“We don’t perform as deities – rather, we become deities,” says Mr. Tsuchimochi, the manager. “Once a year, we invite the deities and enjoy one night together. When they dance, people are possessed by the deities.”
The Takachiho district of Kyushu is said to be the place where Niniginomikoto, the deity of heaven found in Japanese legend, descended to govern the world. A magnificent Kagura festival is held from November through to February in Takachiho, where deities of the district are invited to a building called “Kagurayado”. Thirty-three dances (which are held overnight, from the evening to the next morning) are dedicated as gifts to the deities.
Yokagura in Takachiho starts with the preparation of a landmark called “Yorishiro” in order to summon the deities. Three tall bamboo stems are set up and decorated outside the house. This divine ornament is called a “Yama”. The deities will descend there and be invited into the Kagura building. The sacred stage where the Kagura dance is performed is called the “Kouniwa”.
After dark, Kouniwa, the Kagura stage prepared in Mr. Sakai’s house, which has been selected as the Kagurayado, is filled with the fervor of the audience. Soon the Shikisanban dance is started in order to invite the deities and to cleanse the place, which is also regarded as important in the other traditional Japanese dances, such as Noh. A deity now appears. It has a bright red face, big nose and long blonde hair, and has started to dance energetically. The strong rhythm of drums and flutes makes the audience more and more excited.
The deities of Japanese legend appear one after another. Unique masks represent the individual characteristics of the deities: Izanagi and Izanami, the male deity and female deity who created the country, Takemikatsuchi, Futsunushi, the deity of battle, Oyamatsumi, the deity of the mountain, and Owatatusmi, the deity of sea, are all dancing throughout the night.
In the morning, the place is full to capacity ahead of the appearance of Amenouzume, one of the most popular female deities. According to Japanese legend, the female deity of sun, Amaterasuomikami was tired and hid in a cave called Amanoiwato. Her hiding in the cave caused the whole world to be plunged into darkness. The deities were bewildered and asked the female deity Amenouzume to perform a funny dance in front of the cave in order to entice her out. Amaterasu was interested in what was happening outside and peered out from the cave. Tajikarao, the deity of power, then moved the door to let Amaterasu out, thus bringing light back to the world. This is the famous Japanese story of the sun’s return. The dance by the female deity Amenouzume is said to be the first performing art in Japan. When the dances are finishing, the outside world is well on into the morning. Next is the climax of the stage performance: plays to let the deities start their return to heaven.
Playing with the male deities and female deities on this midwinter night was truly a wonderful experience. It was as if the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the human, were all mingling and together creating new energy of life. Even after the show, the rhythm of the drums and the sound of the flutes in Kagura continued to reverberate in my mind.
*Yokagura in Takachiho: Performed every year from November to February, in about 20 stages.
*Reservation is necessary to join Yokagura. (English and Japanese)
Admission is free for participants, but as a rule you will need to bring two bottles (approx. 3.6 liters, costing about 3,000 yen) of sake (shochu) as a gift to the deities. (Sake can be purchased at the liquor shop in Takachiho town.)
Takachiho-Town Tourist Association
Takachiho Town Office, Commerce, Industry and Tourism Section
*Events catering to tourists who want to see Takachiho Kagura are performed frequently.
Sightseeing in Takachiho
Beautiful scenery and mysterious tourist spots can be found in Takachiho district, the town of Japanese myths.
This beautiful canyon has oddly-shaped rock outcroppings formed by molten lava and cliffs. The beautiful Manai waterfall conveys the vigor of the great outdoors, and the environment has been protected since ancient times. The best way of enjoying the waterfall is on a tour with rental boats.
Amanoiwato Shrine and Amanoyasugawara
Amanoiwato is enshrined as the cave where Amaterasuomikami entered in Yokagura. Nearby is the mysterious location of Amanoyasugawara, the site of the “Amanoiwato” legend.
Takachiho Shrine is the center of many shrines in Takachiho district. A huge cedar tree called Meotosugi can be found here. It is said that you will be happy if you circle the tree three times while holding the hand of a person you love.
From Kunimigaoka hill, you can enjoy a view of Takachiho district, the land of myths and deities. The sea of clouds visible on early autumn mornings is a particular highlight.
Famous Kagura in Japan
Hayachine-kagura: Ohasama-cho, Hienuki-gun, Iwate Prefecture
The sacred Mt. Hayachine is situated in the Hanamaki district of northern Japan. Hayachine-kagura began here with mountain worship and was designated as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Here, you can enjoy the spectacular Japanese culture of myths and old proverbs.
Hanamatsuri of Okumikawa: Toei-cho, Kitashitara-gun, Aichi Prefecture
This festival takes place every year from November to March across 12 places in each area. In this mystic festival, the spirits that have gone underground in midwinter are “reborn”. The main feature is the “Oni no mai” (dance of Japanese ogres), where the audience and ogres enjoy a dance together.
Shimotsuki Matsuri in Tohyamago, Shinshu: Minamishinano and Kamimura, Iida City, Nagano Prefecture
This festival takes place in December across 12 places in each area. This fantastic ancient festival, which is held in the foot of the Southern Japanese Alps, inspired the concept of Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Spirited Away”. In the festival, people purify themselves with the boiled sacred water of deities and pray for happiness and a good harvest.
Snow festival of Niino: Anan-cho, Shimoina-gun, Nagano Prefecture
This festival takes place annually at Izu shrine on January 14th, and it is the origin of Japanese performing arts. In this festival, the embodiments of the deity called “Saihou” appear in succession. The festival continues through until the morning, its sleepy, cold and smoky environment illuminated by torches.
Ise-daikagura: Masuda shrine, Tayu, Kuwana City, Mie Prefecture
In the 18th century, during the Edo era, pilgrimage to sacred places called Isemoude was popular. In order to congregate the pilgrims, Japanese lion dances called “Shishimai” were performed at the Grand Shrines of Ise and Atsuta. Today, these events are called “Ise-daikagura” and are performed every year in the designated places.
Bicchu kagura: Bisei-cho, Oda-gun, Okayama Prefecture
At Bicchu kagura, you can enjoy a Japanese cultural spectacle based on the myths and folktales of Izumo, taking in the elegant deities’ dance of Shinjimai through to the dynamic dance of Engekimai,.
Omoto kagura: Sakurae-cho, Ochi-gun, Shimane Prefecture
Izumo district is also famous for myths, just like the Takachiho district in Kyushu. Iwami kagura has been performed since ancient times. Omoto kagura is the origin of Iwami kagura. The plays of Yamatano orochi, the ogre of Izumo myth, are a must-see.