Geisha once cosplayed as white cats to revive a devastated Japanese town. 

On the evening of 13 May, 1931, a fire broke out on the main street of Shirone City in Niigata Prefecture, spreading throughout the entire town and burning down over 470 establishments. The disaster became known as “The Great Fire of Shirone”, and two years afterwards, the city got together to hold a special festival in an effort to revive the area.

The festival was called “Shironeko Koushinkyoku” (“Shironeko Parade“), with the “ko” at the end meaning “children” to refer to the children, or people, of Shirone. However, “Shironeko” has a double meaning, in that it also means “White Cat”, and so the local geisha in the area came out to celebrate by dancing in the parade as white cats.

After the first festival, the people of Shirone would dress in white cat masks and outfits as a way of showing local pride at other festivals and celebrations in the neighbourhood. The cats would prance about and dance to the beat of the shamisen and taiko drums, creating a spectacular sight.

Now, the local Chamber of Commerce is attempting to revive the local festival this month after an almost 90-year hiatus, with the executive committee using this one black-and-white photo from the original festival as their inspiration.

The committee met up with local and international artists, and held several workshops in order to design a cat mask and a special dance to be used at the festival. The white cats at the event will dance to a new version of a song called “Neko ja, Neko ja”, which translates to “You Are a Cat, You Are a Cat”.

Listen to the original song here:

According to event organisers, Shirone is one of many rural areas in Japan facing the challenges of population decline, public transport cuts, shuttered-up businesses and the loss of young residents to bigger cities. Shirone will be opening a variety of stores and stalls to coincide with the festival, and they hope it proves to be such a success that it will continue to be held for the next 90 years, and well into the future, as a way to increase visitors to their town.

Hopefully other rural towns will be able to revive their districts in a similar way as well, and we can all do our part to help keep them alive by adding off-the-beaten path destinations like these to our Japan travel itineraries. With or without a giant cat head in tow.

Festival information
Shironeko Koushinkyoku / 白根子行進曲
Address: Shirone Shotengai Ninomachi – Gorokunomachi (Niigata-shi, Minami-ku, Shirone Honmachi Doori)
白根商店街二の町~五六の町(新潟市南区白根 本町通)
Event Date: 22 October 2019
Event Times: 1:30 p.m. (Opening) / 2:00 p.m. (First Costume Parade) / 2:30 p.m. 4:00 p.m. (Costume Contest) / (Second Costume Parade) / 4:30 p.m. (Photography Rally)

Source: Shironekodanyan via Japaaan
Featured image: Instagram/shironeko.koushinkyoku
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