Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (81): It’s good to be growled at!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE SHISHI-MAI, or Lion Dance, is commonly performed at Japanese festivals today in more than 9,000 forms. According to this excellent site on the right sidebar describing (and selling) Japanese Buddhist statuary:

(It) is performed while wearing the headdress or various masks. Shishi masks take on many forms, some with horns, others looking like a dog, a deer, or a lion. This dance was probably introduced to Japan by or before the 8th century owing to frequent Japanese missions to China’s Tang Court during the 7th-8th centuries AD. Shishi-mai dances became widespread in Japan thereafter as both a form of festival entertainment and as a means to ward off evil spirits, to pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health.

The Nirami Shishi-mai is thought to be a forerunner of the Shishi-mai, and is still performed in Takaoka, Toyama. KBS TV filed this report of its performance on the 18th. Jump on it–who knows how long the link will last?

Here’s what the announcer is saying, translated into English.

The Nirami Shishi-mai, said to be roughly 700 years old and the original form of the Shishi-mai (Lion Dance), was offered at the Keta Shinto Shrine in Fukushiki Ichinomiya, Takaoka, on the 18th.

The Nirami Shishi, which originated roughly 700 years ago at the Keta Shinto Shrine in Takaoka (Toyama) and is characterized by relaxed movements, is a homespun version of the Shishi-mai. The participants wear simple costumes and there is no appearance of the Tengu to tease the lion.

That’s why it’s thought to be the original form of the Shishi-mai, and has been designated an intangible cultural folk treasure of Takaoka.

During the festival, the Nirami Shishi dance is offered in front of the main hall of the shrine after the lion leads the mikoshi (portable shrine) around the shrine grounds. The lion, which is more than seven meters long, then performs the old and unique ritual.

Legend has it that being glared at by the lion will drive away evil. The onlookers were thus overwhelmed by the powerful impact of the lion as they offered their prayers.

For a look behind the scenes, here’s a YouTube video showing two men practicing the dance without costume.

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