Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Geisha Dance as Snow Falls

Maiko (geisha apprentice) dance while snowflakes fall at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto accompanied with Japanese poetry on snow and winter.

March 2, 2012 Posted by | dance, Geiko, geisha, Geisha Dance, japan, japanese culture, maiko, poetry, snow, travel | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gods, Devils, and Geisha – Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara

Gods, Devils, and Geisha
Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara



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A Devil arrives with sword and torch at a Buddhist Temple in Kyoto

Setsubun (Feb 3rd) is a Japanese Spring ritual where Japanese drive bad luck in the form of Oni (devils) out of their homes with a handful of tossed beans. At temples and shrines, they do mame maki which is throwing beans and other things to gathered crowds. 

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Mame Maki (bean-throwing) with Geisha

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Setsubun is one of my favorite Japanese holidays and I’ve been celebrating it for the past 6 years or more. In the past I always celebrated it at temples and shrines in or around Tokyo. This year I headed for Kyoto taking in Nara in the evening as well. I started Setsubun on the 2nd with some Geisha mame maki (geisha were throwing beans that is, not that they were throwing geisha). 

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On February 2nd, while Americans watch groundhogs watching for their shadows, Japanese, or at least those in Kyoto, watch Geisha throw beans to gathered crowds at Yasaka Shrine. The Geisha actually are maiko who are Geisha apprentices. There were two groups of maiko, one from the Pontocho district and the other from the Miyagawacho district. Before doing mame maki they graced us with a brief dance performance – a rare treat.

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In the evening I went to Mibu-dera, a temple famous for its association with the Shinsengumi, a militaristic police group for the old Shogunate in the mid-19th Century, and for kyogen plays. Kyogen is type of comical play which was often performed as intermission pieces of more serious Noh dramas. Unfortunately for the visitor, no photography or video making was allowed. This was either to protect the performance or to keep away the distraction of camera shutters clicking, video cameras beeping, and those idiots who don’t know how to turn off the flash on their pocket cameras.

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Setsubun Devils are distinguishable by their horns and fetching tiger pants

Mibu-dera put on a special Setsubun kyogen for the occasion about a widow who encounters a Setsubun devil. The widow is visited by a devil in the guise of a traveler. He has a magic hammer which he makes an expensive kimono for himself and the widow. They begin drinking sake and the devil drinking too much falls asleep. The widow gets greedy and decides to make off with the hammer and kimono. As she strips away the “traveler’s” kimono she sees his true self and screams. The devil awakes and comes after her. Panicked, the widow reaches for the first thing to defend herself and throws it at the devil. What she threw at him was dried soybeans, the traditional beans of Setsubun. Devils hate beans for some reason and so the widow was able to drive the devil away. It was easy to understand the story despite my limited Japanese because it was all done through pantomime. 

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Setsubun Devils often wield huge iron-studded clubs

On the next day, Setsubun proper, I went to six places starting with Yasaka Shrine for a brief mame maki by people in old court costumes from the Heian Era (794-1192). The men wore a kariginu, the everyday wear of a court noble, which would later become the formal wear of the samurai in later ages. The women wore the costume of a Shirabyoshi dancer. Shirabyoshi were female dancers who wore men’s clothing and performed slow rhythmic dances that influenced later Noh performers. The Shirabyoshi tradition began in 12th Century, the last century of the Heian Period and until 1868 the last century in which governmental power would reside within the Imperial Court.

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Mame Maki participants wearing old court costumes

From Yasaka, I made use of my all day bus pass and leapt onto a northbound bus to Heian Shrine. Heian Shrine was built just over a hundred years ago as a replica of the old Imperial Palace. There I got a snatch of a Kyogen performance which thankfully allowed photography and video. What caught my attention was that one of the performers was female. Traditionally Kyogen like Kabuki and Noh was performed solely by males including the female roles. As this was a festival performance perhaps the rules were relaxed.

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Kyogen performers

From Heian Shrine I went to Shogo-In, a temple which normally lies off of the tourist trail as there is not much to lend itself to fame amongst so many other temples. However, this small temple puts on one of the more interesting Setsubun rituals. The priests dress as Yamabushi, which are a type of ascetic hermit who are known for often living in the mountains following a creed which is a blend of Buddhism and the native Shintoism.

