May 6, 2013

Shishimai and Sake

On May 5, an annual shishimai event was held at Yakumo Shrine in Kawai district of Okutama Town, Tokyo. Yakumo Shrine is in a distance of 10-minute walk from JR Kawai Station. I invited some sake-drinking friends to join me to see this event. 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.

The front approach way to the shrine consists of two flights of stone stairs. If you look upward from the base of the first flight, you will find a "two-story gate" in the dimness of the cedar tree grove. The approach goes through under the gate leading to an open square 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 local performing arts. However the three-lion dances are not performed on this stage but in the open square 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 second flight of 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.

On this day, we occupied our place on the third tier from the bottom on the right, viewed from the stage. We had brought some bottles of sake, wine, and snacks, and set them ready in place, waiting for lion dances to begin.

In these shishimai events, seven performances of lion dances are performed. When we arrived at the place, it was past noon, three performances had already been performed, and performers were taking a lunch break. In the afternoon, still another four performances were awaited.

Here, I would like to explain sambiki-shishimai. This type of lion dances is danced by three dancers and some backup dancers with music played by bamboo flutes.

The dancers wear headgear called shishigashira. They are what the Japanese in olden days thought look like lion heads (since the Japanese did not know what the lion looked like exactly, they never look like lion heads, having horns and feathers on the head). The dancers bear drums tied around their waists, and beat these drums while dancing.

The backup dancers are four, six, or eight kimono-clad people. The number of these backup dancers varies according to the place where dances have been handed down. They play instruments made by bamboo, making frictional sounds along with the melody of bamboo flutes.

Many documents describing the derivation of lion dances are handed down in many places in Japan, and according to these old documents, lion dances have been started in 1245. The story is as follows:

In the spring of 1245, in the ceremonial hall Shishinden in the imperial palace, imperial families and their guest were enjoying a party. Suddenly, the sky turned dark and they heard thunders and saw streaks of lightning. Then, three shining objects appeared in the sky and they flew to these people, finally fell with thuds in the garden of the Shishinden. These objects were something they had never seen before, and they were surprised and scared. Then, after close observation of these objects, the people knew these objects looked like three heads of some animal. No one knew what in the world these things were. The emperor had a fortune-teller see these things to see whether they were a good omen or bad. The fortune-teller said, "these are the head of lions living in India, and they are great auspices," continuing, "if people wear these on their heads and dance, our country stays in peace forever." In this way, people started these lion dances. Of course, this is a legend, and no one take this story at face value.

By the way, I often come to enjoy the lion dances of this Yakumo Shrine, and every time I am at this event, one clown guy first dancing with other dancers but later coming out from the dance place bears a bottle of sake, comes to us, and offers sake to us. This is my most favorite point of these lion dances at Yakumo Shirine.

So, we had been waiting for this time!