“The mystery of the Orient is legendary . . . it was in the air the moment we stepped ashore in Kyoto, and now in Tokyo it began to envelop us.” That’s how Charlie Chaplin described his arrival in Japan. I’m not sure if the “Little Tramp” ever visited the island of Miyajima on any of his four trips to Japan, but if so, I’m sure the sense of mystery would have positively engulfed him there, too.

My wife, Angeles, and I first set foot on Miyajima in the twilight days of the last millennium, when we’d been in Japan less than a week. The mystery started before we’d even reached the island. Outside the ferry terminal in Miyajima Guchi in Hiroshima, an intimidatingly large statue glowered down at us. Its robes were a splendid green and gold, but its mask was a nightmarish grimace: demonic, bulging eyes, vicious teeth, fox-like ears and a mythological bird of gold perched on its head. For sheer otherness, I had never seen anything like it. To borrow from another Japan Times column, it was my “What the heck is that?” moment. I later learned that this startling creature was a character from a traditional ritual called bugaku. I was instinctively drawn to it, like a tortoise to a bed of begonias.

The following winter I got a chance to see what it was all about. Mind you, my first attempt at seeing bugaku was a failure on a par with Eric Newby’s exploits in his book “A Short Walk Through The Hindu Kush.” I’d seen a flier stating that the performance started at “5:30” on Jan. 5. What a perfect hour — I envisaged the scene: night falling over the primeval forest of Miyajima’s Mount Misen, Itsukushima Shrine lit up, shimmering on the crow-black waves.

We got there in plenty of time to get good seats, but we needn’t have worried. The shrine was nearly empty, and the few souls there were on their way out. Even better, I thought. Speaking as a part-time agoraphobic whose idea of the perfect-size for a rock concert audience is about 15 people, I was thrilled at the prospect of having the place virtually to ourselves. Up we strode to the white-robed man at the entrance and, showing him the flier, I confidently said “Two please,” in my best newly-learned Japanese.

“That performance was 5:30 this morning,” replied the man, trying to conceal his irritation. And that’s how the kanji for “a.m.” and “p.m.” became the first characters we ever learned.

Happily, since then we have returned to Miyajima countless times and witnessed the splendor of bugaku on several occasions. Was it worth making a song and dance about? Absolutely.

Bugaku is the oldest surviving court dance and music pageant in the world. It arrived in Japan from China, Korea and Vietnam via India sometime in the seventh century and quickly proved a big hit as court entertainment for emperors and aristocrats. Prince Shotoku (572-622), a dedicated Buddhist, became a fervent fan. Over the centuries Japanese bugaku developed into a unique art form, as indigenous Shinto elements were gradually incorporated into the original Buddhist ritual.

Today, bugaku only exists in Japan, having completely disappeared in its countries of origin. Even in Japan, it’s only performed at a handful of holy places, including the Imperial Household, Shitenno-ji Shrine in Osaka and Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima. For hundreds of years it remained a privilege reserved for an elite few. In fact, it was only after World War II that mere commoners got the chance to watch it, so it still feels like a privilege to witness this centuries-old spectacle.

And to see it on Miyajima is all the more special, as it’s such a mystic place to begin with. The island has often been called a place “where people and gods live together,” and it’s one of Japan’s top three beauty spots as well as a World Heritage site. It’s the perfect backdrop for a trip back into another world.

The first thing you notice as you step off the ferry is the stillness in the air, as if time itself had been suspended. It’s a spell that even the ever-present groups of tourists and schoolchildren, led by megaphone-touting guides, can’t completely break. Much of the island is covered in lush virgin forest, creeping right down to the edge of the tiny town. As a sacred place, there are no pachinko parlours, convenience stores or unbridled construction. There is virtually nothing to remind you that you’re in 21st century Japan. It’s a realm of pagoda, temple and shrine, where the air is sweet with the fragrance of camphor wood and incense.

