Most of the branches of Kagura dance (the ritualistic dances and performances you see performed at native Japanese shrines and festivals as well as the imperial court) are ancient, many have been performed so long that their roots disappear well into mythological times. One branch however, the Urayasu dance (浦安の舞) of the Mikokagura (Kagura performed by shrine maidens, miko), is an absolute newcomer, having only started in 1940. In order to celebrate the 2600 year anniversary of the imperial lineage (this number is controversial among historians since many of the earlier emperors are considered semi-mythological) it was decided that shrine maidens all over the country (including the ones in Taiwan and Korea) should perform a ceremonial dance to be known as Urayasu. “Ura” is the ancient Japanese word for heart, and “Yasu” is one of the ancient terms used to name the country (I think). On November 10th at 10:00 all shrines performed this ceremony simultaneously. The tradition of the dance has lived on since then, but it is now performed during regular festivals at any time during the year. The costumes are some of the most complicated and it is only in recent years that shrines have been able to raise the money to make enough costumes so that even very young dancers can wear them. I saw these young girls (maybe 11 years old?) perform the Urayasu at the Nezu shrine festival a couple of weeks ago, and the costumes looked a bit too large for them! There are some items associated to the dance, the bough, the bells and the blade, all purely ceremonial of course.
Some of the larger shrines sometimes have Mikokagura performances during wedding ceremonies, and some miko usually dress up in these costumes for parades, but if you have the chance to see a properly performed Urayasu dance, take it! They are not all that common!
Naturally I just had visit Yasukuni Shrine for the second day of the Shunkireitaisai, the main day. In the old days (any year during the more than 1000 year history of this ceremony) it was often attended by the emperor or one of his chosen representatives. Since 1978 however, the emperors of Japan has stopped visiting this shrine personally so the ceremony has to be performed without royal presence until their differences can be worked out. I am sure they will, some day in the future. The nicely dressed people are there to greet the ceremony as it makes its way to the heart of the shrine. The last day of the ceremony is on the 23rd of April, but I won’t be able to see that, unfortunately. It is a rare chance to be allowed to photograph these shinto ceremonies and I am happy I got to be there during these two days!
Every great shrine in Japan has a regular yearly festival, something called their “reisai”, so naturally one of the greatest shrines in the country, the Yasukuni shrine has two of them! One of which started yesterday, called the Shunkireitaisai, which means the Regular Spring Time Grand Festival, quite literally translated into English. It’s a three day event and yesterday they held the opening ritual in which a holy branch from a holy tree was presented to the inner sanctum and used to sanctify the attendants in the festival, in this case priests and a select few lay people, and even everyone who attended the ceremony, which included me! It’s the first time I have had this ritual performed on my although I have seen it from a distance dozens of times! Lucky me! Yesterday’s ceremony was only attended by about 50 people, a very small crowd, as the regular festival starts the following day, which would be today, the 22nd of April, and ends on the 23rd of April.
Usually, shinto priests and clergy aren’t very open to being photographed, so I have very few photos of priests in uniform since I don’t want to offend anyone, but on this occasion photography was allowed and I snapped away like there was no tomorrow! I hope you aren’t bored by the repetitive photos, all taken with my lovely prime lens, the 135mm at f2.8.
For the New Year countdown I did something unusual and attended a big countdown event in Zojoji, a large temple in the middle of Tokyo, just behind the big Tokyo Tower. The temple staff told us there were supposed to be about 30 000 people there but it was easily the most crowded event I have ever been in, it must have been closer to 100 000 people attending. Several thousand attendants had been given a balloon in which to attach there new year’s wishes and prayers and everyone was supposed to release them at the start of the new year! The balloons were made of biodegradable flour (I think) and contained a few flower seeds each. It will be interesting to see if there’s an increase in wild flowers around Tokyo this summer! Here’s a fun video from last year, taken from very close to where I was standing, even if the picture quality is bad it’s fun to listen to girls going “Sugoi sugoi sugoi!” over and over!
It was really hard to get any decent photos, but these might give you an idea. It was much to crowded for me though, next year I will go back to a more traditional shinto shrine countdown ceremony! Happy New Year, Akemashite omododeto gozaimasu! アケオメ！