Having trouble managing life, work and sundry commitments as 2006 speeds to a close? Looking for a refreshing resolution — something challenging or even cultural — to ring in the new year?

It may be that to shed your woes you need to take the art of balancing things to the next level and learn to juggle. Some studies have found that juggling actually develops the brain and might even get the creative juices flowing. If nothing else, it will offer a cathartic respite from the daily grind, and an affordable bit of fun.

I caught the juggling bug a few years ago when researching a story on street performing. Since then, the stress-release brought about by testing my mettle against the unforgiving constant that is gravity has proved a means of saving that last shred of sanity that deadlines threaten to erase. A comparatively little-known traditional Japanese art is daikagura, or pre-Edo Period entertainment involving juggling. A master manipulator of this art form is Senoh Maruichi, the 13th in a long line of daikagura entertainers and leader of the eponymous Edo-Daikagura Maruichi Senoh Troupe.

“The smarter you are, the more obsessed about juggling you get,” contends 66-year-old Maruichi. You can see why I like him.

Daikagura springs from religious roots — a notable difference from conventional juggling. The art itself stretches back to at least the Heian Period, with the first record of it from the early 16th century. The story has it that pilgrimages to Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, in present-day Aichi Prefecture, and Ise Shrine, in present-day Mie Prefecture, were in vogue. Not everyone could make the trek and some shrewd shrine apprentices — or as Maruichi tells it the sons of the head priest not slated to inherit his position — hit upon taking their religious services on tour. These shows consisted of the shishimai, a dance — often called the lion dance — involving a pair of dancers sporting the mask of a mythical lion-like deity, the shishi, which often appears outside shrines. The dance, which is accompanied by flute and drum music, is supposed drive away evil spirits and bring luck, especially to those that the shishi head nips. Shrine performers would walk the countryside performing the dance. Writing out the characters in kanji for daikagura, Maruichi explains that he believes it was originally rendered as “for the gods’ fun” as it was a performance for the gods. Over time the religious component of the performance gave way to more emphasis on entertainment. Edo-daikagura is one such offshoot, with others active in Ise and Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. All offer a variety of stunning tricks with drumsticks, umbrellas and traditional Japanese props. After the political capital moved to present-day Tokyo, Atsuta Shrine performers began trekking there about 1664 to ring in the lunar new year by performing for daimyo and the shogun.

While the performances were initially only for high-ranking officials — think jesters — the shogun ultimately mandated that daikagura be performed for everyday folk. Maruichi notes that it was a much-loved entertainment fixture in Edo (now Tokyo), so much so that kabuki and manzai were significantly influenced by it. Likewise, during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when the 10th head of the Edo-daikagura family toured overseas, he left a number of imitators in his wake, says Maruichi.

The art, tricks and training

Daikagura tricks take years to learn and must be seen to be believed. The basic tricks can be broken down into two types: those in which props are thrown and those in which they are balanced. The basic routine today consists of 13 tricks. Nine of these involve juggling or manipulating props in gravity-defying ways, such as balancing a ceramic teapot on a drumstick held in the mouth or a multistory stack of teacups on a pole balanced on the chin. A popular trick is that of spinning objects on an umbrella, including a metal ring and ceramic teacup. This is one of the more visually stunning tricks and, Maruichi notes, it is also one of the easiest. “With practice, someone can learn to do this well in three months.” The remaining four tricks are called chaban and hinge on comic banter between performers.

Changing fortunes and the future

Edo-daikagura and traditional performing arts, however, have hit hard times. Shortened attention spans and a shortage of new members have hindered appreciation of the art and cut the number of aspiring artists. “Today, people in Japan aren’t accustomed to watching a live performance,” complains Maruichi, adding “audiences only respect you if they have seen you on TV.” Today much of the routine has evolved, been lost or jettisoned to cater to the public’s changing tastes — shimoneta, or blue humor with sexual innuendos, were a favorite before the advent of TV, says Maruichi. The situation today is a far cry from the heady days after World War II. Maruichi recounts fond memories of making the rounds of the U.S. Occupation force camps with his father, the warm response he received and the full belly he was sent home with. However, he laments the lack of interest among youth today in Edo-daikagura. Estimates put the number of active performers around Tokyo at a few dozen — down from more than 100 during the heyday of the 1950s — with maybe 100 performers nationwide. However, a slight jump in event bookings has buoyed Maruichi’s spirits and he is sanguine that he has helped to lay a foundation for the art to continue into the foreseeable future.

Ready, set, throw…

Those with a sense of adventure or curiosity are encouraged to take in or try their hand at Edo-Daikagura themselves.

The Edo-Daikagura Maruichi Senoh Troupe can be seen performing from noon to 1 p.m. and again from 5 to 6 p.m. on Dec. 27-29 at Yagenbori Fudoin (a few minutes walk from Higashi Nihonbashi Station on the Toei Asakusa Line). For those with an interest in experiencing Edo-daikagura, practice will resume in February on Mondays, from 1 to 3 p.m., and Thursday evenings, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at Rekisen Park, in Korakuen (on the Namboku and Marinouchi lines). For more information visit edo-daikagura.com/ or e-mail office@edo-daikagura.com

For other Edo-daikagura groups, point your browser to the Daikagura Kyokugei Kyokai group at www.daikagura.jp/in dex.html or The Lucky in Osaka at www1.odn.ne.jp/cbz37980/sub5.htm (sites are in Japanese only).

Information on Mito-daikagura and Ise-daikagura can be found at www.mitodaikagura,jp/ and ise-daikagura.or.jp (also Japanese only).

For modern Western-style juggling, check the Japan Juggling Association homepage at www.juggling.jp for the club nearest you, or contact the JJA at info@juggling.jp

For more than you ever wanted to know about juggling visit juggling.org.

To explore the health benefits of juggling, visit faculty. washington.edu/chudler/jugg.html or www.juggling.org/


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