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.


Going east to west, Shimane is a rather long prefecture, and Tsuwano is a few hours away from Matsue by train. It’s so far to the west that it is commonly mistaken as being part of Yamaguchi. Make no mistake, though. This little gem of a town is part of the San’in region, and is completely nicknamed “Little Kyoto of the San’in Region.” It’s compact, but packed full of charm.

One of the first things visitors notice is that many of the buildings are classic in style or otherwise fit Tsuwano’s theme.

One of several wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) shops where you could find signature genshimaki. But, you know, living in Matsue I’m a little spoiled when it comes to wagashi.

This is a back alley, not one of the main tourist streets.

A bank building that ventured not to be boring.

Why the egret? Because one of the things Tsuwano is famous for is Sagi Odori (“Heron Dance”, though I’m told the costume is more like an egret). This is originally a famous Kyoto custom, but the Tsuwano version is deemed national Important Intangible Cultural Property. I have not seen this dance, but I’ve seen traveling Yosakoi dance group with the egret similar in style to the Sagi-odori costumes as their theme.

One of the other things you might notice is the Catholic church on the main tourist street. This is dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, and there is another chapel elsewhere that is a memorial to persecuted Christians.

I had been curious about this chapel for a long time, because I wanted to see the tatami mats inside!

I image sitting through mass in seiza would be quite the penance.

But there is something else along the main tourist road that keeps every looking down.

Carp! Lots and lots of carp.

In Japanese, these fish are called koi. This is synonymous with “romantic love” but it’s also synonymous with “come here.” Hence, the taxis in Tsuwano are called “Koi Koi.” Come here, fishy…

There is cheap fish food available for sale all over that part of town, but if you take great joy in making fish go on feeding frenzies, you should do so as early in the day as you can. For as many fish as there are along this street, they are very well fed, and by later afternoon there are the most disinterested carp I’ve ever seen. It was very strange watching them give the fish equivalent of a shrug to the food floating above their heads before very slowly proceeding to eat it.

However, that may have had something to do with the day I went, as there was a big event going on in April and a lot of people were in town. Also, because it was April, the just-as-iconic irises in the canals with the carp were not quite blooming yet.

The cherry blossoms were barely hanging to the trees, but still filled the air when the wind blew. That day of alternationg clouds and sunshine, I still had more to see besides the quaint townscape. We’ll touch on more in the next entries.

We’re off to a very Kyoto-like place next time…

Happy St. Patricks Day! Seeing as it’s a day for everyone to be a little Irish, there are a handful of spots in Japan that take advantage of the chance for revelry, but Matsue maintains a special soft spot for Ireland given the influence of writer Lafcadio Hearn, who was half-Irish. This was one of the biggest, sunniest Irish Festivals yet, though it sounds the Shamrock was even more lively! The Shamrock is the pub that takes over the vault of Karakoro Art Studio for this Saturday and Sunday–yes, of course there is Guinness, as well as a number of though Irish drinks, foods, and desserts using Irish recipes (and by that I mean many of them make sure of Irish alcohol in the cooking). This time I only took part in the parade and some Ceili dancing after the performances following the parade, so I’ll have to take that on good faith. Here are some snapshots of the Irish spirit in Matsue, several of which were taken by XiaoMan, seeing I was preoccupied with walking and waving and dancing and my humble camera has its limits. Thanks, XiaoMan!

Seeing as Matsue is called the City of Water, the events on Sunday the 9th started with a water parade.

This year the parade kicked off from Matsue Castle, where everyone first gathered to ogle at each other’s green ensembles. For many people, celebrating Ireland means a chance get creative with green costumes, and for many performing groups, that also means having taking advantage of having an audience already gathered. A couple of school marching bands are always present, some Yosakoi dancing groups shot their spirit, and even some kids get to show off their respective skills (though its anyone’s guess who has more fun with it, they or their parents).

After some opening greetings, including from our honored visiting Irish diplomats, the Matsue Castle Rifle Troop let off a salute, which was immediately followed by a couple of doves. There weren’t any in the parade, but we had lots of canine spectators decked out in green, too.

Making our way out of Matsue Castle, we passed by the city’s founder, Horio Yoshiharu, who seemed to give his blessing over the parade. I can’t help but find it funny that the Matsue Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade coming up in early April finishes up the parade at Matsue Castle instead, but since it’s done to recreated the procession into Matsue that makes sense. Sadly, I will be busy with a kimono contest that weekend and can’t attend this time–bummer! Also, I might add that the bagpiper played through the entire parade, which was pretty impressive, though he sure was out of breath by the end! Kudos to him for a good show.

What’s a modern day event in Japan without mascot characters present? By the way, the man in green (because that’s real specific) is Lafcadio Hearn’s great-grandson.