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A brief snow flurry at Shogo-In Temple prior to the Setsubun exorcism

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Yamabushi were mysterious hermits credited with having supernatural power

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Yamabushi playing seashell horn

After a lengthy but catchy chanting ritual, three devils arrived wielding their massive iron-studded clubs. They were quickly subdued by bean-throwing Yamabushi and tamed into submission. Later the devils participated in mami maki by throwing the beans at us instead.

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An elderly Yamabushi confronts a devil with courage and beans

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Setsubun Devil throwing beans rather than having them thrown at him

At another small temple Rozan-ji, a temple far too small to accommodate the number of visitors that Setsubun brings, three devils arrived bearing weapons while another gave blessings to visitors.

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A Setsubun Devil Bestowing Blessings

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The weapon-bearing devils danced around before going into the temple. An archer came out sometime later to do a kind of archery exorcism ritual in which he shot untipped arrows in the four cardinal directions. Soon after the three devils emerged from the temple sans their weapons. They were staggering about reeling from the effects of the Setsubun exorcism rituals. After that mame maki was done and here they threw hard-shelled sweets and small mochi rice cakes.

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Archer performing archery exorcism ritual

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A Devil going down for the count

After that I took a train to Nara and got there in time to see yet another Setsubun exorcism demonstration in the evening. Nara was the first capital of Japan from 710-784. At Kofuku-ji Temple another lengthy exorcism ritual took place while the crowd shifted restlessly waiting for the main event namely the devils. The crowd was silently shouting in their minds “Get on with it! Bring on the Devils!” as the priests droned on. Finally after an eternity of waiting, the devils arrived both big and small. They pranced about the stage under the night sky waving torches and weapons. 

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A l’il devil

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Here the devils were apparently too tough to be defeated by just mere beans. At Kofuku-ji, they brought out the big guns in the form of Bishamonten or Bishamon, a Buddhist deity and Guardian of the North. Bishamon battles all kinds of evils. North is the direction where Japanese traditionally believe evils come from so the Northern Guardian has to be pretty stout to deal with them. Bishamon took on all the devils by himself. It was like spiritual pro-wrestling with (plastic) weapons.

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Bishamon – the Muhammad Ali of Buddhist Devil Fighters

After that I went to Kasuga Taisha Shrine for a cool down. The shrine’s Setsubun was far more low-key. No gods, devils, geisha, mountain priests, or grasping hands for flying beans. They just had lanterns lit up for the night. It was very beautiful and serene. Whew! After all that I was Setsubuned Out!

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine

February 10, 2010 Posted by | buddhism, devils, Geisha Dance, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, maiko, Nara, oni, Only in Japan, Setsubun, travel, video, vlog, weird | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Video Clips of the Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance

Here are some short clips of the Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance 2006. They’re very brief as I shot them with just a digital photo camera and not a video camera.

Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance

This is from the first story of the performance about a handsome fan maker and his fiance Akane. Here, Akane, the fiance of the Fan Maker, dances.

The story also involves Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit, who loves the handsome fan maker. He refuses her love because he loves Akane and so she freezes him.

The Fan Maker is rescued by his fiance and they return to Kyoto as Spring begins.

In the second half of the performance, scenes from the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a court lady of the 10th Century. Maiko (apprentice geisha) dance to represent Spring at Dawn the favorite time for Sei Shonagon:

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.”

Two Geisha dance to represent Autumn Evenings from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book:

In autumn the evenings … when the sun sets, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.”

Geisha dance and throw treats to the audience near the Finale of the show.

April 20, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, dance, entertainment, event, Geiko, geisha, japan, japanese culture, kamogawa odori, Kyoto, life, maiko, travel, video, youtube | , , , | 1 Comment

Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance 2006

The Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance
The spring dances of Kyoto offer a rare glimpse of Geisha performances


A young Maiko (Geisha Apprentice) performing in the Kamogawa Odori

True geisha dance performances are rare events that one can only witness if they are part of the affluent clientele of Kyoto’s elusive Geisha tea houses or if they are fortunate enough to procure a seat at one of the annual public performances given in Spring and Fall.

