Japan (April 2019): Iwami Kagura in Hamada


Back to main Japan 2019 page


Hamada is a port city (pop. ~60,000) on the San-in coast, roughly midway between Hagi and Matsue. I stopped there on my way from Tsuwano to Iwami Ginzan for two reasons: watch an Iwami Kagura dance performance and visit the shop of one of the very few remaining traditional Kagura mask makers. There are other places along the San-in coast where one can attend a Kagura dance, but since Hamada is visited by almost no tourists I expected the performance to be almost exclusively attended by local people. Moreover, its venue is an old Shinto temple providing an appropriate environment. I was not disappointed. The audience was small, about 50 people, most of them locals with their children. And the spectacle was truly extraordinary.


Kagura (which means ″god entertainment″) is a Shinto theatrical dance that has evolved over more than a millennium and is believed to be older than Noh. Today it remains a living tradition, mainly in the Shimane prefecture where it is regularly performed. It is known for its stunning masks and costumes and its high-tempo performances. Until the end of the Edo period in 1868 Kagura was only performed as Shinto religious rituals. After Emperor Meiji prohibited Shinto priests to participate in such dance, Kagura was taken over by local people and became more diverse by incorporating local folk traditions. Iwami Kagura (named after Iwami, a former village located some 50km east of Hamada) is a local form of Kagura regularly performed in Hamada.


Scenic countryside in the hills south of Hamada.


Mask maker:


Master mask maker Katsuro Kakita, one of the few remaining traditional Kagura mask makers. While painting a mask, only his hands are moving, just slightly!



Some of the masks displayed in Katsuro Kakita′s shop. Most represent gods and demons. Gods are benevolent and helpful; they are represented with closed mouths. Demons are dangerous and represented with open mouths.



The mask below (also visible above in the leftmost photo) is Shoki, the ″demon queller″. A deity originating from Chinese Taoism, Shoki was very popular in Japan during the Edo era (1615-1868), but is now neglected, except in traditional performances and...Japanese tattooing! He is considered a protector against evil spirits, illness, and poverty.


The two red masks in the photo below represent Tengu, a supernatural character (yokai). Initially depicted with both human and bird characteristics (beaks), the beaks were later humanized into very long noses. Tengu is a very popular character in Japan.


The process of making each mask consists of several successive stages spread over a month. First, a one-time clay shape of the mask is created by filling clay into a reusable hollow mold. Once the clay is dry the shape is taken out of the mold. The mask is made by applying successive coatings of washi paper glued together with resins to the shape. The coatings are covered by a final layer of ground seashell powder. The clay shape is broken with a wooden hammer and the mask is cleaned. Holes and some details are fine-worked by hand. The mask is decorated with pigments, lacquer, and ink. Teeth (often carved from wood) and hair (synthetic, horse, or humans) are finally added.


Portion of the collection of hollow molds in Katsuro Kakita′s shop.


Left: clay shape. Center: mask of Tengu after the removal of the clay shape. Right: Kenji Kakita, who works with his father, showing me how light a mask is; even a big one can be held on one finger.


Kagura performance:


The Iwami Kagura performance that I attended took place in the Sanku shrine, a Shinto shrine located 2km south-east of Hamada railway station.


The theatrical dance was performed in a small room, with over 1/3 of it occupied by the stage. The audience (about 50 people packed around the stage) sat on the ground. I arrived early and I sat next to the stage. So, the actors/dancers were evolving very close to me, often so close that I could touch them, as can be seen from some of the photos below. The performance consisted of two distinct dances, each lasting 30min. The first, called Chigaeshi, depicts a battle between Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the gods of martial arts, and a foreign demon. The second, Orochi, depicts the story of Susano-no-mokito, the younger brother of goddess of the Sun Amaterasu Omikami, who fights and defeats a multi-headed, multi-tailed giant serpent named Orochi to save the life of the last daughter of an elderly couple. The two dances were very impressive, but the second was absolutely extraordinary. Throughout the dances the audience cheered, whistled, and clapped loudly to encourage their gods (and the dancers), although most had attended such dances before and knew well these stories.


To fully appreciate the skills and performance of the dancers/actors, one must realize that the masks give them poor visibility and that the costumes, which are embroidered with real silver and gold, are heavy (up to 20kg).


The musicians sit on the right side of the stage.




- The god Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto enters the stage alone and presents himself by taking successive postures rhythmed by music. Despite his fierce look, the god is benevolent.




- Then a foreign demon appears, bringing war (symbolized by fire and sparks), and the fight starts. Some motions (often too fast for me to capture in photos) were quite amazing, especially a front flip of the god despite his heavy and cumbersome embroidered clothes and his restricted visibility through the mask.






- The fight is very energetic and extremely well-choreographed.


- Like in a good movie, it sometimes seems that the god is going to lose the fight...


...but in the end the demon drops its sword and loses the fight.


- The demon repents and the god does not kill him. The legend has it that after his defeat the demon went to Takashiho in Kyushu, where he settled as a farmer, and that peace prevailed.



This dance depits the fight of Susano-no-mokito with a giant serpent, Orochi, which has eight heads and eight tails. For lack of space on the stage, there are only four heads and four tails in the dance below. Each part of Orochi is actuated by a single dancer. The choreography and realism of the performance are extraordinary and the accompanying music overwhelming. To see a video of a short (32s) portion of this dance, with sound, click here.


- As in the previous dance, the good character, Susano, appears on the stage alone and presents himself by taking successive postures.


- Then an elderly couple enters the stage, with their young daughter.



- The old father tells Susano that they are grieving because each year a giant serpent comes and eats one of their seven daughters. It is now coming for their last one.


- Susano asks the father to prepare a barrel of sake and performs rituals as the serpent enters the stage.




- For a while the serpent Orochi occupies the entire stage and performs several coordinated motions of its four bodies. (This is particularly impressive since each of the four men inside the serpent have limited visibility.)






- At some point the serpent drinks the sake and becomes drunk. It is time for the fight to start. To win Susano must cut each one of the Oromi′s heads.


- The fight is ferocious, formidably choreographed, with a lot of fire, sparks, and smoke. (Several times during the fight I am hit by serpent tails that went out of the stage.)







- At the end of the fight Susano cuts the last head of Orochi. A sword then emerges from its tail. The legend says that this sword is the one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan now preserved in the Atsuta shrine (Aichi prefecture).


- Susano claims victory and the daughter of the old couple is safe.



Following the two dances, the dancers/actors are presented to the audience. The four dressed in black are those who animated Orochi. Their performance was beyond amazing.



Back to main Japan 2019 page