More photos of the energetic Nagoyakaren, one of the Awaodori teams from Nakamurabashi in Tokyo’s northern Nerima Ward. Awaodori is originally a sort of folk dance and folk music from Japan’s Shikoku island and the modern prefecture of Tokushima. Different dancers play different roles in the ensamble and although all dancers from all over the country follow the same basic steps and music there are a vast number of subtle differences in everything from movement to rhythm to costume to more complex dance routines. The music is almost always performed by flutists, shamisen (a stringed instrument) players and different kinds of drums and brass rhythm instruments. Although the teams all have the same instruments there are variations in what emphasis they put on the different instruments and how they perform together with the dancers. There’s even quite a few specialist teams, for example teams with many deaf dancers or teams where the youngest member has to be over 65 years of age. The more you watch Awaodori, the more you learn and the deeper you go into it.
If you are a tourist and want to see Awaodori your best bet is to visit Tokushima prefecture or Tokyo during the summer when there are at least one Awaodori dance festival or show every weekend. Or, you can always visit the Awaodori restaurant with proper shows every night, in Shinjuku. Enjoy!
Despite having been a diehard awaodori dancing fan for years now I still see new (new for me) local Tokyo teams every year. At Nerima Ward’s Nakamurabashi awaodori festival this summer I saw the Nagoyakaren (なごやか連), one of the local teams participating in that festival. Local teams are usually larger than visiting teams and Nagoyakaren was no exception, with energetic dancers and lots of very cute kids. I missed this team at this year’s Awaodori festival in Koenji (Tokyo’s largest) but I will keep an eye out for them next year if possible. The young mother dancing with the baby on her hip was most impressive – it must take a lot of strength! The local audience was also very energetic!
Often finding the best photo opportunities in Japan is just a matter of luck. And a keen sense of hearing. I had been up to see the festival at the Yoyogihachiman Shrine near Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, and was on my way towards Hatsudai when I picked up the sound of a very familiar flute and turned back. It was one of my favorite Awaodori teams, the Hatsudairen (初台連), preparing to receive their blessing at the shrine before the evening’s Awaodori festival in Hatsudai. They went in with guns blazing, that is, in full gear and with flutes and drums, dancing all their way up the very steep and tall stone stairs that lead up to the shrine on the hill. I have never seen an Awaodori troupe perform like this before so it was great fun for me to watch, maybe less fun to battle those stairs while dancing! The route led them towards the main shrine where they gathered up to receive a private blessing by the young priest of the shrine, waving the ceremonial white papers over the group. The men all took their headgear off, of course, but the onnaodori, the women dancers with the folded straw hats got to keep their on. It’s not an easy headgear to take off, as far as I have seen.
I love these moments when I just luck out and happen onto something cool and interesting.
I tend to meet a lot of people who are currently touristing in Japan or who are planning to visit Japan and they almost always ask me photography questions, where to get good shots, what is fun places and interesting events to photograph and so on. But very few people ask me the most important question about tourist photography, and thats is simply “what kind of photos do you wish you had taken, in hindsight?”. In the case of Japan I always, always, always get the same answer to this question: “I wish I had taken more photos of the crowds, of the people.” It’s easier said than done I guess. We tend to focus so much on catching the atmosphere, worrying about color and light, trusting our cameras set on Auto to do our jobs for us and to ‘miss the forest for all the trees’. I guess this is true in most places but especially so in the biggest city on Earth. Tokyo is the crowds. Tokyo is the people. Even me, I tend to forget this and focus to much on catching the subject, on getting the technical stuff right. What I should do is focus more on catching the real Tokyo, getting the crowds and the movement and people. Always the people.
I love street photography but at the same time I detest “stealthy photography”: I take my spot in the middle of the street, I fiddle around with my camera gears and buttons, I almost make a big show of taking a “street photo”, just to get people the chance to see me and the chance to look away or pucker their lips if they don’t fancy being in the photo. I am no hero photographer like Josef Koudelka that stands so close I can touch the subject with my short 35mm lens, but I am not a birder either, collecting shots with a massive 300mm lens. I prefer a more relaxed range of 85mm-135mm, if possible. Never longer, sometimes shorter, maybe 50mm.
Here are some photos from the Nakameguro Festival a few weeks ago. I was focusing on my passion, the Awaodori dancers and to get good shots of them. Good meaning in focus, in decent light and as few weird colors as possible, and possibly a good pose as well. I had thrown out these photos as not very interesting when I took a final look through them last evening they caught my eye and I decided to save them. The festivals that I love so much are not only about the performers and the rituals, but at least as much about the people and the crowds, the spectators and the average walking men and women of this great city.
So the next time you visit Tokyo, make it a point to try and get at least a few snaps of “lots of people” or even “normal people”. You might appreciate it when you get back home, more than when you are in the middle of it all. And your friends will want to see what it really looks like, not just what “you saw”. I’ll try to keep this in mind for my own photography at least.