Spring dances are traditional events held every year to celebrate the ending of winter. Most of the year, the general public only has the chance to occasionally spy geisha as they scurry along the streets of Gion and Pontocho to their assignments. These spring dances represent a chance for the public to see the geisha in all their glory performing ancient traditional dances.


Before the performance guests may observe a tea ceremony

The Kamogawa Odori is a geisha dance performance presented in the late spring in the Pontocho district of Kyoto. Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s few remaining geisha districts, the most famous being Gion. The Pontocho district has been putting on their Kamogawa Odori since 1872.

The Kamogawa Odori is perhaps the most famous of the spring dances. It has certainly attained international attention attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau.

Every year a new performance is put on based on a variety of traditional Japanese stories. The first performance was a love story set in Kyoto sometime in the distant past.


The young ladies fight over the “handsome” fan maker

The story revolves around Kasumimura, a young handsome man (played by a geisha) who makes fans. He is quite popular with the ladies, but his heart is set on only one girl, Akane, to whom he proposes marriage. One of his highborn clients is not satisfied to let him go so easily.

The noble lady lures the handsome Kasumimura to her residence with the promise of work. She wants a special fan made with a portrait of herself drawn upon it. As he follows the noble lady’s carriage to her abode, the weather suddenly becomes colder and snow flakes begin to fall ominously.

The noble lady reveals to Kasumimura that she is the dreaded Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit. Yuki-Onna offers her love, but Kasumimura bravely declines. Yuki-Onna’s love, however, is not easily cast aside. Her loves freezes the hapless fan maker.

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Yuki Onna: the Snow Woman

The deadly but beautiful Yuki-Onna

Yuki-Onna, the snow woman, is winter manifested in a deadly, ghostly form. She is depicted as all white with long black hair wearing a white kimono — beautiful but deadly like winter itself. And like winter, Yuki-Onna was cruel and ruthless in killing unlucky souls caught in her icy realm. She was particularly known for killing mortals by either breathing upon them with her icy breath or simply leading them astray so they would die of exposure.

Yuki-Onna is best remembered from author Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaiden, a collection of various strange and ghostly tales. She attacks two men in a lone hut in the wilderness but spares one because of his youth and good looks.

His fiance, Akane, comes and rescues him. Through the strength of her love, Akane is able to defeat Yuki-Onna and revive Kasumimura. Yuki-Onna, heartbroken, weeps warm tears and melts away as winter slowly comes to an end.


Akane and Yuki-Onna fight over Kasumimura’s love

The fan maker and his brave fiance return and spring comes to Kyoto. Here again is a vibrant echo from that ancient theme of the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Mesopotamia, stories were told about the goddess Ishtar visiting the underworld to free her love and subsequently end winter.


Kasumimura returns as Springs begins

The second half of the performance was a series of dances representing a selection from the 11th century Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. At the beginning of her book, Sei Shonagon, an imperial court lady, wrote about the four seasons and the times of day of each season that she enjoyed the most.

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Sei Shonagon: Observant and Opinionated Court Lady

Curtain representing the seasons

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial Court in the beginning of the 11th Century. She kept a personal diary of sorts in which she wrote down her experiences but mainly her feelings. Such diaries were common at the time and were called pillow books because these books were often kept next to people’s pillows in which they would write their experiences and observations. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon gives an invaluable insight into the world of the Imperial Court of Kyoto a thousand years ago. Sei Shonagon’s observations are witty, wry, poignant, and at times condescending. Sei Shonagon was a contemporary – however, not a friend – of the famed novelist Murasaki Shikibu who wrote The Tale of the Genji.


Young maiko dance in kimonos the color of cherry blossoms

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.


A Geisha dancer representing summer nights

In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as fireflies flit to and fro…


Autumn evenings

In autumn the evenings … when the sun sets, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.


A Geisha plays as a servant working on a winter morning

In winter the early mornings — the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal; how well this fits the season’s mood!

The Kamogawa Odori is held every May. For those who wish to see authentic geisha performances, the Kamogawa Odori shouldn’t be missed.


The Finale

July 23, 2006 Posted by | dance, Geiko, geisha, Gion, japan, kamogawa odori, Kyoto, maiko, Uncategorized | 6 Comments