FESTIVALS OF JAPAN: Finding the mythological heart of an ancient land

February 02, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

A long, long time ago in a place far, far away, the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami picked a rural spot to straighten out the troubled and corrupt land. That place was Takachiho, a town in Kyushu's Miyazaki Prefecture, which to this day celebrates his mythological arrival, bearing ears of rice no less.

As many residents of the mountain farming community have relatively spacious homes, they open their dwellings to all and sundry. Festivities are also held in civic halls.

Shinto music and dance are at the core of the annual Takachiho Kagura festival, which reflects a range of mythical events and protagonists. One revels in the discovery of a sacred mirror symbolizing Amaterasu, throwing participants into a spontaneous outpouring of song and dance.

The festival season, held at night, lasts from November through February--when farmers are idle. They practice dance moves and work on their musical ability in their spare time to ensure this centuries-old event continues far, far into the future.

Precisely when myth-based kagura performances started in Takachiho is fuzzy, but records show they were in full swing in the middle of the 15th century.

If you visit homes hosting performances, we suggest you show your gratitude with a small cash donation. Some hosts offer food and drinks to visitors, too.

Another centuries-old noteworthy event in the Kyushu region is the Shujo Onie festival that is said to date back 1,300 years.

But it is Buddhist Tendai sect monks from the Tennenji, Iwatoji and Jobutsuji temples in the Kunisaki Peninsula of Oita Prefecture who steal the show. They dress up as demons and wave lit torches at the stroke of midnight to pray for a good harvest and the health of local residents.

Demons of Iwatoji and Jobutsuji leave the temples once the dances are finished and go visiting neighborhood homes to pray for families that offer them food and beverages. Those at Tennenji hit visitors to the temple on their back with torches for a healthy, safe year.

Of course, not everybody wants to be out and about on bone-chilling winter nights. If that's you, we suggest waiting for the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival held May 3 and 4 in the city of Fukuoka.

It features the usual range of music and dance, but in this case there is a tradition called Hakata Matsubayashi dating back 825 years. The festival, renowned for its colorful costumes and themes, attracts upward of 2 million visitors each year.

Boat rides are also offered in Hakata Bay and a final parade allows tourists to join in the fun by clapping kitchen instrument called shamoji.

* * *

The Takachiho Kagura festival is held on and off from Nov. 17 through Feb. 10. Performances take place at various locations in Takachiho, reached by car or taxi from Takachiho Station, an 80-minute ride on the Takachiho Line from JR Nobeoka Station.

The Shujo Onie festival at the Tennenji temple in Bungo-Takada, Oita Prefecture, will be held Feb. 16. The temple is a short taxi ride from the Bungo-Takada bus terminal, a 10-minute trip from JR Usa Station.

The Hakata Dontaku Port Festival is held May 3 and 4 in central Fukuoka. The main parade is held at a venue near the Nakasukawabata subway station, a 10-minute ride from JR Hakata Station.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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A performance of "Kagura" dance at the beginning of the annual Takachiho Kagura festival on Nov. 17, 2012 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A performance of "Kagura" dance at the beginning of the annual Takachiho Kagura festival on Nov. 17, 2012 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • A performance of "Kagura" dance at the beginning of the annual Takachiho Kagura festival on Nov. 17, 2012 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Humorous choreography to convey wishes for a happy marriage and easy birth feature in the annual Takachiho Kagura festival in Miyazaki Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Lit torches are used to pray for a good harvest and the health of local residents at the opening ceremony of the Shujo Onie festival in Oita Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Local people dressed as demons perform a dynamic dance during the Shujo Onie festival in Oita Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Dancers parade through streets on May 3, 2012, during the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival in Fukuoka Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Dancers from Sendai join the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival in Fukuoka Prefecture on May 3, 2012. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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