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!
Last weekend I visited the awaodori festival held every year in Hatsudai, not very far from the heart of Tokyo, near both Shinjuku and Shibuya. The Hatsudai festival is always a little melancholic for us awaodori lovers in Tokyo as it is the last of the bigger awaodori festivals in the city (the last big awaodori festival of the region is in Kawasaki next weekend). The festival in Hatsudai is still small and cozy enough to have small town feel to it and the participating teams are relatively small. One of the teams taking part this year was the Ootoriren, a very small team with a lot of energy! I saw several members from the Sancharen taking part as well so I think they had a lot of backup this time!
This year’s festival was the 44th, and you can tell Hatsudai has a long tradition with this form of dance, as they have no less than six local teams of their own! I am already looking forward to the 45th festival next year!
At the Koenji Awodori festivals there are so many teams, called “ren” taking part that you will never be able to see them all, so either you find a spot where you can see as many of your favorite teams as possible (the teams starting positions are released well ahead of the festival start) or you run from position to position to see only your favorite teams. The latter strategy is not recommended, because not only will you always be several rows of people removed from the front but you’ll also risk missing teams that are ahead or behind schedule.
One of my all time favorite teams is the Tensuiren, who happens to have one of the best drum sections of any team I have ever seen. Their drummers are absolutely amazing, and this year I was lucky enough to have all members of the drum section stop right in front of me and perform one of their drum battles! I can tell you I was not the only member of the audience with goose bumps after that! The tensuiren sometimes have several members from Saipan, an island under American jurisdiction in Micronesia in the Pacific Island. I have seen these young men and women over the years and every time I see them they have gotten better. This time they were so good as to be indistinguishable from the native Japanese members of one of the best teams in Tokyo! That is a feat not to take lightly. I really hope I can seem them soon again.
And if you want to see more of Tensuiren, here is a blogpost from 2010. You’ll recognize some of the kids from this year’s performance!
Yesterday I forewent my usual visit to the second day of the Koenji Awaodori or the Otsuka Awaodori and instead went up to Minamikoshigaya in Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo. I don’t get many chances or reasons to visit the city so on top seeing one of the more famous Awaodori festivals I also get to throw in some sightseeing! There are four major parade grounds on this huge festival attracting about 70 different teams from all over Japan. The grounds are all four lane streets so there’s plenty of space for the dancers and the city throws in sheeting for anyone to sit on along the parade grounds, making this the ideal Awaodori festival for families with kids. There’s also two different stages, one informal stage where you can get right up next to the dancers and one bigger proper stage where I took these photos of the Kimuraren (きむら連). Good lighting, good sound, and a great chance for all the teams to show what they have really been practicing all those winter months!
This festival is a three day event and well worth putting into your calendar for next year, especially if you live in Saitama!