Kagura on the Oki Islands

Japan Culture: Oki Kagura, Nishinoshima, Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture, 隠岐の神楽,西ノ島

Jake Davies

Of all the performing arts in Japan, probably the least well known is Kagura, commonly referred to as Shinto Dance, which is kind of strange as in many ways it is much more accessible than say Kabuki or Noh.

Kagura is more accessible simply by the fact that there is so much of it and kagura usually costs nothing to see. Kagura is also more approachable in the sense that the dances can usually be easily understood without the need for study, interpretation, or guides.

Probably the main reason why kagura is not so well known, although in recent years that has started to change, is that the major tourist areas of Japan - Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka - have very little, if any, kagura performed anymore. To find it you need to venture to the more provincial areas, like Shimane Prefecture for instance.

Miko Mai performed by 4 girls at a local shrine festival, Shimane.
Mikomai performed by four young girls at a local shrine festival, Shimane
 
Sarutahiko leads the procession at a local shrine festival.
Sarutahiko leads the procession at a local shrine festival

Shimane Kagura

Located on the Sea of Japan coast of western Japan, Shimane is the second-least populated prefecture in Japan and often attains the dubious title in surveys of the prefecture that Japanese people have the least desire to visit.

The area of western Shimane called Iwami must be considered the center of kagura in modern Japan. There are literally hundreds of kagura groups there who have developed a modern form of kagura based on roots in yamabushi kagura and Izumo kagura that is fast, exciting, and entertaining.

Here kagura has spread from its traditional performance place of shrines and is now performed year round at festivals, competitions, and even weddings. Iwami Kagura groups have performed in the USA, Australia, & Europe, as well as all over Japan, including a now annual performance at the famous Gion Festival in Kyoto.

A relief carving at Inasa Beach, Izumo, depicting the Kuniyuzuri myth.
A relief carving at Inasa Beach, Izumo, depicting the Kuniyuzuri myth

Izumo Kagura

The costumes, and particularly the masks, are probably the most colorful and expressive of all types of kagura. Eastern Shimane, the old province of Izumo, is home to what is believed to be the form of kagura that historically is the root of much of the kagura performed throughout western Japan and northern Japan.

Believed to have originated at Sada Shrine to the north of Matsue, Izumo kagura is still performed all over the region at shrine festivals including at Izumo Taisha, one of the most important shrines in all of Japan.

Incidentally, Izumo no Okuni, the legendary creator of Kabuki, was believed to be a shrine maiden and dancer from Izumo Taisha. The last of the three former provinces that make up what is now Shimane is Okinoshima, a group of small islands in the Sea of Japan. Being somewhat remote and isolated, it is believed that the forms of kagura still danced here on Oki are very traditional, though for the same reason have also developed styles that are unique in themselves.

There are basically two different styles performed on the Oki Islands, one based on the main island of Dogo, and the other based on the group of islands collectively known as Dozen. The three videos below are all from a performance of Dozen Kagura on Nishinoshima Island.

Kagura Videos On Nishinoshima

Mikomai

Mikomai, dance of the shrine maiden, is probably the most common form of kagura performed throughout Japan at many, many shrines, though it is rarely referred to as kagura. It is almost certainly based on ancient rituals and ceremonies dating back to a time when female shamans predominated, before the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century.

Though now a refined and elegant dance, the mythical origin of mikomai goes back the the most famous myth of ancient Japan wherein the Sun Goddess Amaterasu hides herself away in a cave and plunges the world into darkness.

The goddess Uzume performs a somewhat rambunctious dance that finally tempts Amaterasu out. Some historians see Uzume's dance as the source not only of performing arts in Japan but also much of the rituals of Shinto. I have seen many performances of mikomai at shrines around Japan, sometimes with a single miko, sometimes two, or even four miko, but I have never seen mikomai performed as part of longer sequence of kagura dances as it is here on the Oki Islands.

Saki Harai No

The young man dancing in this video, performing the Saki Harai No, represents Sarutahiko, an ancient god from the myths of Japan. According to the myths, when the Sun Goddess's grandson Ninigi and his entourage were descending from the High Plain of Heaven to begin their rule over Japan, they met Sarutahiko and he guided them down.

Sarutahiko eventually married the aforementioned goddess Uzume, and masks of the pair are quite common at many shrines. With his huge nose he has long been associated with fertility and the modern representation of the forest goblin, Tengu, is obviously somewhat modelled on him. In ancient times he was considered a guardian of crossroads and village borders, and he is often portrayed in many kagura dances around the country, like here, performing a kind of purification.

Outside of kagura, Sarutahiko will often be found leading processions at shrine festivals. Incidentally, I noticed that the vocals of kagura on Nishinoshima were quite distinctive and quite different from other types of kagura I have seen. This may well have come about due to the lack of flute accompaniment.

Kiribe

This last video shows a dance named Kiribe based on another one of the ancient myths. Kuniyuzuri, the Land Ceding Myth, comes from the time before the heavenly gods, believed to be the ancestors of the Imperial line of rulers, descended from heaven to rule Japan.

At this time the land was ruled by Okuninushi, the ruler of Izumo, and who is enshrined in Izumo Taisha Shrine as well as hundreds of other shrines throughout Japan.

The dancer represents Takemikazuchi, the emissary sent by Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, to negotiate the handing over of the land from Okuninushi. The meeting took place on Inasa Beach, close to where Izumo Taisha now stands, and also the place where all the gods of Japan arrive every October for their annual "meetings" in the Izumo area known as Kamiarizuki.

At the meeting with the heavenly emissaries Okuninushi left the decision whether to acquiesce to the demand to hand over control of the country to his two sons, one of whom agreed, but his second son, Takeminakata, disagreed and in a "trial of strength" with Takemikazuchi was defeated. This is considered to be the mythological origin of sumo.

Takeminakata was exiled to what is now Nagano where he is enshrined in the famous Suwa Taisha Shrine. Takemikazuchi is considered a patron of the martial arts and is enshrined at Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki and at the famous Kasuga Shrine in Nara.

Kagura Festivals in the Oki Islands

Oki Kagura can be seen at many of the festivals that occur throughout the islands during the year. There is not enough space here to list all the locations nor the complicated calendar schedule, but if you are interested you can check the websites for the different islands or directly ask the various tourist information offices.

When we visited there were no festivals going on but there was an unscheduled kagura performance for a visiting tour group that we were invited to attend by the helpful folks at the Nishinoshima Tourist Office (Tel: 08514 7 8888).

Getting Between the Oki Islands

A fairly frequent and fast ferry service connects the three islands of Dozen, but between Dozen and Dogo you need to use the car ferry or fast ferry.

Read more about access to the Oki Islands and getting around the islands.

Useful Oki Island Resources

Map of the Oki Islands


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