HIROSHIMA – As we climb the lantern-lit steps to Waseda Jinja, our local Shinto shrine on the outskirts of Hiroshima, the smoky tang of festival food wafts down to greet us: grilled squid, fried chicken and toasted taiyaki buns, fish-shaped and bulging with cream.
People of all ages are gathering around a small outdoor stage alongside the shrine. A group of older men banter loudly while, at one of the nearby game stalls, their grandchildren try to catch goldfish with a paper scoop. Schoolgirls study their smartphones and giggle.
Far above the gaiety, the moon rises over the mountains, silhouetting the pine trees on the crest. The wind swishes through the bamboo. Like a cheerier version of an H.P. Lovecraft tale, you sense the presence of the kami (gods) lurking on the threshold in the primeval darkness of the night, just beyond the shrine’s cosy lights.
For a moment the veil between this world and the realm of the gods feels very thin. For tonight we are gathered here for a performance of kagura, a dance and music spectacle that has been tearing that veil away for 1,000 years.
“Kagura” means “place of the deity.” Its exact origins are uncertain, but it is believed to have existed as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185). Some say its origins date back to the mythical beginnings of Japan itself; in particular, to that pivotal moment when “the sun goddess Amaterasu shut herself up in a cave and refused to come out. So the goddess of mirth and revelry Ame-no-Uzume performed a dance in front of the cave and lured her out. This dance is considered to be the origin of kagura,” says Keiji Masuda of the Hiroshima Kagura Cultural Institute.
From this original ritual for the return of the sun, kagura evolved as a means of entertaining the gods, as well as giving thanks for the rice harvest. That’s why it is traditionally performed at Shinto shrines — the place where deities dwell.
Today, kagura is popular in many regions of Japan. One of its traditional strongholds is Hiroshima Prefecture, where it spread from Izumo via Iwami in neighboring Shimane Prefecture sometime in the Edo Period (1603-1868). By the end of the Edo Period, more than 100 troupes existed in the Hiroshima region.
“Many kagura stories are based on the “Kojiki” (“Account of Ancient Matters”) and “Nishon Shoki” (“Chronicles of Japan”), the two historical records of Japan compiled around 720 C.E.,” says Akiho Shimose of Akitakata City Tourism Division. Other stories draw on agricultural rituals, myths, legends and historical stories from the Heian Period. “Recently, we also have kagura stories based on kabuki or noh as well,” Shimose adds.
However, unlike the slow, measured pace of noh and kabuki, kagura is thrill-a-minute stuff, packed with scary monsters, dragons, magic and swordfights.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, kagura became popular as entertainment not just for the gods, but for mere mortals as well. As its popularity grew, embellishments were added, making it even more attractive to audiences. The spellbinding synchronization between dancers and music, for example, was not a feature of traditional kagura. Those fabulous costumes were originally much plainer too: just dyed cloth adorned with simple floral designs. In contrast, today’s kagura costumes feature glorious tigers, dragons and demons, embroidered with threads of real gold and silver. They often weigh a whopping 20 kilograms and cost more than ¥1 million.
Fearsome monster masks and fire-breathing dragons up to 17 meters long also add to kagura’s flamboyance. So even if you don’t get the story, you’ll still find yourself entranced by the spectacle.
Audience involvement is becoming more common, too. Dragons are wont to wander among the audience, and I’ve even seen a demon come down and “abduct” a member of the audience. Temporarily, of course.
In Hiroshima Prefecture, kagura is as redolent of autumn as the changing color of the maple trees. Performances at shrines throughout the region provide the highlight of many a festival at rice harvest time. But thanks to kagura’s surging popularity, you can also enjoy performances throughout the year at halls and culture centers.
Today, Hiroshima is home to 200 kagura troupes, with five different regional variations, from Geihoku, deep in the mountains of the north, to the Geiyo Islands in the Inland Sea. Akitakata City, in the north of Hiroshima, is home to 22 troupes and even boasts a purpose-built kagura venue, the Kagura Monzen Spa Village that features a magura museum and a complete Old Japan village, as well as weekly performances, both indoors and outdoors.
More than 20 contests are held throughout the prefecture. These contests have played a key role in promoting and preserving the tradition, as well as in refining its artistry. It’s a responsibility that the dancers and musicians — all amateurs — take very seriously.
“Most dancers start kagura from elementary school (from age 6 to 12), and have more than 15 to 30 years’ experience,” Shimose says.
However, the clearest evidence that kagura has now become an accepted part of Japan’s rich performing arts heritage came in last September’s Paris Fashion Week, when Kenzo Takada’s spring 2108 collection featured a dazzling performance by the Hiroshima Kagura troupe.
In a humbler setting, back at our little neighborhood shrine in Ushita, four musicians in the Shinto dress of black hats, white shirts and billowy black pants have just taken the stage. They kneel in a line, stage right, and pick up their instruments (one big drum, one small drum, finger cymbals and a flute) and launch into a lilting riff.
Tonight’s tale starts off with a young maiden who gets devoured by an evil old hag. Enter two handsome warriors with long black tresses and glittering robes. They confront the witch. But in a nanosecond she turns into a fearsome white fox demon. The crowd gasps. Children scream. The two warrior heroes draw their swords and commence battle with the fox, spinning and swirling round the tiny stage. The music builds into frenzied waves of sound. Faster and faster the trio spin, as if in a trance, so close together it’s amazing no one gets lacerated. Suddenly, with a touch of the heroes’ swords, a spider’s web-like net falls over the fox, seemingly signalling its end. The music slows, everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
But just as you think it’s all over, clouds of dry ice flood the stage and four of the biggest baddest dragons you’ve ever seen emerge from the haze, eyes flashing, jaws gnashing, and spitting fire. The relentless rhythms surge again, louder, faster. The heroes and dragons commence battle, this time even more frantic than before. You wonder how they can spin so fast and not fall off the stage. At one point, a dragon snares one of the heroes in his long coiled body, but our man fights his way free.
Finally, after more than two hours on stage, the two warriors slay the dragons. The beasts stagger around in protracted jaw-snapping agony before our heroes cut off their heads and hold them aloft to great applause.
Good has won. The maiden is brought back to life and order is restored to the universe.
Finally, to compound the joy, it’s time for some comic relief. A fisherman wearing a mask of utter contentment tumbles onto the stage. He represents Ebisu, the god of fisherfolk, commerce and good fortune. After fishing various objects from the crowd — an old boot, a maple branch — he finally lands a plump red sea bream.
Then, in what is clearly the evening’s highlight for many people, he starts lobbing mochi (freshly-pounded rice cakes) made with newly-harvested rice into the crowd. Things get very boisterous as young and old alike jostle, leap and scramble to grab as many rice cakes as possible. But this is a collective celebration and the mood remains convivial. A couple standing next to us take pity on our fruitless catching attempts and hand us a few of theirs.
In the end, the god is happy and so is the crowd as we head back to our lives, revitalized after communing with the gods.
Kagura can be seen at Hiroshima Prefectural Culture Center (1-5-3 Otemachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima Prefecture; 082-245-2311) every Wednesday at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. until Dec. 27. English explanations are provided. After the event, you can have your picture taken wearing one of the costumes. Kagura Monzen Spa Village: 4627 Hongo, Midori-cho, Akitakata , Hiroshima Prefecture (082-654-0888).