Yesterday I wrote a quick post about the super-fun festival I attended with some friends in Mitsue (in Nara Prefecture, Japan.) It made me think of the other really cool festival that I have attended, located just one village away in Soni. Nara is full of history (it was the capital before Kyoto, over 1300 years ago) so sometimes the Kanji names of places are pretty mad. Soni is no exception. If you want to find the village on google maps, search for 曽爾村. Pretty cool characters aren’t they!? Soni is gorgeous. I even found it listed on a website of the most beautiful villages in Japan. It is surrounded by mountains and has a pretty grass-covered plateau that turns golden in autumn.
This time, it was my friend Rob who invited a bunch of us down to his village. He had been living in Soni teaching English, and had joined a local circle of villagers who perform shishimai (or lion dancing) at the festival. The Shishimai no matsuri is an autumn festival to celebrate the harvest. It took place on the 12th of October (if you’re thinking of going to see it!) This festival has been taking place for over 290 years! This means it is less commercial than many festivals I have been to, but I loved that about it.
We went to the morning exhibition, showing off the shishimai lions as well as loads of dances. It was held at Kadofusa shrine (in Soni) from 7:30am-12:00pm. Rob was amaaazing. He has been practising for hours and somehow bagged himself an important role, he played symbols, walked behind the lion and at one point held out a sword for the Lion to grab. Just remember, if you are thinking of coming to teach English in Japan, you might end up taming a lion(!)
After Rob’s dance, we got to see several other performances from other circles. There were some people dressed up with the most amazing pom pom hats and masks!
The blokes in grey are carrying offerings of mochi (made from the newly harvested rice.) Rob told us these are represent the heads of princes. I also loved seeing some of the dancers having a rest, still in their masks, but not letting that stop them from taking a quick fag break!
My friend Chetan and I climbed up the slope behind the shrine to take photos of the action from above.
I loved one of the lions that seemed to dance with a bright red mane. The Soni village website says that is a Nagano lion. The oni, (a sort of devil/goblin) is the dancer in red with the huge nose. There is a story that involves both the lion and the oni jumping about, until they make friends at the end of the dance. It is fun to see all the jumping about in the dances. I took loooads of photos before I managed to take a couple with lions in the air!
It was an amazing day and a gorgeous village. If you are in Western Japan in October, please do think of travelling over to see this.
I did find a page about the shishimai dances in English. The translation is pretty terrible, but it has good photos so you can understand the gist of it!