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  • Writer's pictureNacho

Capturing the Spirit of Awa Odori Through the Lens

The thumping of the drums, the chanting, and the synchronized dancing of thousands of people dressed in beautiful traditional clothes. This is Awa Odori, one of the most iconic and lively festivals in Japan. For #photographers, the Koenji neighborhood's Awa Odori is a visual feast waiting to be captured through the lens.

What is Awa Odori?

Awa odori Tokushima
Awa Odori in Tokushima

Awa Odori is a traditional dance festival that originated over 400 years ago in Tokushima Prefecture in the southern island of Shikoku. "Awa" refers to the former name of Tokushima, while "Odori" means dance in Japanese.

The dance was initially performed by musicians and dancers known as ren to entertain spectators during Obon season, a time when Japanese people welcomed back the spirits of their ancestors. It grew in popularity as a Bon Odori (Bon Dance) tradition across Japan.

Today, the most well-known version happens in Koenji, drawing over 1 million spectators to the streets over a long weekend in August. Dancers ranging from small children to elderly residents form dance troupes known as ren and proceed through the streets in colorful costumes, dancing enthusiastically to the beat of the music.

The energy and expressions of the dancers, combined with the stunning visuals of the costumes and floats, make Awa Odori a paradise for photographers. Here are some tips for capturing incredible photos at the festival.

Preparing Your Photography Gear

Photographing Awa Odori, especially once the sun goes down, requires having the right photography gear and settings dialed in:

- DSLR or Mirrorless Camera - A camera that allows lens and setting changes is essential.

- Wide Aperture Lens - A lens with an aperture of at least f/2.8 or wider helps capture images in low light.

- External Flash - Attach a flash to your camera to compensate for low light conditions.

- High ISO - Use a higher ISO, up to 6400 if your camera can handle it, for images in the evening.

- Tripod - A tripod helps stabilize your camera for clear, blur-free shots at night.

- Spare Batteries - Have extra charged batteries on hand as you'll snap a lot of photos.

Finding the Best Vantage Points

Awa Odori extends across many streets and venues in Koenji. Scout out and move between the best vantage points to capture the dancers in action:

awa odori koenji
Awa Odori in Koenji

- Street Parades - Get as close to the action as possible during the street parades to immerse the viewer in your images.

- Intersections - Intersections allow you to capture parades converging from different directions.

- Near Stages - Areas near stage performances give you a clear view of solo dancers and troupes.

- Elevated Spots - Get height for unique top-down perspectives from balconies, stairs, or elevated walkways.

- Near Floats - Position yourself near the ornate floats for images with exciting backgrounds.

- Break Areas - Look for spots where ren take breaks to get candid portraits and behind-the-scenes shots.

Shooting Techniques

Use these techniques when photographing the dancers and scenes to get eye-catching results:

- Burst Mode - Use burst mode to capture dynamic motion and facial expressions mid-dance.

- Panning - Pan your camera to create a sense of movement and blur in the background.

- Low Angles - Get low, even lying down, for an immersive perspective looking up at dancers.

- Close-Ups - Move in close to highlight hand gestures, foot movements, and facial emotions.

- Context - Also take wide shots showing the scale of the parades within the festive atmosphere.

- Lighting - Pay attention to spotlights and lanterns illuminating dancers in the evening.

- Flash - Bounce flash off ceilings or walls for soft, even lighting when needed.

- Depth of Field - Use wide apertures for shallow depth of field to artistically blur backgrounds.

- Silhouettes - Position dancers in front of bright lights to create striking silhouettes.

Capturing the Spirit

Beyond getting great shots technically, observe and connect with the infectious energy and spirit of the festival:

- Faces - Focus on capturing the range of human emotions and reactions on display.

- Movement - Try to freeze the fast, rhythmic motions of the dancing


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