On first glance, Tokushima City, located on Japan’s Shikoku island seems a typical Japanese city: clean streets, a mix of high rise modern buildings and quaint traditional houses further at the edges, leading up into beautiful mountains. In short, the kind of balance of nature, modernity and tradition that was becoming a familiar mix of features in Japan’s smaller cities.
Go in mid-August, however, and the streets at nightfall are likely to be filled with the lively, piercing sound of Japanese flutes, taiko drums, the twang of the shamisen (a traditional Japanese string instrument), all led by the sound of the bell, and filled with dancing at the Awa Odori, Japan’s biggest dance festival during the Obon season, which is an annual Buddhist tradition to commemorate the dead. There are about 100,000 dancers everywhere in town and the festival attracts almost 1.5million people every year.
We were lucky to be treated to a small performance of the Awa Odori dance before lunch at Hotel Clement Tokushima. This is a proud tradition of over four centuries and Tokushima is full of Awa Odori troupes who distinguish their skills through subtleties in their movements; if you can’t make it out to Japan during the actual festival, the city’s Awa Odori Kaikan hosts a number of troupes who perform year round.
The ‘basic’ dance is easy enough to learn, even as a foreign tourist, and consists of three basic types of movements and steps. The dancers raise a kind of call and response so you shout along to a set of phrases as you movie. Even if you’re the most awkward dancing specimen on the planet (yours truly), you can’t help but get into it, with or without a visit to a sake hiroba beforehand.
Even just dancing in a line around our dining room in the hotel, I could imagine doing the same thing through the streets on a warm summer night, the air filled with the sound of music, chatter and the smell of festival food.
If you’re craving Western food in Japan, Sky Restaurant Belle Vue does a pretty decent French menu lunch set, though the dishes are more inspired by French style than strictly French in flavour. I particularly enjoyed the subtlety of the cured salmon, the pumpkin soup and creamy chicken avocado entrees, and the lemon ‘cheesecake’, which had more of a light custard texture but was quite refreshing all the same.
Sky Restaurant Belle Vue
JR Hotel Clement Tokushima, Tokushima 770-0831, Japan
Like an albino version of the Golden Gate Bridge, Shimanami Kaido is actually a 60km long road and bridge that stands as an impressive connecting point between Japan’s mainland (Honshu) and Shikoku island, where Tokushima is located. The base of the bridge boasts a nice rest stop where you can pick up local specialities at the souvenir shop (udon) and wander the pretty park to take a proper panorama of the bridge. Cycling enthusiasts can do the Setouchi Shimanami cycling course that takes you from Onomichi to Imabari in the Ehime Prefecture (and stopping at Tokushima along the way).
The true highlight of Tokushima and, indeed, the entire trip was witnessing the Naruto Whirlpools at sunset, caused by the high and low tide between Japan’s Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific ocean. If there was ever a time to use the word ‘sublime’, this is it.
Our tour boat took us all the way under the Shimanami Kaido bridge and I had no idea what to expect. It certainly wasn’t water on either side of the whirlpools that was so eerily smooth that it looked like the sand of a beach right after a wave, until you got to a point where the water itself seemed to create a mini waterfall-like ‘drop’ that became these turbulent waves crashing against each other nonstop.
Every so often, our guide would point out an area where the roiling waters would seemingly start to gather, then you would see a hole start to form in the water, sucking in everything around it in swirls, before disappearing back into the choppy waves or sometimes ‘spewing’ water out again. The sea really did feel like a living creature and the continued awestruck ‘whoaaas’ of everyone on board the boat was wholly appropriate.
It was catching this phenomenon in the light of the sunset that made this experience so magnificent – you could see every crest and splash framed in gold, the gleam of the water’s surface. I can’t guarantee your experience will reproduce this exact sublime effect but I do know that going to see the Naruto whirlpools was worth every single yen and I would do it again and again.*
(*) This is potentially going to be a challenge for people who get seasick easily, but even to those people, I would recommend popping a few anti-seasickness pills and getting on that boat. Again: worth it.
I Ate My Way Through travelled as guests of the Japan National Tourism Organization.