish. So why not dance?”

If you plan to attend the festival, book accommodation well in advance or arrange to stay in one of the nearby towns and travel in for the dances, which start at 6pm and finish at 10.30pm (street parties continue well into the night). To take part as a dancer, contact the Tokushima International Association, which organizes a dance group on one of the festival nights.

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