Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri


Shrine priestesses dance kagura to open the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri dance performances.  The kagura piece pictured above is entitled Sensai or One Thousand Years.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in December, I took the trains to Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and a center of Japanese religion ever since.

I had set my mind on seeing the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri since I had first read the 1349 records of the shrine festival.  That year, a shrine priestess named Otozuru Gozen performed Okina, which in the contemporary repetoir of Noh is performed exclusively by men (see my previous entry about Okina here). In 1349, Okina was the first dance of the day’s performances.  Okina’s position at the beginning of the program shows the religious weight of the piece.  Even 650 years later, contemporary performances of Okina are always at the beginning of a program, and it is said that a god decends and inhabits the dancer during his performance.  Now Okina is not performed at the Onmatsuri, but priestesses dance kagura to open the day’s performances (see picture above). Kagura are shrine dances, and the titles of the four dances performed all indicate the celebratory nature of kagura.

A video of “Azuma Asobi” that I uploaded to YouTube.  Sorry about the bad quality, but I decided to put it up anyway to give you a rough idea what the dance is like.

After the kagura performance, young boys performed bugakuBugaku is a dance form of the ancient imperial court.  It is said to be heavily influenced by continental dances that were brought to Japan along the silk road.  The piece the boys performed, however, is entitled “Azuma Asobi,” which a heavenly maiden first danced on the plains where Tokyo now stands.  This dance is therefore assumed to be purely Japanese, and a Noh play about the heavenly maiden entitled Hagoromo exists and is regularly performed on the contemporary Noh stage.


The musicians who accompanied “Azuma Asobi.”

The music for bugaku is very different from that for noh.  Whereas noh is accompanied by a flute and two or three drummers who communicate with vocal calls to one another, the performance of “Azuma Asobi” was accompanied by a koto (Japanese zither) held by two assistants, a percussion instrument made of two wooden paddles (left, next to koto player), a transverse flute, and reeded woodwinds, which I can’t find in the picture but can hear in the video recording.

Behind the musicians, you can see a large canvas tarp, which was protecting a massive drum – one of two – from the rain.  These drums are usually on display in the Kasuga Shrine museum.


A dengaku performer with a ridiculous hat and high clogs.

The next performances were dengaku, which was a competitor to Noh when it was being developed in the 14th century.  No doubt there were strong influences from dengaku in the formation of Noh, but at the Onmatsuri all I saw were the backs of the performers all lined up in a row, one of whom had an elaborate hat to rival that of Miss Chiquita Banana.  He also wore unusualy high clogs, perhaps to balance his height with the height of his hat.

By the time the sky was growing dark, I was too wet and tired of standing to stay for the end of the dengaku performance, much less for the sarugaku performance by Noh actors, which was not until late in the program.  As I left, I took a picture of the entrance to the temporary shrine for the festival that was built outside the grounds of Kasuga Shrine.  The white umbrellas you see in the back of the picture behind the crowds of spectators are protecting the dengaku performers from the rain.


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