Yes indeed, those musicians are part of a traditional Irish music group. They perform both nights at the pub. Of course the Irish Festival is about more than just being green! That said, though we do wrap up the day with Ceili dancing, we don’t have much of a dedicated Irish step dance group out here.

But we did have hula dancers.

And a group dancing Michael’s Jacksons “Beat It,” including a group of bystanders who jumped in without warning to join them.

The final event (before everyone everyone packs up and heads inside for the pub for another six hours) was, as mentioned, the Ceili dancing, which the hula dancers graciously practiced in advance and lead us in. I think I picked it up a lot faster this year than I did last year!

To wrap this up, here’s one more photo of the rifle troop because they’re cool and they had a performance at the end of the parade as well. They practiced military drills according to how they would have been done in the Edo era, and by law, they only use antiques. I’m not sure how likely Lafcadio Hearn would have been to see this back in the Meiji era, but it’s a common sight around Matsue today, but they don’t usually have shamrock decorations on their attire.

I still have the step dance music stuck in my head. If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go attempt some Ceili dancing all by myself.

Izumo Taisha is famous for hosting 8 million gods from around Japan for their annual meeting during Kamiarizuki, but for every big conference there’s always a lot of spillover into the surrounding hotels. Actually, some records indicate that the gods may have been gathering at Sada Shrine before gathering at Izumo Taisha!

While the gods are absent from the rest of Japan and hanging out here in the Izumo region, they discuss romantically (or platonically) thrilling En-musubi, but when they gather at Sada Shrine in northwest Matsue, it’s for a purification ritual to ward off bad luck. It’s also as though they’re stopping by to visit the final resting of their mother, seeing as Izanami‘s tomb is located nearby on Mt. Hiba.

Speaking of Izanami, she’s one of the 12 kami enshrined here. It’s not uncommon for shrines to be dedicated to more than one kami, but it’s uncommon for them to have three honden (main hall which house the deities, normal people are not allowed in here!). While this shrine was likely originally designed with one honden, the north and south shrines were added later on to accomodate more gods, likely by the end of the Heian era roughly eight centuries ago. While Izanami and Izanagi are in the central shrine with Sada-no-Okami, the bickering siblings Amaterasu and Susano-o are seperated in the north and south honden respectively.

The current shrine architecture has been around since 1807, and have since been deemed Important Cultural Property. Like Izumo Taisha, it’s built in Taisha-tsukuri style architecture. While Izumo Taisha is the typical example, there are variations on the layouts of these kinds of shrines, and many of them (such as Kamosu Shrine, another Izanami shrine) have been quite famous and/or influential throughout history. Like shrines throughout Japan, they may have auxiliary shrines dedicated to other gods throughout the premises, and worshipers are typically not allowed to enter center parts of the shrines without permission, a good reason, paying money, or some combination of the three. Instead, you leave your offerings in the designated spaces, clap your hands, and then don’t get in the deities’ personal space.

Click to view larger version.

Click to view larger version. I’ve indicated where visitors go, and where the holy objects go while the shrine is under reconstruction.

Click to view larger version.

Click to view larger version. Note the four-square layout of inner shrine, a characteristic of Taisha-tsukuri shrine architecture.

As for that personal space, what’s there? It varies according to each shrine, but quite often there is a holy object. As opposed to idols signifing the physical appearance of the kami, one of the oldest items still used today is but a simple, circular mirror. At some shrines, such as Iya Shrine, these are in plain site from where you make your offerings. As for Sada, it happens to be home to Saiehiogi, one of the oldest paintings on a fan screen in existence.

Since the honden is a dwelling place for the gods and Sada welcomes millions of them, the floors must be kept clean. Hence, there is a ceremonious changing on the tatami mats every year. And by ceremonious, I mean song and dance known as Sada Shin-Noh, better introduced by way of a video. This is UNESCO intangible world heritage, a Noh-like performance that has a strong influence on the more sprightly performances of Kagura dance.

Performances are broken up over two nights, the first being more subdued, the second being more energetic. I’ve watched the first, but did not have permission to take photos (and wouldn’t have gotten good ones anyway). Hence, here are some photos of the empty performance hall during the daytime.

Excluding the interior of the honden, I did have permission to enter part of the inner shrine recently to see the reconstruction process on the roof of the southern honden. Pictures are in this entry.

A quick explanation and purification rite before we begin…

…and up we go.

This is a very old story known throughout Japan with slightly differing versions (oni instead of tengu, for instance), but it has a rare twist in the San’in region: while most stories end with a punishment for bad dancing, this one ends with a reward.

