One of my favorite memories so far as a CIR in Matsue was the Yakumo International Theatre Festival last November in a mountainous southern district of Matsue. It is held every three years, and over the course of four or five days, professional theater troupes from around the world gather in the village area, experience home stays, and practically backflip over language barriers as they mingle with the local audiences of all ages.

As I am already a big fan of many performaning arts, I was very, very excited to hear about this event. Of course there are regularly traveling professional performances hosted at Matsue’s regal concert hall and culture center, Plover Hall, and at the medium and large size theaters inside the Shimane Civic Center. What I really miss from my university days, however, was getting in free to a wide variety of performances of plays I had never heard of staged in intimate and small settings where the stage takes up the whole world around you. Famous performances in grand halls get you exposed to high culture that often requires some mental effort to fully engage in, but in an intimate setting with a story you’ve never had any exposure to, it engages you directly through the heart.

Therefore, I was excited to not only find out about the festival, but that one of the venues is Japan’s smallest public theater, nestled right into the mountain forest. Shiinomi Theater is a wooden building with seating for 108, designed with class and intimacy in mind. It is managed by a community theater group called Ashibue. Besides the local actors and volunteers of very professional caliber, they also collaborate with professionals from around Japan. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of their practice performances last year to provide some input on how they were tailoring it for a multinational audience, which was a major treat. The director, Tsukushi Sonoyama, left a very deep impression on me. She had an intimidating presence and gave sharp directions, as she had a clear vision and was determined to see it through. I thought she was so cool!

Therefore, even more and more to my excitement, I was overjoyed when I was asked to help with the opening ceremony for the festival. I’ve done the interpreting or English emceeing for a handful of ceremonies, and they’re always fun to some extent while following a typical formula. This, however, was–by design–no run-of-the-mill Japanese ceremony. Director Sonoyama directed it like a theater production, and I was really, really happy to receive her directions on what words to stress, where to pause, where to lead people into applause or prevent them from applause quite yet. It was no simple run-through as usual; I got to receive serious direction from a person whose directing admired. Even though I was speaking into a microphone off stage the entire time and reading from a script, I got to be a theatrical version of myself again instead of a ghost-like interpretor trying not to attract too much attention away from the speaker, or a formal English emcee guiding an audience through a process. I got to be part of an artistic vision.

The days (and long nights) leading up to the opening ceremony gave me a peak into the world of the passionate and serious volunteers who are committed to setting a consistent tone for the festival and seeing it through smoothly. I admired them all, and it built my excitement up even more. I still felt a little apprehensive, though—without a car, how hard would it be to get around all the little mountain venues? Would rural audiences be receptive to so many international theater approaches?

The opening ceremony itself went very well. I did the English emceeing with a Japanese co-host throughout most it, but in the second half he had to leave to be on stage for Ashibue’s opening performance so I did both the English and the Japanese. We only introduced ourselves at the very end of the first half before the intermission, and until that point, a handful of the people who know me at Matsue City Hall (such as the mayor and my department head) thought, “Hm, this voice sounds really familiar… what!? That was Buri-chan!?”

Although there were many, many performances I really wanted to go to, I had some other schedule conflicts that long weekend and could only afford to spend one full day there. I watched three productions: A puppet show with Japanese narration by the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company from Argentina, a multilingual and interactive dance production by CORPUS from Canada, and a play by Magnet Theatre from South Africa that did not really require knowledge of English or French to enjoy, though they blended use of both.

As for my concerns, I found access was not a problem at all, even when it rained. There were free shuttles going back and forth from Matsue Station all day, so even without a car I had no difficulty in getting to the Yakumo village area. Likewise, there were shuttles cycling all the venues sites, including the large Alba Hall and little Shiinomi Theaters, as well as the crafts fair and restuarant area, where the menu each day was inspired by the cuisine of some of the countries that the theater groups came from (prepared by a local chef who is known for doing this at monthly parties full of authentic and vegetarian food). Everywhere you went on that cold autumn day, there was a sense of warmth from the theater festival’s decorations and designs, especially its apple theme with the tag line, “Theatre is food for the heart.”

