Japan is so rich in culture and traditions that many of them remain unknown to the rest of the world. One day, our staff was invited to see a practice performance of a Japanese folk-dance group, who performed dances I have never seen before. It was a real treat. Arriving early before the practice, we had the chance to talk to a couple of dancers and ask them questions about dances we were about to see.
The first dance we saw was the Sanbasou (三番叟), which involved three dancers with fans. It first appeared in Noh, but eventually made its way into Kabuki. The common masses enjoyed the humanity and comical side, which made it popular. Soon enough people were using the dance for auspicious occasions like New Year’s. The movements depict the planting of the five grains, which are wheat, rice, millet, Japanese millet, and beans. It was a form of prayer for a rich flourishing harvest.
Next up was the Shakkyo (石橋), or more popularly known as the Lion Dance. The long red and white wigs represent the mane of the lions. With each resounding step, the dancers fling their hair in a mesmerizing manner. At one point, they began to dance with a branch of peonies, which are the king of flowers. Watching them perform made me wonder how are they able to move those long wigs in such an elegant way.
After a short intermission, we walked back into the performance room and saw a group of seven dancers preparing for the Awa Odori (阿波踊り). The three men had what looked like lanterns and the women had these unique hats while dancing on the front teeth of the geta slipper. Instead of a recording, the music was played live by the staff and the beating the instruments transformed the room into a festival. Their dance reflects the movements of kites. The women move in an elegant manner and the men dance energetically and comically.
The next dance was one that I was looking forward to seeing. It is called Onikenbai (鬼剣舞) and is a dance to ward off the bad demons from attacking the people. The good demons stomp loudly with both feet and swing their swords as if attacking the evil spirits. The dancers wore different colored demon masks and the lighting used made it looking like they were dancing around a fire. It was a great dance to watch live and feel the energy.
Tawaratsumi Uta is a dance that comes from the southeastern part of Tsugaru, which is rich with agricultural land. It is said that if they had a celebration before the harvest then it would be as bountiful as their festival. The lyrics in the song represent their wish for a good harvest. The fans they were dancing with represented the straw bales of rice. Their movements were meant to look like the motion of piling the bales one after the other.
As the performers were changing into the next costumes, the representative told us that this umbrella dance comes from the Tottori area of Japan. This dance was their prayer for rain fall, but it was later used to train the youth. The three dancers rotated the colorful umbrellas at a mesmerizing pace. They would use the tips of their fingers to spin the umbrellas and it was interesting to see how they transitioned from different positions.
While preparations were being made we anxiously waited to see the Iwai Daiko (祝い太鼓). It was a form of celebratory drumming that is accompanied by the sound of a flute and the beating of the drums mimicking the movements of ocean waves. At times, the drums were hit slowly and softly and later increased to match bigger waves. The locals would play this way as a prayer for a safe return and big catch for fishermen. Their movements were in synched and their performance left a lasting impression.
The last dance of the practice was the Tate Rangiku (殺陣乱菊). It is a sword dance that depicts the beauty of swordplay. The performance starts off with two samurai facing each, which ends with the defeat of one samurai. Next was a scene involving one samurai against two pole uses. At first there is slow movements and then suddenly everything comes rushing in. By the time the pause happens you are left dwelling on the moments that had past you. After a flurry of exchanges everything returns to a calm setting.
Our staff was lucky to have the chance to see all these dances live. If anybody has the opportunity to see this show as we did then it will be a special experience. The mastery and experience of the dancers really show as you become entranced by their movements. The representative had informed us that the tour company All Japan Tours will have exclusive performances available to their clients. For any inquiries, you can find their information on their website at www.alljapantours.com.