On my first day in Japan, I lost touch with reality as I stepped into a new world beyond my imagination. I wasn't sure if it was because of the excitement I had for my trip or a Japanese Matrix. Maybe I entered a simulation on my overnight flight to Tokyo.
Hunting for Japanese Experience
My virtual adventure started as soon as I landed and I found myself in a perfectly designed, high-tech city and got lost in its flawless system. The first thing I noticed was the quietness of Tokyo. How was it possible for a city with a population of nearly 40 million not to have a single loud noise, even in the busiest streets?
The more time I spent in Tokyo the more I was amazed by the city. Everything about it was surprisingly impressive, from its incredible food to beautiful gardens. It was too good to be true.
It didn't take a long time for me to understand that Japan has the highest standards when it comes to perfection. I wondered if only one place could have an influence on me like that, imagine how the rest of the country would feel. There was no time to waste since I only had 2 weeks to explore Japan. I had to move fast, visit all the famous places, as well as the non-touristy locations.
I've been to many popular places like the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest or Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Everything was perfect but somehow, I felt there was something missing in my trip. I was also overwhelmed by mass tourism everywhere I go.
So far, the most authentic things I did were relaxing at an onsen (Japanese hot spring) near Mount Fuji, staying at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Takayama, and eating okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. However, I realized I needed something different and unique. I needed a true Japanese experience without the tourist crowds. So, I decided to ignore my itinerary and check the map again.
I noticed an island just off the southwest coast of the main island. It was called Shikoku and it was the smallest one of 4 islands in Japan.
That was it! A destination no one ever heard of it before so it should have been full of the local scene. I had to go to this place and see what it brings. Thrilled to be heading to an undiscovered region, I chose the fastest way to get to the island. First I took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima to Okayama, then switched to the regular train for Tokushima.
Following my arrival, I randomly went to the tourist information center near the train station and got a handful of local recommendations. I was pretty happy as I haven't seen a single tourist in the city and excited that I had a lot to explore!
My plan for the day was to see the Naruto whirlpools first and for the evening, a dance show called Awa Odori at a museum in town. After being on the road half-day for Naruto Park, I returned to the city with disappointment because I was unable to see the whirlpools due to weather conditions.
Awa Odori Kaikan
I didn't look up any information about the museum and went there without expectations. I was completely unaware that the best part of my trip was about to come.
The atmosphere in the dance hall was amazing and the whole audience was Japanese from children to elderly people. I could already feel the authentic vibes while sitting together with the local tourists and waiting for the show to start.
The show kicked off with live music and energy-high dancers in their traditional outfits. I loved the alignment between the music and the dance as the dancers were slowing down when the music was slow and speeding up when the music was fast. The dance took about 40 minutes and it had me moving on my seat the whole time. It is certainly different, fun, and interesting.
By the end of the performance, the dance group leader asked for volunteers to come on stage and learn the dance. As being a shy person, I personally refused to go on stage. But in a few seconds, every person from the audience ended up on stage and they were calling me to join them. I had no choice.
The Group Dance
There was no need to be nervous but I found it hard to control my feelings in a room full of strangers. The dancers showed us the dance moves, let us practice a little bit and the music started again. Before I realized it, we were dancing in a circle and my fears flew away.
The dance looked very easy and straightforward but as soon as I started doing it myself, the struggle was real. I wasn't the only one looking at other people's dance and trying to do better. It seemed no one knew what they were doing.
I was enjoying the dance way too much and could not stop laughing the entire time. We all looked very silly but I could tell everybody was having lots of fun. We kept turning and turning on the dance floor and I finally started to get more confident with the dance.
All of a sudden, the stage got more crowded and the actual dancers started to roam around. I was confused when I saw them putting white flower necklaces on a few people. Before I knew it, a girl came up to me, said "You are the winner" and gave me a red flower necklace.
Wait, what just happened? Was it a dancing competition? No one told me that and I'm not even a good dancer!
The rest of the people without the flower necklaces went back to their seats and the winners stayed on stage. I was the only non-Japanese there and had no idea what was going on as I was standing in shock.
A Japanese Ceremony
A lady from the music band came up to me and explained everything. Turns out I was the finalist in this dance contest and I have to perform my own dance performance following an award ceremony.
At this point, I was completely terrified that I had to do my own performance in front of all the people. All I could think was how to get away from dancing alone without anyone noticing.
The group leader began the ceremony and handed over some gifts to the other dancers. Then he asked me to stand in front of him and gave a speech to the audience. Freaking out on the inside, I kept smiling and convinced myself that I could do the dance on my own. He gave me a dancing certificate and a small gift and awarded me a very cool prize.
When the time came for the final grand performance, thankfully they asked all dancers to dance. Felt relieved at last, I danced with the others in a circle one more time and the show ended.
Nobody left the place right away. We were chatting, taking pictures, and even exchanging our social media profiles. Everyone was super friendly and I suddenly had a Japanese family of 20 people. What a special place! There is no doubt moments like these make traveling so precious and I always feel strong gratitude about it.
Making a spontaneous decision and coming to Shikoku Island was definitely the right thing to do for me. It completely changed my trip in the best possible way and rewarded me with wonderful memories I will never forget. I learned a traditional Japanese dance, earned a certificate for it, made new friends, and won a competition for the first time in my life.
As I found out later, Awa Odori is actually the biggest dance festival in Japan and held in Tokushima every August. I was glad I missed the festival because I saw the dance performance anyway and had a more intimate time. And the best part of it was that I finally had my unique Japanese experience. My trip was complete.