At a stage in western Tokyo’s Takaosan I saw the fifth generation master puppeteer of the Hachioji Kuruma Ningyou Nishikawa Koryu troupe perform for the public. This puppetry movement is a late Edo period off-shoot of the traditional Japanese puppetry of Bunraku. The difference between Bunraku and Kurumaningyo is in the name – while three bunraku puppeteers manipulate each of their dolls the Kurumaningyo puppeteer operates one doll all by him- or herself. They do so by sitting on wooden boxes with three wheels, one large and two small, and by shifting their weight slightly from one front wheel to another they can be surprisingly fluid in their movements around stage. Normally they perform on beautifully decorated and lit stages, wearing black against a black background, so that after a while you simply forget about the person operating the dolls. On this stage however, they performed against a light background in full daylight so I got a great view of how they move their dolls around stage.
Hachioji Kurumaningyo originated in the western Tokyo town of Hachioji, by a master puppeteer born in 1825, Nishikawa Koryu. The present Nishikawa Koryu is the fifth generation master, making this traditional art form possibly the last of the great cultural assets to be born in the Edo period. The troupe sometimes travel abroad and they have made it their tradition to always add one local act to their repertoire with a specially designed doll. In this case, they showed a doll they made for a visit to Mexico, performing a local dance to traditional Mexican music. It was amazing to see how seamlessly the troupe switched from the movements and gestures common in Japanese theatre to the flamboyant mexican dances! It made me curious to see their other foreign dolls.
I used one of my very rare tele lenses to get most of these shots, the amazingly cheap Sigma 70-300mm macro tele (a camera lens I like to use especially when other photographers are watching). I wanted to see the faces of the puppeteers, to see their concentration and yet very relaxed looking expressions. I can imagine that this art form is supremely difficult to master yet looks like nothing but the simplest child’s play when performed correctly.
More photos of the energetic Nagoyakaren, one of the Awaodori teams from Nakamurabashi in Tokyo’s northern Nerima Ward. Awaodori is originally a sort of folk dance and folk music from Japan’s Shikoku island and the modern prefecture of Tokushima. Different dancers play different roles in the ensamble and although all dancers from all over the country follow the same basic steps and music there are a vast number of subtle differences in everything from movement to rhythm to costume to more complex dance routines. The music is almost always performed by flutists, shamisen (a stringed instrument) players and different kinds of drums and brass rhythm instruments. Although the teams all have the same instruments there are variations in what emphasis they put on the different instruments and how they perform together with the dancers. There’s even quite a few specialist teams, for example teams with many deaf dancers or teams where the youngest member has to be over 65 years of age. The more you watch Awaodori, the more you learn and the deeper you go into it.
If you are a tourist and want to see Awaodori your best bet is to visit Tokushima prefecture or Tokyo during the summer when there are at least one Awaodori dance festival or show every weekend. Or, you can always visit the Awaodori restaurant with proper shows every night, in Shinjuku. Enjoy!
One of the things I love the most about Japanese festivals is that they are so multi-generational. Everyone gets a chance to join in and there is a place for everyone regardless of age or ability. One of the most exciting festivals in Tokyo is the massive Oeshiki buddhist ceremony at the huge Honmonji in Ikegami, Ota Ward in southern Tokyo. I took these photos of kids joining in, mimicking the adults with their matoi poles and ritual dancing. The kid’s versions are obviously much smaller but they still take it very seriously. Some of the kids are taped up like pro athletes! I can imagine that the constant twisting of the matoi poles can be very hard on fingers, hands and wrists. They also use a very fine talcum powder to get a proper grip on the poles, as the evening progresses the talcum tends to get everywhere! I found when I got home that evening that I too had been covered in a grey mist of powder! Even my camera was coated in it.
One little kid in particular caught my attention, too small to take part in the dancing the kid was still participating fully even from the pram!
A couple of months ago during the three day festival in Shibuya I went to pay my respects at the Konouhachimanu grand shrine, the official protector shrine of Shibuya and Aoyama. The weather had been bad all day and it had just stopped raining so there were very few people at the actual shrine. The most of the festival takes place in the middle of the commercial areas of Shibuya and since the shrine lies almost hidden between tall buildings and offices not many people actually know that it is there. Founded in 1092, it is one of Tokyo’s older and more important shrines. Despite being so old the shrine’s present priest is quite young and modern minded, so during the festival there are rock bands, jazz bands and even karaoke concerts taking place at the shrine’s main stage, I arrived just in time to see one of the classic old kagura plays being performed, one that I have seen many times before.
Inside the grand shrine grounds there is also a smaller Tamatsukuri Inari shrine (玉造稲荷神社), and besides the shrine there is a Toyosaka Inari shrine (豊栄稲荷神社), both devoted to the God of rice and fertility, with a row of ten torii, red shrine gates leading up to the altar.
The best little piece of trivia though, is that this is also the location of what was once one of the biggest castles in what is now Tokyo! Not many people know that Shibuya had a castle roughly between the 12th and the early 16th centuries, and although the now hidden Shibuya river is slightly more famous, even fewer are aware that it once served as a defensive moat to this hilltop castle. The only remaining piece of this castle is a small stone from one of the walls, tucked away in the shrine grounds. I have been to this shrine many times but never actually noticed the stone. Next time I go I will try to get a photo of it!