Hanging on the walls of Jake Davies’ home are around 20 artifacts that seem at odds with the idyllic village in Sakurae, Shimane Prefecture where his rustic abode is set.

Some depict outlandish beings with horns and frightening fangs. Even those that seem more terrestrial possess some quirky feature — a wonky, spoutlike mouth, or eyes so droopy that given half a chance they might just slide away down their chubby cheeks.

However, in this part of the prefecture, which locals still refer to by its old name, Iwami, households not displaying these traditional masks are few and far between, he says.

“Everyone around here puts them up as gargoyles, to keep the evil spirits out of their house,” says Davies, 56, who hails from Coventry, England. “So there’ll be a ‘Hannya,’ the female demon, or ‘Shoki,’ the demon queller, and so on. They are everywhere — even at railway stations.”

Davies proceeds to go through the names and stories behind the motley crew peering down unnervingly from his living room walls, and it’s clear he knows his stuff. Which is of little surprise. In these parts he is known as the only foreigner in Japan producing the masks used in traditional Iwami-kagura performances.

Iwami-kagura is one of several types of kagura (literally, god-entertainment), a ceremonial dance whose roots can be found in shamanic possession rites originally performed by priests.

Some believe that its earliest form was a ritual derived from the legendary tale of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the entertaining way in which Ame-no-Uzume — the goddess credited with introducing fun to the world — persuaded her reclusive, cave-dwelling counterpart to lighten up and join the party.

Over the years, many types of kagura have evolved, incorporating Shinto and, to a lesser degree, Buddhist elements. Some are highly ritualistic, such as the miko-kagura performed for the Imperial court by miko shrine maidens — descendents, it is said, of Ame-no-Uzume, while others are highly theatrical, almost kabuki-esque.

This latter style, known under the umbrella term sato-kagura (village-kagura), was more actively promoted during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in an attempt to halt the participation of priests and nullify its shamanistic roots and Buddhist influences, instead encouraging local resident participation in a purely Shinto rite.

It subsequently flourished and today a variety of kagura dances and music are performed at many local festivals and other public events around the country, especially in Shimane Prefecture and neighboring Hiroshima Prefecture. Some can be pretty bawdy, lasting an entire day and requiring a healthy dose of audience heckling.

According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, there are 343 kagura troupes throughout Japan performing numerous types of the dance, including miko-kagura, Ise-ryu kagura, Izumo-ryu kagura and the style from Iwami, which takes its title from the name of a former province that today forms the western part of Shimane Prefecture.

Iwami-kagura is a series of dances accompanied by flutes, percussion and voice that is believed to date back to the early 17th century and is distinguished from other styles by its fast tempo, called hacchoshi, and the elaborate dress and masks.

Davies’ fascination with kagura in general and the Iwami masks in particular began eight years ago when he and his Japanese wife, Yoko, both tired of city life in Kyoto, decided to take part in the “U-turn/I-turn” program, a government-backed project aimed at luring urbanites into depopulated rural areas.

Having bought a deserted farmhouse and land to cultivate, the couple started out on a course of self-sufficiency, the skills for which Davies had gleaned in the ’90s while working as a sheep herder on an Indian reservation in Arizona, where he also met his wife, a sun dancer-turned-garment designer.

Intrigued by the local history and culture, Davies began roaming the area collecting myths and stories from local shrines. It was during this time that he happened upon an exhibition of kagura masks and immediately sought out someone to teach him how to make them.

For more than three years he studied the basics under the tutelage of master mask maker Saburo Ando, eventually adding his own creative slant to his works, which didn’t always go down well with his fellow students.

“As you would expect, they followed the teacher’s word to the letter, but I wanted to express myself,” says Davies, an artist and photographer who majored in print making at university. “But while they told me it would be disrespectful to not follow sensei’s instruction, Ando himself encouraged me. Overall, refining an original style is more challenging than the making process itself.”

That production process, he says, is relatively simple — a “glorified form of papier-mache” he calls it — even though each mask can take up to a month to complete.

First, a clay mold is made onto which is pasted a special, locally produced paper called sekishu-washi — an Important National Intangible Asset from Sekishu, the ancient name for Iwami — that is also used to repair medieval drawings in Venice, Italy.

On top of that is painted a mixture of ground seashell and horse hoof glue, which is left to dry, sanded to a smooth finish and then the process repeated a further six to seven times. Then the clay mold is smashed, leaving a blank mask to which is added pigments, gold leaf, charcoal for subtle shading, varnish and real hair to create a vast array of characters that appear in kagura performances.

The key to these masks is their scope for a wide variety of expressions and minimal weight, Davies says.

“Iwami-kagura costumes are elaborate and can weigh up to 60 kg. This, coupled with the sheer speed of the dance, forced Iwami mask makers more than a century ago to devise a way to produce ultralight masks, which led to the method of clay molds and masks made from very thin, but strong, paper.”

Davies’ originality and eye for detail has gained him a decent clientele, enough to encourage him to build a studio in his home with an eye to developing his mask making into a more serious business.

And for that he needs new ideas and fresh faces, which he discovers at the dozens of kagura events he attends each year, among them performances of omoto-kagura, possessive rituals that were supposed to have been wiped out under government policy during the Meiji Era but somehow survived in one area in Shimane.

“Around here is the only place in all of Japan where true shamanic, possessive kagura survives,” he says. “People really know their kagura in these parts, but the populations are dwindling and so are successors to these priceless customs. My goal is to help ensure they never die out.”

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