It’s most recognizable icon is the 16.6-meter-tall torii gate standing on the seabed, some 200 meters from Itsukushima Shrine, symbolically separating the mundane world from the sacred island. It was built out at sea because, as the whole island is considered sacred, commoners weren’t allowed to set foot on it, only being able to approach the shrine by sea, passing under the torii.

The spiritual heart of the island is the brilliant-orange seashore shrine that really does seem to be floating away at high tide, just like the guidebooks promise. And it is within this serene structure that bugaku performances take place.

Itsukushima Shrine dates from 593, but it was the great warlord Taira no Kiyomori who had it rebuilt in its present unique form around 1168. As the shrine grew in importance, the emperor paid several visits from Kyoto and Kiyomori happily incorporated the culture of the Heian Period (794-1185) court — including bugaku — into the life of Itsukushima.

And the tradition continues to the present day: bugaku performances take place on an open-air wooden stage, bound by a low red railing, jutting out into the sea, just like in Kiyomori’s time. It begins with a group of Shinto musicians in billowing white blouses, turquoise pants and black caps taking their positions, sitting on the floor at one side of the stage. They will provide a relentless accompaniment of gagaku music (the oldest classical music in Japan) on hichiriki (a kind of oboe), flutes, shoko (small bronze gongs) and a variety of other percussion. The doleful drums, in counterpoint to the shrill wail of the flutes, set a mood that is stately yet unworldly — in fact altogether disorienting.

Then the first dancer appears, wearing a dazzling costume of embroidered orange silk and an eerie animalian mask, his movements mantis-slow.

About 20 dance pieces survive on Miyajima from Kiyomori’s days and are still performed on key dates throughout the year. These include the so-called saho no mai (dances from the left) adopted from China, where the dancers wear red and orange robes, and the uho samai no mai (dances from the right), which originated in Korea, where the dancers dress predominantly in green.

Some dances recount ancient battles or mythological encounters, others pray for peace in the seas around Japan or for a bounteous harvest. Most, however, seem completely abstract. In the Heian Period, a lot of the meaning became lost as the dances were adapted according to aesthetic considerations and performed primarily for entertainment.

What all the dances have in common, though, is their highly ritualized steps and impeccably precise choreography.

“The exactness of the repetitive movements is of the utmost importance, since it has been believed that it ensures the continuation of the universe,” writes Jukka O. Miettinen in his book “Asian Traditional Theater and Dance.”

Personally, I found it impossible to make out any kind of story line, so it was no little comfort to me when I asked a Japanese friend for help deciphering what the dances meant and she confessed, “It’s very difficult for Japanese people to understand too!”

But as Van Morrison sang, “It ain’t why, it just is.”

Theater at its best always transports you to another world, transcending your everyday reality and replacing it with the illusion of another for a brief, yet eternally memorable moment. And so it is with bugaku. Even without knowing your left from your right dance, only the world-weariest cynics could fail to find themselves entranced by the spectacle of the dancers clad in sumptuous silks and monstrous masks, the trance-inducing drumbeats and the alien wailing of the flutes, and the performance of an ancient ritual on a crimson carpet under the dome of a cobalt sky.

At that moment, as the cyan waters lap around you, more than ever it feels like the shrine is floating away, carrying you with it, not just back to the splendor of the Heian Period, but much further — back to a mythical moment beyond time, when perhaps gods and people really did dwell together.

Under this heady spell, as we maunder back to the ferry, past the stone lanterns, now lit up and casting an ethereal fairy glow on the sea, it’s the big city of Hiroshima glinting across the bay that seems unreal.

There are several ways to get to Miyajima, but the most usual route is by ferry (¥180, children ¥90), which leaves every 15 minutes from Miyajima-Guchi. To get to Miyajima-Guchi by train, it takes 27 minutes via the JR Sanyo line from Hiroshima Station (¥410). There is also a street car from Hiroshima Station, which takes 69 min. (¥260). If coming by car, it’s best to park at Miyajima-Guchi. The next bugaku performances will be on May 18 at 9 a.m. and June 5 at 9 a.m. For more information, visit visit-miyajima-japan.com/en.

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