As for the audience receptions? I of course loved all the productions I watched, but I also loved seeing how it affected the other audience members. After the puppet show I saw people passionately express how moved they were by the performance, including an old man with tears in his eyes. The outdoor dance performance had everyone from kids to old people practically in stiches with laughter, and the dad they pulled out of the audience to play “Fifi” got really into it and looked like he was having a lot of fun, even if he perhaps could not believe what he was doing in front of so many people. The performance by Magnet Theatre was both comedic and movingly dramatic even if you couldn’t understand all the words, and I’m getting chills now thinking back to sitting back in Shiinomi Theater and watching it. Although the scene when they lit stage objects on fire has a lot of impact, I’m thinking more of the scene later on when the daughter realizes the truth that her mother had tried to protect her from the whole time. Ah, I want to cry!

So why do I bring this all up now, even when I don’t even have any good pictures to share?

Because although the next Yakumo International Theatre festival is going to be 2017, this September they are hosting the Little Forest Theater Festival!

There will be a variety of puppet shows, including a repeat visit from the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company, and also Ashibue’s “Gorsch the Cellist.” Unfortunately I will be out of town during the festival this year, but fortunately I will be in town for a couple later stagings of “Gorsch the Cellist.” I’m looking forward to seeing a production at Shiinomi Theater in the crisp autumn air again!

A few weeks ago, I was invited out to woods of Yakumo-cho, a mountainous district in southern Matsue, to watch a dress rehearsal of a short play performed by Ashibue called “Nijuniya Machi“, taking place in Shiinomi Theatre, an intimate little performance space surrounded by trees. It is a story that takes place in the late Heian era in a rural village where they observe the classically recorded phases of the moon, but their activities at the temple are interupted by a ruff outlaw, and whether the hero is a good man or just an idiot is up for humorous interpretation. As much as I love theater, even the most amateur of productions, there are big differences between people taking part for fun, and people taking part for art.

One look at the stage and the level of detail in the costumes, and I could tell there were very capable people involved. Once the actors hopped on stage and started speaking, I could tell they were far more than simply amateur. After watching the production and making comments, I learned that many of the people involved were not locals, and had come out to San’in region specifically to work on this piece which will be showing at the 5th Yakumo International Theatre Festival.

The festival takes place every three years, and this year there are productions performed by theater groups from Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Canada, Argentina, and South Africa. The languages differ, but the groups involved know that there will be linguistic varience among their audience, and have tailored performances to reach beyond words. There will be productions for adults and children to enjoy together in Japanese or various native languages, multi-lingual performances, or performances with no words at all. It seems a lot of people are really looking forward to the wordless performance of “Sheep”, in which the actors–all dressed as sheep–will be performing outdoors should the weather permit.

I was invited to watch and comment on Ashibue’s performance to critique their use of English (see a couple photos on the Asashi Shimbun article here). A few weeks beforehand, the actors had suddenly been told that they were adding English lines to the script to make it more understandable to an international audience. Shocked though they were, they all learned them quite well, and many of the suggestions I made were only because I was listening very critically. The English lines blended well among the Japanese lines, saying what is necessary while matching the flow and mood of the scene, similar to a completely bilingual rakugo performance I was very impressed by when I first moved here. The actors, both from elsewhere and locals–very practiced at their craft–as well as the professionals brought in to oversee the production were all very easy to work with, as they all striving for perfection in what was already a very enjoyable play. Please take a look at Ashibue’s website to get a feel for the style and Shiinomi theater’s charms.

And lucky me… I’ll get to watch the final product at the opening night! It will take place on the larger stage so not everyone will be able to see the costume details quite as well, so even luckier for me, and I already got to see that version.

(But unlucky for you, my photos in no way do it any justice:)


The really hard part right now is choosing which performances I’m going to watch, because there are so many to choose from. I was originally thinking I’d just go for one day, but now I really think I need to be there all four days of performances! After all, there will be food from the represented countries to try as well!

This year’s event is offically October 30 to November 3 (a holiday) with performances open to the public starting on October 31. The next festival will be in 2017, so international theater groups that would like to participate should start looking into it now.

I better get tickets fast if I don’t want to miss anything!

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.

Though no one is quite sure when she died, the final resting place of Izumo-no-Okuni is a very easy side trip from Izumo Taisha. In fact, Izumo no Okuni’s Road leads straight from the exit of the shrine down to Inasa-no-hama Beach where all the gods of Japan enter from on their way to the shrine for their meeting every year.

On a typical visit to Izumo Taisha, you’d end up exiting from this street:

This is a good place to get souvenirs and sample local specialties. Don’t skip by too fast!

At the intersection, you’ll turn right, and head down this street:

On your left, you’ll come across the entrance to the cemetary. After that, you’re on your way to pay your respects to the founder of kabuki theater.

After one final look back up the street, you can continue down the road just a little more to get to the beach.

