The heat of the summer might have abated at last, but the streets of Tokyo are still searing! In an upcoming festival, yosakoi dance teams from around Japan will take over the Ikebukuro station area and be performing live! Yosakoi is a style of dance that blends traditional elements of Japanese costumes and dance movements with modern and pop beat music, resulting in an electric and entertaining show. On October 8th and 9th of 2016, come to Ikebukuro and see what yosakoi is for yourself.
At the end of the Tokyo Yosakoi Festival is the biggest yosakoi dance competition in Tokyo happening at nine different venues around Toshima Ward. Over 100 teams dance in front of the judges over the course of two days in hopes of winning the coveted Tokyo Governor’s Prize. Yosakoi is usually performed in teams often made up of men and women of all ages. This 2016, there will be 107 mixed-member and single-sex teams participating in the festival. To support the victims of the earthquakes that devastated Kumamoto earlier this 2016, part of each team’s entrance fee will be donated to the Kumamoto Disaster Relief Fund. A legitimate charity will also be accepting monetary donations on site during the festival. If you have the financial liberty to do so, please consider donating.
Yosakoi originated from Kochi Prefecture in 1954 where the first Yosakoi Festival was held. Because yosakoi has such a short history, it can continue to evolve and change to suit the needs of the dancers without the suffocating pressure of keeping the tradition. Yosakoi is now performed at festivals all over Japan and can vary widely in scale and complexity from region to region. The Tokyo Yosakoi Festival is a chance for spectators to see all kinds of yosakoi from around the country and is a great chance to immerse yourself in an aspect of Japanese culture not often afforded by the passing tourist.
While yosakoi teams can have very unique costumes, music, and choreography, teams employ many similar elements in their performances. As a spectator, understanding a little about the basics of yosakoi will make the show more entertaining to watch. One element is the announcer. He or she stands at the head of the team and gets the whole group fired up through chants and songs before and throughout the dance. Many teams have calls built-in into their routines which are lead by the announcer. These calls don’t have any particular meaning in Japanese, a point I find vexing as someone studying the language. The announcer is also key in engaging the crowd as he or she will be the one with the microphone and the loud voice.
Another important element is naruko. Dancers usually have two small wooden clappers called naruko that with a small flick of the wrist, the clappers produce a loud, satisfying clack. Naruko were originally used in Kochi Prefecture to scare away birds from rice fields. Since yosakoi has spread around Japan, perhaps naruko are more known for their role in dance now than their original agricultural purpose. In fact, naruko are sold in 100 yen shops as a toy for children.
Another element is the flags. Flags in yosakoi come in three sizes: small, medium, and large. Small flags are almost the same size as a color guard flag in any marching band, maybe 70 cm by 100 cm. The medium size flags are much, much bigger at around 300 cm by 450 cm and the large flags are around 400 cm by 600 cm. You can try to imagine the sizes by looking at this chart (Japanese only), but I recommend seeing them in action. As the size increases, the flags become harder to move and lift. Especially in a crowded area like Ikebukuro, flag wavers have to be careful of power lines, balconies, and hanging lanterns, as well as the direction of the wind. Being aware of their surroundings while waving a huge flag in time to the music requires time and practice. Why dedicate the time and effort to master the big flag? The flags act as the billboard for the group; who they are and where they are from. Because of its size, big flags make a huge impact on the crowd – and hopefully on the judges, too.
The Tokyo Yosakoi Festival is of course all about dancing, but what would be a festival without great food? The pop-up food stalls are centered around the West Exit of Ikebukuro Station, right in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space. The food stalls selling alcohol and local foods from different parts of Japan line the street and are welcomed alternatives to crowded nearby restaurants. Even though the summer celebration season is over, visitors can enjoy one last taste of quintessential Japanese festivals before accepting the inevitable change of seasons. Many spectators can be seen wearing yukata summer kimonos and geta sandals while enjoying the dances.
Visitors to the Tokyo Yosakoi Festival should be advised that the festival will go on rain or shine so bring an umbrella just to be safe. Also, because this festival is spread out, it is hard to find any sort of schedule or explanation about the teams participating. My advice is to print off a schedule and map from this site (Japanese only) and bring it with you and ask around while you are at the festival. For those of you who commute through Ikebukuro or have sightseeing plans in the area on these days, you may want to leave home a touch earlier to navigate through the sea of people that will definitely be flooding the station.
As for myself, I won’t be watching the festivities as I am participating as a dancer and flag waver for RHK 熱波. My team and I have been working hard all summer to bring the best performance we can to Ikebukuro this October, so come check us out! The 17th Annual Tokyo Yosakoi Festival has something to offer anyone and everyone who is interested at all in Japanese culture. I recommend anyone who can spare an hour or two to stop by and enjoy the festival!
Tokyo Yosakoi Festival Official Website *Japanese only
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