Otsuka is only one stop beyond Ikebukuro, but, who ever goes there? It’s actually a pleasant place, a former hippie hangout in the ‘70s and early ‘80s and one-time pretender for the throne that Ikebukuro occupies. At least, if you listen to local legend.
“During Taisho from 1912 to 1925,” contends a local fish mart owner, “Otsuka” not Ikebukuro, was planned to be the terminus of the Yamanote Line. The line would have gone straight from Otsuka to Takadanobaba and left Ikebukuro out in the weeds. But those people in Ikebukuro must have pulled strings.”
Something’s fishy about this claim, and it has nothing to do with the occupation of the person making it. The first section of the Yamanote was called the Toshima Line and was built from Ikebukuro to Tabata in 1903. In 1909, it was linked to other rail lines then built in the south of Tokyo and renamed the Yamanote. Sorry, Otsuka.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Otsuka flourished as an inexpensive area of repertoire movie houses and coffee shops drawing a mixed intellectual and student crowd. There are still a few movie theaters left, but the coming of video and changing lifestyles killed most of the movie culture off.
So Otsuka remains a rather nice and somewhat muted place except on the night of Aug. 19 when the district’s festival starts at around 5:30 p.m. “It gets very drunk out,” says the local fish mart owner.
Then on Aug. 20 is Otsuka’s Awa Odori, one of the largest Awa Odori dance festivals in Japan outside of Shikoku, where the Awa Odori originated. “Awa” supposedly stands for the old name of part of Shikoku and “Odori” means “dance.” There’s also another explanation that the word “Awa” refers to the foam of waves, as the dance originated with the fisherwomen and fishermen in Shikoku.
If there was ever a dance that could be called a “typically Japanese dance” it’s the Awa Odori. Long lines of kimono clad dancers moving to flute and drum music weave through their steps and gestures, with various groups who have been practicing all year for this event trying to outdo each other.
The Awa Odori was brought to Otsuka by immigrants from Shikoku and performed every year around the mid-August Obon holiday period. More than a thousand dancers take part from 2:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Bystanders often join in. The streets are jam-packed, the festival fever builds to a pitch, and it’s a great way to spend a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon.
To get there, just ride the Yamanote one station beyond Ikebukuro and get off at Otsuka. The festival starts right at the station. If you need more information, you can call the organizing office (in Japanese) at (03)-3984-1501