A statue in Tengu-no-Mori (Forest of Tengu) in Matsue's Kanbe-no-Sato, where I heard this story.

A statue in southern Matsue’s Izumo Kanbeno Sato, where I heard this story.

A long, long time ago, there lived an old man who had a large lump on his right cheek, which he was rather self-conscious about. He usually kept to himself, avoiding peoples’ stares.

One day, while out chopping wood in the forest, he came across a trio of tengu, that is, crow-like goblins that fly, control the weather with their special fans, and have egos almost as big as their noses are long. One, two, three tengu, dancing to some bewitching beat. The old man found it so enticing that he could not help but dash out and join in their ranks, losing himself as he swayed and shook to the music. One, two, three tengu, and four, an old man with a lump.

The tengu were very impressed by the old man’s abilities. When the dance ended, they praised him, and he could only accept their praise with the utmost humility. “We’ll give you a reward for showing us such a show,” said the leader of the tengu trio. “That lump looks like it must get in the way of your dancing. I’ll take it off for you.” So saying, he wriggled it off the old man’s face with ease.

Elated both by the experience and by having the lump removed, the old man returned to his village, and the people were all very surprised to see that he no longer had a lump. Another old man, who had a large lump on his left cheek, was especially interested. The first old man told him where he encountered the tengu trio, how he joined in the dance, and how they had decided to reward him for a good performance. “Perhaps if I do the same, they’ll remove my lump, too!” replied the second old man.

The next day, he set out to do just that. As the first old man had told him, he found the tengu trio the forest. One, two, three tengu, dancing to an entrancing beat. He dashed out to join them, dancing with as much bravado as his old muscles could muster, thrashing and hopping as wildly as his bones would allow. His performance was even wilder than the first old man’s performance had been, and the tengu were even more impressed. “That was amazing! You’re such a talented dancer,” they said.

“Oh no, not at all.”

“We should give you a reward for such a matchless performance.”

“Well, if you insist, I would love for–”

“I have this lump here. You can wear it as a symbol of pride!” So saying, the tengu–ever capricious in nature–slapped it upon the old man’s right cheek, resulting in both sides of his face being laden with hideous, leathery lumps. The trio of tengu flew away, leaving him with the curious proof of approval from such whimsy creatures.

I’ve been seeing these manjuu (sweet dumplings) everywhere since arriving in the San’in region.

Turns out they’re a souvenir based on the Dojou Sukui, a 300-year-old comical dance about digging for loaches, but the silly fisher is distracted by things like mud splashing in his face or getting bitten by a leech or his loaches getting away. It’s a well known folk dance all over Japan, but it’s strongly associated with the city of Yasugi. The dance is usually performed with the cries of a-ra-essassa! from “Yasugi-bushi” (“The Song of Yasugi”) as an accompaniment.

Yasugi in relation to Matsue

There is a performance hall in Yasugi where you can watch this dance (and get lessons, I think), but when getting there is a little difficult, there’s always Youtube:

This is just one example. While the basic elements of the jolly dance remain the same, the expressions vary depending on the performer. One very famous performer is Yasuo Araki-san, a very spirited 86-year-old man who has performed this dance all around the world. He speaks at least Japanese, English and Russian, and you can read his English blog intro here. He also shakes hands at any opportunity! I lost count of how many times we shook hands in the two times we’ve met, and when the car I was in was driving away and he couldn’t reach my hand through the window like the passengers in back, he flashed me a peace sign.

I had the pleasure of learning this dance from Araki-san, as well as a short zeni-daiko (coin drum) dance–this is a local instrument that’s bit like a decorated paper towel roll with tassles and filled with coins. Learning the basics of the Dojou Sukui dance didn’t take long, but it requires a little silliness.

We're going on a loach hunt, we're going on a loach hunt!

We’re going on a loach hunt, we’re going on a loach hunt!

Dump the mud out of your basket to find those tasty loaches!

Dump the mud out of your basket to find those tasty loaches!

That silly loach, trying to get away!

That silly loach, trying to get away!

I'm bringing home so many loaches! Won't my mommy be so proud of me! ...Hmm. "Loach" doesn't fit in this American rhyme very well.

I’m bringing home so many loaches! Won’t my mommy be so proud of me! …Hmm. “Loach” doesn’t fit in this American rhyme very well.

Araki-san said my footwork was really good. I wonder what that says about my loach-catching abilities? He enthusiastically encouraged me to go over at any time for more lessons, and I received his official letter of recommendation, as well as a couple pieces of supplies for performing this dance when I leave Japan someday. If I could put together the outfit, it might be fun. We didn’t use them this time, but the dance is performed with a 5-yen coin tied under your nose! …I have no idea why. It seems I still have much to learn from Araki-san.