A good chance to enjoy a glimpse of visual and performing arts of rural old Japan will come to Tokyo Feb. 19-20. The Kioi Small Hall will present a special program titled “Traditional Performing Arts of Shiiba, Miyazaki” to introduce rarely seen dances and chants performed in front of a profusely decorated altar.

Shiiba is a village tucked away in the mountainous interior of Kyushu. Surrounded by high peaks exceeding 1,000 meters above sea level, the village is one of the most isolated locations in Japan today. Abundant rainfall nurtures thick forests and chisels numerous gorges on mountainsides. Each gorge hides a hamlet or two in its depth, where a few households perch on steep hillside clearings in the woods. Even today 95 percent of the village area is wooded mountains, with only 1 percent arable.

No wonder legends have been told of vanquished warriors of the Heike clan seeking refuge here. After their defeat in the battle of Dannoura in 1185, some of the Heike warriors and their companions supposedly fled into the deep shadows of Shiiba’s forests. A youthful Minamoto warrior, Nasu Daihachiro, chased them down and was shocked to see the refugees living in thatched shacks. A rush of pity for their wretched life inspired him to fall in love with Tsurutomi, a Heike nobleman’s daughter. The lovers lived happily together for three years, but were cruelly separated by order of Shogun Yoritomo.

The bereft princess nevertheless gave birth to a daughter, and generations of their descendants thrived in Shiiba, claiming the Nasu family name. The story of their lost love is told in “Hietsuki-bushi,” a work song sung to a shakuhachi accompaniment.

The isolation of Shiiba has continued into modern times and helped preserve the wisdom of old ways and devotion to gods that have died out elsewhere in Japan. Villagers gather edible sprouts and mushrooms in forests and fish in clear streams, but, respecting nature, avoid overharvesting. Some farmers continue to be engaged in swidden agriculture, the ancient practice of slashing and burning woods on steep hillsides to plant millet and buckwheat. In winter, they hunt for deer and boar. Each activity begins and ends with specific rites and prayers to solicit divine blessings in their pursuits.

Prayers to gods culminate in a winter festival called yokagura (night kagura). On weekends in November and December villagers gather at their respective tutelary shrines to propitiate all the divine patrons with offerings and dances. As many as 26 hamlets in the small Shiiba Village (population 4,000) hold their own celebrations. The whole hamlet is like a large family, and those who have moved away return for the festival to celebrate with their kin and friends.

Kagura is a generic term referring to sacred dances performed with or without masks in Shinto rituals. Originating in the shamanistic magic of primeval Japan, kagura is the source of many Japanese performing arts including noh and kabuki. Southern Kyushu, especially Miyazaki Prefecture, is known for dynamic, old-style performances and elaborate decorations.

The decorations of the altar and dancing site are a quintessence of farmers’ ephemeral arts. Upon conclusion of the festival, they are taken down to be ritually destroyed. The ephemerality is important because kami, divine spirits in the indigenous religion of Japan, are like floating particles which come and go. Nevertheless, villagers spare no energy in creating the very best, using humble materials and techniques perfected over time.

A kagura altar will be recreated at the Kioi Small Hall. A group of 20 some villagers will come from the hamlet of Takeno-Edao in Shiiba Village, and set up Soto Koya, the exterior stage area. Abundant bamboo, fresh sacred evergreens, colored paper and cotton streamers create a striking and brilliant effect. At the center is placed the altar, called Takamagahara, meaning the plain of high heaven described in the “Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters),” Japan’s oldest book, compiled in 712 by Imperial order. Divine spirits are supposed to descend and dwell here during the festival. A pair of male and female snakes made of fresh straw lie on both sides of the altar.

Against this backdrop, the villagers will perform chants and dances to the rhythm of drums, a flute and a bell. The first chant solicits gods to join in the celebration. Then an unmasked solo dancer accompanies chanters to tell the story of the sword used to cut the kagura decorations. Legends say it flew from Tenjiku, the imaginary paradise in India, to the performers’ village of Takeno-Edao. The highlight of the program is a dynamic dance by a masked demon who in vain pulls the streamers to try to collapse the altar. Under constraint of time, the performers hurry to the finale in which the gods are magically sent back in a group chant.

Examples of the chants used in the swidden agriculture will also be presented by Mamoru Nakase, a member of the Takeno-Edao hamlet and a farmer using this ancient practice. Dr. Yoshihiko Tokumaru, professor of Ochanomizu University, will make introductory remarks in Japanese.

The performing style of Shiiba Kagura exhibits many traces of old, indigenous worship. While the neighboring regions of Shiiba, including the famous town of Takachiho, altered their performances in the wake of the rise of Ise Shrine in the 15th century, the gods celebrated in Shiiba Kagura are local deities which dwell in their village universe. Gods of earth and forest are cordially invited to join in the celebration, and spirits of bows and arrows are thanked for the abundant game they helped catch. Important as dancing, chats are sung in old styles probably transmitted by yamabushi, ascetic monks traveling from the holy mountains of Kumano.

Kunio Yanagida, the renowned anthropologist, visited Shiiba in 1908. There, he gathered a wealth of information on the hunting cults and practices of swidden cultivation. The results of his field work were published in a book titled “Nochi no Kari Kotoba no Ki.” This book and “Tono Monogatari,” an anthology of folklore from Tono, another mountain village, are his most influential works.

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