With colorful costumes sewn with luxurious golden thread– costing up to ¥2 million– and elaborate masks showing ferocious gods and harrowing demons, Kagura reenacts classic Japanese folklore tales of good versus evil. Iwami Kagura, a style that is found in ShimanePrefecture, is a faster-paced style native to the southern Chugoku region which includes Shimane, Hiroshima, Tottori, Yamaguchi, and Okayama prefectures.
The word itself literally translates to “entertaining the gods.”
Kagura originated within the Kojiki – a book that details Japan’s mythical creation and is regarded as the country’s oldest historical record, written 1,300 years ago. The story, called Amano-Iwato, involves the sun goddess Amaterasu who hid behind a rock obscuring the sun and causing eternal darkness to fall upon Japan. She hid away because her brother was being a total jerk and throwing feces around!
The gods danced and played music to coax her out so that the sun would shine again. This is considered the first Kagura ever performed. The word itself literally translates to “entertaining the gods.”
Tales of creation in Kagura
Though its origins are traced back to Japan’s early days, when exactly Kagura started being performed by us mere mortals is kind of sketchy and not accurately known by scholars. Back in the Imperial Court days (around 800 AD), it was performed as a ritual by Shinto priests and shrine maidens to honor the gods. These days, it’s more of an entertaining way to share these classic stories.
In comparison, Kabuki was first performed in 1603 – only 400 years ago – and gained a cult following between the late 1600s and early 1800s. Noh, another traditional art form, didn’t even become a thing until the 1800s.
Where to see Kagura in Japan
Because the tradition was not always passed down from one generation to the next, it is rarely performed in urban areas.
However, you can still witness it in rural areas of several prefectures including Shimane and Hiroshima as well as one spot closer to Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture. As it spread across Japan, Kagura evolved into different incarnations and styles varying by region so each one offers something unique from the other. If you want to see this killer clash of the gods, check out the locations below.
- Tatsu no Gozen Shrinein Oda, Shimane, hosts performances every Saturday night from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. ¥1,000.
- The Masuda EAGA Buildingin Masuda, Shimane, also hosts Iwami Kagura performances every Saturday from Jan. to Sept. from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. ¥500
- Shinmeisha Shrinein Tokorozawa, Saitama, showcases Kagura at their yearly Autumn Festival on Sept. 15 (site in Japanese only). Free.
- The Hiroshima Prefectural Citizens Culture Centerhas two performances every Wednesday night (at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.) from April 3 until Dec. 25. ¥1,200.
- Takachiho Shrinein Takachiho, Miyazaki, has performances every night from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Kaguraden performance hall on the grounds of the shrine. ¥700.
Kabuki and Noh performances, while amazing in their own right, can be difficult to understand even for Japanese, and the story often drags on slowly. The setting is more formal, and yelling at the performers to decapitate one another is probably not encouraged.
Kagura is the sexier, more exciting older sister who rides a motorcycle and slays serpents. She entices you with gorgeous and expensive outfits and once you’re invested she releases a fury on you.
A long-form version of this article first appeared on GaijinPot Blog.