Sunday, October 15, 2017

Yase Shamenchi Odori (八瀬赦免地踊)

The days are growing short.  The bus climbs into the black hills.  I alight at Furusatomae in the village of Yase which is at the foot of Mount Hiei northeast of the city.  Or at least I hope I have.  It's impossible to know in the darkness with little more than the moon to light the road.  The air is cool.

I have come to see the Yase Shamenchi Odori (pardoned land dance) which takes place in early October every year at Akimoto-jinja.  This so-called dance of gratitude, preceded by a grand procession, is a registered intangible cultural property of Kyoto.  The dance originated in the Edo period (1603-1868) when the shogunate Akimoto Tajimamori came to the aid of the people of Yase in a land dispute.  To show their appreciation for the favour bestowed upon them by this noble they built a shrine and held an annual dance performance in his honour.

The main feature of the procession to the shrine where the dance takes place is the eight young boys dressed as maidens with polyhedral paper lanterns balanced on their heads.  Each of the 12 panels of the 70cm tall lanterns has an incredibly intricate design of various flora, fauna and warriors cut from red paper.  Using special knives, these delicate artworks take months to cut out.  As the boys proceed up the unlit path to Akimoto-jinja the lanterns atop their heads appear to float in the night.  The solemn rhythmic singing of village elders at the top of the steps welcome the young lantern bearers.

The votive dance is performed by 10 and 11-year-old girls wearing floral headpieces and colourful period costumes.  There are two numbers: the shiokumi odori (salt scooping dance) and the hana tsumami odori (flower picking dance).  They move with the grace of young maiko (geisha apprentices) around the stage.

It is all quite exquisite and enchanting.

There is a certain mystery to the night.  It is the darkness.  Everything is a little vague and amorphous.  Returning to the city after the Yase Shamenchi Odori, it is as if waking from a dream.

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