Noh is a heavily stylized theater form with religious connotations and representative of high Japanese culture, and Kagura is a heavily stylized dance form with religious connotations and representative of Japanese folk culture. If you want to see something right in between them, you want to see Sada Shin Noh (佐陀神能) at Sada Shrine (佐太神社).

I have written before about the unique architecture of this shrine in a couple of entries before (see here and here), and in the previous entries I have written about the birth of the primary deity, but today our focus is on this piece of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Sada-no-Okami himself (official photo)

This two-day ritual take places on September 24th and 25th every year, and I saw it shortly after I arrived in Matsue. The atmosphere left an impression on me, but I did not have a good view, and like many Shinto rituals, it was initially interesting because of the atmosphere created by the firelight and traditional musical instruments and costumes, but then it started to drag on. However, I only went on the first day, when the holy part of the ritual takes place with the Gozagae dance, which purifies the new tatami mats before placing them inside the shrine in preparation for all the visiting kami during Kamiarizuki (The Month of the Gods, when 8 million deities from around Japan congregate not only at Izumo Taisha, but at a few other shrines throughout the Izumo region as well–meaning, the rest of the country has Kannazuki, the Month Without Gods).

Gozagae ritual (official photo)

The following day is for celebratory dances and performances to entertain the gods (and which, by extension, tend to be more entertaining for the human audiences as well). Unlike the night before, it builds up the drama as the night goes on, and unfortunately, this was not the night I was present.

Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo! Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo!

There are Sada Shin Noh performances occasionally held throughout the year, and I was invited to go along to a spring performance. It was still ritualized, but not the annual, holy ritual around which these folk performance is based. I say folk, but there are historic ties and influences from high-class Noh performances in Kyoto, which people who served at the shrine studies and incorporated. The dances of Sada Shin Noh went on to influence the flamboyant Kagura dance styles throughout Shimane. Nearly every Kagura form around Shimane has their own version of the local legends, especially Susano-o’s battle with the Yamata-no-Orochi.

Thankfully, that was the performance I got to see, called Yaegaki (you often hear this phrase associated with this legend, such as in Yaegaki Shrine). It had a slow start as the chanters set up the story like a conversation between Susano-o and Kushinada-hime, and then built up to the fight between Susano-o and the 8-headed-serpent (presented by one dancer with one head, though other styles of Kagura in Shimane have full coiling and fire-breathing beasts). Susano-o and Kushinada-hime were also in masks, and the subtleness with which they catch the light seems to lend different expressions to unmoving masks, a constant factor among a stream of stylized movements meant to evoke different emotions that a mask alone cannot.

 Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo! Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo!

It was of a different style and approach than seen in this 2003 video, but just when I thought the special performance might be wrapping up, they started the Akugiri dance (see 5:23). This made me sit up and pay extra attention, as it was the most impressive sword-slinging I had ever seen, coupled with valiant shouts from the old man which could easily have scared off any evil spirit. Although the percussion sounds in the video seem primary, the howl of the flutes guided the atmosphere more than anything else, and on that quiet night, I can only imagine how far the sounds carried through the quiet neighborhoods of Kashima-cho in northern Matsue.

It is a very closely held neighborhood traditional, and the people involved tend to be very tightly involved. Watching the performances also became more interesting once I had more of an understanding of how closely they are tied to the locale, especially since I could watch and recognize some of the people. Like, “Oh, that old priest on the big drums gave me a tour around the roof construction of the shrine” and “he has a mask on, but I can tell that the guy playing Susano-o is someone I know from city hall, and we went to a yakiniku party together once” and “now I finally get to hear one of my tea ceremony classmates perform the flute.”

There are a number of other dances among the Sada Shin Noh repertoire, and who knows, perhaps I will have another chance to go enjoy the atmosphere they create and oogle at the skills of the performers.

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