For 360 days of the year, my adopted town of Tokushima (徳島) is a quiet little town. But for four days every August, from the twelfth to the sixteenth, the population triples, the downtown core is filled with the sound of drums and flutes, and people are dancing in the streets! It’s awa odori (阿波おどり) ｔhe largest dance festival in Japan, and the second largest dance festival in the world. The motto of awa odori, translated into English, is “We’re fools for dancing, and you’re a fool for watching, so you might as well dance!” And people take that to heart. There are official dance stages where the dancing is organized and orderly, but it’s just as common to see groups breaking out into dance in the middle of the streets and to pull people in to dance with them. It’s an incredible four days and I look forward to it every year.
So why am I writing about a festival on a kimono blog? Simple. The kimono and kitsuke of the female dancers are really, really, unique. A friend of mine, Jaimmika, has been learning how to dance for the past year and she was kind enough to show me her costume. The entire outfit costs about 20,000 yen to put together, and they can be ordered from specialized shops located in Tokushima City. Each dance troupe (ren/連) has their own costume and their name is often proclaimed in multiple places on their outfit. This particular group is called Yasaka Ren and I’ve counted at least five places where they have printed the ren name on various parts of their outfit. Each outfit is unique, not just from other groups, but from kitsuke rules in general. So lets take a look at this unique form of kitsuke.
Kimono or Yukata?
The first question I asked was, “Is this a kimono or a yukata?” Honestly? I have no idea. The garment is made of polyester, it’s really, really, short (123 cm to be exact), it’s unlined, the collar is a typical semai eri found on most yukata, and they fold it like a juban, not a kimono! So what do I call it? A kikata? A yumono? Just for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it a kimono from here on out. I still have no idea what category it would be put in. It’s in a category all on it’s own.
So What’s Familiar?
There are some elements of this outfit that any kitsuke student will recognize without trouble. First, there are the tabi. Nothing special there. Just plain, white, cotton, tabi. There is also a nagajuban, but this juban is a split one (top and bottom) and only top half is worn. They also use a datejime or magic tape (the kind that uses Velcro) to secure the collars in place (no korin belts though).
The obi is a solid black, cotton, hanhaba obi. A regular obi makura and obiita are also used. The obi is tied in different ways for each group, but Yasaka Ren uses a kata musubi. The obi is always secured with a brightly colored obijime that really stands out against the black obi. The color of the obijime and obiage will vary depending on the group.
So What’s Different?
Short answer: A lot.
For the long answer, lets look at this outfit from the toes up to the head.
The geta are officially called rikyu geta (利休下駄). These geta are designed so that the ladies can dance on their toes. Yes, their toes. I’ve done it. It hurts. I don’t know how they do it. I never want to again.
It’s actually easier to dance and walk on your toes. The geta are unbalanced, and if you put your weight on your heels, the geta will dump you on your backside. I came pretty close to being dumped a couple of times the one year I decided to wear them.
The hanao (straps) are always white and red, and they stain the tabi terribly (mine are still stained three years later), so the dancers replace their tabi regularly.
The dancers have two pairs of geta. One is for dancing outside and the other is for dancing on stage. The stage geta have strips of bicycle tire on the bottom teeth and on the toes. This stops the shoes from slipping and from damaging wooden floors. There is also extra padding between the toes on the stage geta.
Susoyoke and Kimono
I’ve put these together for a very good reason. First, in regular kitsuke, the susoyoke in in the realm of undergarments and it’s never seen. However, in awa odori kitsuke, the kimono is hiked up high to show the susoyoke. Because of this, the susoyoke is brightly coloured (the colour depends on the group) and uses thicker than normal fabric. The kimono is hiked up to a specific angle in the front, and a specific height in the back. This height depends on how tall the dancer is. The length of visible susoyoke must be the same on all dancers in a group, so a taller dancer will have the kimono sit lower, and shorter dancers will have the kimono sit higher. This rule also applies to the obi. All the obi in the group must be at the same height.
But this explains why the kimono is so incredibly short. Less kimono means less bulk that has to be tucked in under the obi.
The inrou is the small case, usually wood, that is attached to the obijime. It’s used to hold money or other small items. They come in several shapes, but two of the most common are a small wallet shape, and a small gourd that sometimes has a sake cup attached, although this design is definitely more common on male dancers. The name of the ren can also be written on the inrou.
Awa odori kitsuke includes sleeves. Sleeves with western style cuffs. And buttons. Seriously.
The sleeves are called tekou (literally meaning arm armour). They have elastic on the top and are slipped on under the regular sleeves of the kimono. Why? Mostly for aesthetic purposes and to highlight the arms of the dancers. The dance involves holding your hands up above your head for a long period of time. The white fabric on everyone’s arms definitely looks striking.
The hat is officially called an amigasa, but I like to call it a taco hat. Admit it, you can never unsee it now can you? It’s a straw hat that is tied on the head in a unique way. Depending on the ren, the hat can be angled forward to cover the face entirely, but Yakasa Ren doesn’t do that.
This pillow is what holds the amigasa at it’s traditional, impossible, angle. It’s made of styrofoam and it’s covered in rubber mesh that holds the amigasa in place. Dancers have to arrange their hair in a high bun to support the kasamakura, but once the hat in in place, it is almost impossible to see it unless you are deliberately looking for it. There is also padding on the bottom that make it comfortable to wear.
The Final Look
I dance awa odori every year. The ren that I join is not nearly as serious. They don’t have professionals to dress us, nor do we practice beforehand. It’s just for fun, so please excuse the poor kitsuke. This picture is from the time before I learned proper kitsuke, and I now know that the person who dressed me didn’t know what was happening either. It was still fun, but boy did my feet hurt at the end of the night! I also didn’t have a kasamakura, which is why my hat is so flat. Beside me is my favourite dancing fool! His tabi are actually cushioned and waterproofed at the bottom, and they act as shoes by themselves.
Here’s a video (my first serious attempt at video editing!) of the dressing process!