If you’re familiar with theater styles of the world, perhaps you are familiar with kabuki. If you’re familiar with kabuki, perhaps you’re already familiar with its founder, Izumo-no-Okuni (1571~??). Not only is she the mother of Japan’s first form of pop-culture drama, but she lead a fairly dramatic life herself.

A brief survey of popular culture in Japan reveals that although folk culture did exist and change throughout the ages, it was the high culture of the elites that defined the tastes of the ages. In the Warring States period when samurai had to mentally and spiritually prepare themselves for death at any moment, the ritualistic Noh plays were the height of theater. No one could really expect the common riffraff to appreciate such a refined art, though. Not that commoners’ opinions were worth much to begin with.

In that day and age, it was common for shrines and temples around the country to send priests, nuns, monks, and shrine maidens to the capital to solicit donations. With religious dance being the heart of performance culture at the time, a beautiful shrine maiden–the daughter of a local blacksmith–was chosen to leave her duties at Izumo Taisha to solicit donations in Kyoto.

It was supposed to be a brief trip, but for whatever reason, she decided to ignore the call to return home. Rebellious and pleased with the large crowds her dances drew, perhaps? Or maybe by that time she had already met her lover and emotional, creative, and financial partner, Ujisato Sanzaburo? (Please read Lafcadio Hearn’s account of her story if you want a more romantic retelling.)

Whatever the case, she shirked her shrine duties (though continued to send money, it seems) and remained in Kyoto, performing in the dry riverbeds and recruiting women–often social outcasts–to perform with her. Graceful though her religious dances were known to be, she introduced very flamboyant, exaggerated, and provocative dances to the populous, and she grew famous throughout the country. She was especially well known for her performance in male roles.

Her humorous and dramatic performances were both loved and loathed by common people and those of high status alike. Part of what makes Kabuki interesting as a form of theater is that it started as a low-class form of entertainment for the masses, and during the Edo period it was the common peoples’ tastes than had the most influence on the artistic movements of the era. This was the start of Japanese consumer culture! What’s more, it was frowned upon for the dignified warrior class to engage in these popular forms of entertainment, but they frequently became regular patrons of kabuki anyway.

She was so famous and her troupe had such an influence on the tastes of the masses that soon brothels wouldn’t hire just any pretty women–they had to be talented in outlandish singing, dancing, and acting, too! Following Izumo-no-Okuni’s retirement and disappearance from the public eye, the newly established Tokugawa government would no longer tolerate this crazed form of mass entertainment corroding public morals. Women putting themselves on such gaudy display was too scandalous! Thus, women were banned from the stage. Kabuki theater was already so well-established by that point that it didn’t disappear, it merely replaced the womens’ roles with young boys (similar to what Shakespeare was working with). That was also problematic in a moral sense, so eventually the stage was limited to grown men as actors specializing in specific characters types. Contrary–or quite similar to–Okuni’s popularity in her male roles, the onnagata (female role) performers are often among the most famous and most popular actors. (Remember good old Metora-san?)

Today, kabuki is considered a high form of art that is thought to require some amount of sophistication to appreciate (400 years ago, who would have expected that?), and quite some sum of money to view live. I still have yet to see more than video clips of it, but exposure to kabuki (and its founding story) a number of years ago was, in a sense, the first I had ever heard of the Izumo region. How much longer Izumo-no-Okuni lived after retiring is a mystery, but it seems she returned home to her old neighborhood. It may surprise people just how easy it is to pay their respects to her on a typical visit to the shrine, which I’ll explain in my next entry.

Kagura is a big thing out here in the San’in region. Iwami Kagura, from western Shimane, is especially well known for its costumes. Each one costs thousands of dollars (and tens of thousands of yen!), but I got a chance to see a bunch of them up close and personal.

Photos on a computer screen don’t do justice to the textures!

The eyes roll as the dancer moves!

Note the mirrors.

(This kind of mask sort of served as the inspiration for the oni-like inhabitants of Yomi I drew–though my version looks a bit more like a Muppet.)

Can you tell which one is me, and which one is Tanya, my Russian CIR friend?

These are some of the heaviest costumes I’ve ever worn, but the performers manage to dance surprisingly fast in them.

Can you spot the CIRs?

I’ll start posting the Kojiki manga about this beast early this month. Be on the look out for it!

For those of you living in or around Matsue, there will be a chance to see an Iwami Kaguri group from Hamada City performing at the Shimane Civic Center on February 16th!