AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (134) The demon dance

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 21, 2012

Photo from tamarany no o-sanpo website

NOW I ask you — where can 1,500 men strip to the waist, slip into grass skirts, parade through town carrying lanterns, perform a howling dance in the middle of the night at a religious institution, and the national government will designate it as an important intangible cultural treasure?

Somewhere other than Japan, that is.

That’s just what they’ve been doing every year for centuries in Iwata, Shizuoka, during the Mitsuke Tenjin Hadaka Matsuri conducted by the Yanahime Shinto shrine, and they did it again at the end of last month.

The festival intrigues even Japanese scholars, and for more reasons than the ones explained in the first paragraph. There are records of a dance of some kind being performed this time of year since 933, when the local shrine received part of the divided spirit of Sugawara no Michizane. (This is an old Shinto practice.)

Sometime in the early 14th century, however, the dance took on the character of a celebration representing the joy of the townsfolk after a priest and a big ol’ dog named Shippei Taro slew a tribe of monkey/demons who had demanded and received the annual sacrifice of a virgin. The district also was once a regional capital in a governmental administrative system instituted almost 1,400 years ago. Some explanations say the festival has elements that incorporate that history, though they didn’t specify what they were. The entire event lasts eight days.

But the Big Show is featured on only one of those nights. It starts when the men run out into the street in four groups with lanterns and floats at 9:00 p.m. They congregate one group at a time at the shrine at 11:00 and dive into the dance. The energy intensifies with the arrival of each group. Then, at one in the morning, they sprint with a mikoshi, or portable shrine, back through the town where the lights have been turned off to a different shrine, the Omikunitama-jinja, and leave it overnight. A troupe of boys will return it to the Yanahime shrine the following night.

The hadaka in the festival name, by the way, means naked, though in this and other naked festivals, the men always wear a loincloth. No naked festivals with women, alas.

If you watch this Youtube excerpt of the Demon Dance, you’ll get an idea just how thrilled everyone must have been when the monkeys were slain 700 years ago. No, that isn’t a movie. It actually happened.

The story of Shippei Taro at the link reminded me of this story, though the ending is different.

Clicking on the photo at the top enlarges it.

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