Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (129): Where herons dance

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 6, 2012

ONCE upon a time, more than a thousand years ago, someone in Kyoto became convinced that dancing like a heron would drive out the plague. The heron dance, or sagimai, became very popular and was performed with taiko drums and flutes at the Yasaka Shinto shrine. Fashions in music and dance will always fade, however, and the Kyotoans eventually lost their interest in heron dancing.

For some reason — perhaps another visitation of the plague — they resumed the ceremony. In 1369.

It became so popular again that it was imported to a shrine in Yamaguchi. Warlord Yoshimi Masayori, in what is now Shimane, decided to import it there when that area was devastated by the plague in 1542. The Shimane shrine in Tsuwano-cho is also called the Yasaka jinja, and dates from 1428. The photo of the shrine’s torii below was taken by “Sean from Osaka”.

The dance was designated an important intangible cultural treasure of the nation in 1994. It’s performed at 11 spots in town as well as the shrine every year in late July, giving people a glimpse of what their ancestors thought was entertaining in the Heian period. It might even help keep the plague demons out of Shimane.

This is what it looks like. The heron headgear weighs 5 kilograms and is made of cypress and bamboo. The wings are made of cypress alone and weigh 11 kilograms.

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