Mon, Apr 6, 2020

Shiobara Heike Shishimai: Lion dance keeps traditions alive in Tochigi Prefecture

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

In Shiobara Heike Shishimai, the three lions are each performed by a single dancer.
By Florentine Ronniger / CIR for Nasushiobara, Tochigi Pref.

Shiobara Onsen lies at the end of a winding mountain road about 50 minutes by car from Nasushiobara Station. It is where the reitaisai (annual festival) of Shiobara Hachimangu shrine is held in September every year.

At the annual festival, mikomai (shrine maiden dance) and shishimai (lion dance) are performed as an offering. The Shiobara Heike Shishimai is an intangible folk cultural property designated by Tochigi Prefecture.

Shishimai exists in all regions of Japan and are passed down from one generation to the next. The Shiobara Heike Shishimai is a hitoridachi sanbiki shishimai of the Kanpaku school. This variation of the dance has three lions, each being performed by a single dancer. Hitoridachi sanbiki shishimai can be found in eastern Japan.

As for the origins of the Shiobara Heike Shishimai, it is said that after the defeat of the Taira clan (Heike) by the Minamoto clan (Genji) in 1185, Taira no Sadayoshi, who was the general of Taira no Kiyomori’s eldest son Taira no Shigemori, and his entourage passed on the shishimai which prayed for the Heike’s salvation and had brought prosperity in the past.

The shishimai is performed by two ojishi (pronounced with a short “o,” male lions), called ojishi (pronounced with a long “o”) and taijishi, one mejishi (female lion), two keigoutagake (singers), two keigofuekake (flute players) and one yumitori (bow bearer).

The ojishi’s mask with its characteristic long horns

The Shiobara Heike Shishimai consists of three pieces called hiraniwa, makiyose and yumikuguri, but only the yumikuguri is performed at the Shiobara Hachimangu annual festival. In yumikuguri, the dancers act out a scene of two male lions competing to slip through the bow. First, the ojishi (with the long “o”) measures the bow’s length and the size of the bow. He attempts to slip through the bow, but fails. Having seen the attempt, the taijishi cheers himself on even more thoroughly, attempts to slip through the bow and succeeds. The dance is said to have been performed to pray for victory in battles. The moment the taijishi successfully slips through the bow is the climax of the dance. The movement is very fast, so the exact moment the lion slips through the bow is difficult to catch.

The shishigashira (lion masks) used in the lion dance are made from lacquered paulownia wood. They are worn on top of the head like a crown and dancing with them on requires a lot of physical strength. The mane is made from bird’s tail feathers. Each shishigashira has its own special characteristics. While the ojishi (with the long “o”) has long horns, the taijishi’s horns are slightly bent inwards and the mejishi has no horns at all. The cloth that hides the performer’s face is black for the two male lions, but the female lion’s is red.

When the Shiobara Hachimangu annual festival is held on a sunny day, the Oemaku, a large canvas painted in 1813, is displayed. The canvas depicts the Ichi-no-tani battle, in which the Minamoto clan fought the Taira clan. Shiobara Hachimangu shrine is also home to the Sakasa Sugi, a pair of sugi (Japanese cedars) joined at the roots. It is a designated natural monument of Japan. The cedars by themselves are already a sight to behold, so watching the Shiobara Heike Shishimai being performed as an offering in front of the Sakasa Sugi is a sublime experience.

The Sakasa Sugi

(Photos courtesy of Nasushiobara city)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Florentine Ronniger

Florentine was born in Vienna. She graduated from the University of Vienna, where she majored in Japanese studies and art history. She currently works as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Pref. Acting as a bridge for exchanges between the sister cities of Nasushiobara and Linz, Austria, she introduces Austrian culture to Japan.



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