The people of Tokushima (on Shikoku island) put their all into the festival. They've even named the airport after it: Awa Odori Airport.
Many people who call Tokushima their hometown (working in Tokyo and other large cities) return home for the festival. The festival also attracts large numbers of domestic and international tourists. In total, around 1.3 million people flock to Tokushima prefecture for the matsuri (the population of Tokushima City is only 263,372).
The Tokushima Awa Odori is held from August 12th to 15th as part of the area's Obon festival (a Japanese Buddhist festival that honors the spirits of ancestors). Obon festivals in the area have incorporated dance for many centuries. In the Edo-era, the area's Obon festival was famous for its size, energy and rowdiness .
With time a unique dance style emerged in Tokushima: Awa dance. Awa is an old name for the region.
The festival began in 1586 when the local daimyo (feudal lord) hosted a drunken party to celebrate the opening of Tokushima Castle. It soon became an annual event. The Edo-era rules for the event are interesting:
1. Dancing in the streets is permitted for only three days.
2. Samurai are forbidden to attend the festival. They may dance at home but must keep their gate shut. No quarrels, arguments or misbehavior are allowed.
3. Dancing is prohibited at all temple properties.
4. It's forbidden for dancers or attendees to carry swords or wear masks.
Today the festival is still a massive (drunken) city-wide dance party.
Musicians and singers accompany the dance groups.
The dancers and crowd often sing (or chant) the traditional song of festival (Awa Yoshikono). For example, these 4 lines are a popular part of the song:
Odoru ahou ni (踊る阿呆に) ~ The dancers are fools
Miru ahou (見る阿呆) ~ The watchers are fools
Onaji ahou nara (同じ阿呆なら) ~ Both are fools alike so
Odorana son, son (踊らな損、損) ~ Why not dance?
It's also common to chant sounds (with no meaning) such as Yoi, yoi, yoi, yoi!
The Awa-Odori is characterized by irregular steps (said to have its origins in the drunken history of the festival). There are daytime and nighttime versions of the Awa dance. The daytime version is restrained and elegant. The nighttime version is frenzied and energetic.
There are also different Awa dances for men and women.
Spectators are encouraged to join into the dances. At times it feels as through the entire city is dancing.
The Tokushima Awa Odori is ranked #1 of 100 best festivals in Japan