May 17, 2011

Enjoying shishimai lion dance over sake

At Yakumo Shrine in the Kawai district of the mountain town of Okutama, sambiki-shishimai or three-lion dances are dedicated annually on May 5. I visited this shrine to see these lion-dances and had nice time there last year. So, I invited some acquaintances to this event this year.

We, four people including me, started walking at JR Kawai Station toward Yakumo Shrine. Although it was May, the weather was cool or rather chilly. Soon, we left Route 411 (Ome Kaido) to take a minor winding road leading to the shrine. Festival andons (lampstand with a wooden frame and paper shade) had been set on the side of the road here and there on the way to the shrine. We saw a picture representing a monstrous beast, stag beetle, or any other childish motif was drawn on each andon. Probably, these pictures had been drawn by local grade school pupils. We also saw festival paper lanterns with the crest of mitsudomoe (three comma shaped figures arranged to form a circle) on them at the porches of some houses. As we got closer to the shrine, two long poles standing high and flying shrine banners in the wind came into our sight. While feeling such an atmosphere of the festival, we enjoyed an about-10-minute walk until finally getting to Yakumo Shrine.

The style of the lion dances dedicated to this shrine is the one called sambiki-shishimai or sasara-shishimai, which is popular in various districts in the Kanto area including Okutama, Chichibu, Ome, Akiruno, and other cities, towns, and villages. And, these dances of Yakumo Shrine in the Kawai district are especially recommendable.

I think I need to give some explanation on the architecture, setting, and atmosphere of Yakumo Shrine so that you can understand why I recommend the three-lion dances of this shrine.

The front approach to the shrine is a flight of stone stairs. If you look upward from the base of the stairs, you will find a two-story gate in the dimness of the cedar tree grove. The approach goes through under the gate leading you to an open space beyond it. This two-story gate, designated as a tangible folklore cultural property of Tokyo, has a unique structure; standing on the mountain slope, the front appears to be a two-story building while the back looks like a one-story building.

The upper floor of the gate on the back side serves as a stage for plays, dances, and other performing arts. However the three-lion dances are not performed on this stage but in the open space in front of the stage. The front approach leads to this center square, across which there is another flight of stone stairs. At the upper end of these stairs is the front shrine.

Another noteworthy point of this Yakumo Shrine is that there are several stone-walled tiers on both sides of the stairs. These tiers serve as spectators’ seats so that visitors at this shrine can enjoy watching a play, dance, or any other performance art performed on the stage or in the center square. High-standing cedar trees surrounding the spectators’ seats, center square, and theater provide good shade for performers and spectators, and usher a comfortable energy flow into the precincts, producing a sacred atmosphere of a realm protected by some mysterious power.

As I described above, this shrine has a good atmosphere as a place for oblation of three-loin dances while the stone-walled tiers provides the spectators with comfortable seats where they can enjoy watching dances over sake and foods in a relaxing mood. For these two reasons, I recommend the lion dances of this shrine.

Thus, I planned a picnic theater party, and we brought foods and drinks including sake. We occupied some place on a stone-walled tier, set our foods and drinks and everything ready, and started enjoying lion dances.

The sakes we brought with us today were all Sawanoi bottles from the local sake brewery Ozawa Syuzou: Kamekuchi-shu, Soten Namazake, and Hanami-shinshu.

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