Weekly performances with dragons and demons in Japan’s Iwami region are an incredible way to connect with and preserve its history.

Arifuku Onsen is a hot spring resort neighborhood in the town of Gotsu, Shimane Prefecture. The springs were originally discovered in the 6th century, but here in the 21st Arifuku’s lost a bit of its luster in comparison to some of Japan’s more famous hot spring hotspots.

So recently Arifuku has been making an effort to spruce itself up a bit. While you’ll still find scenes like the one above of steam swirling about rustic architecture, there are also stylishly modern accommodations available, like at the hotel Owl Resort that we recently spent the night in.

▼ Owl Resort

But our fondest memories of our night in Arifuku aren’t of the soft bed or chic décor of our room, Instead, they’re of Iwami Kagura, a dynamic dance performance that’s like a crazy combat version of Noh theater.

Iwami Kagura is a unique cultural tradition of the Iwami region, which consists of western Shimane and northern Hiroshima Prefectures . In Arifuku, Iwami Kagura performances are held every Saturday night at the Yunomachi Kaguraden building (pictured above). The cozy venue seats just 20 visitors at a time and charges a mere 1,000 yen (US$7.65) for admission (500 yen for elementary school-age kids).

Iwami Kagura began in the Heian period (794-1185), and so most performances are based upon Japanese legends and mythology. The first story of the night began when a masked actor appeared before us as Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder and swords. As you might guess from his divine jurisdiction, when an evil oni (ogre) showed up, Takemikazuchi wasn’t in the mood to talk things out, and the two decided to settle their differences with a duel.

Like we mentioned above, there’s a tendency to associate Iwami Kagura with Noh, since they’re both forms of traditional masked theater. In contrast to Noh’s stately, stoic movements, though, Iwami Kagura is fast and flashy.

The fighting was so intense that as Takemikazuchi and the oni struck each other with their weapons, pieces of the props broke off and fell to the floor.

In the end, though, the thunder god prevailed, and his monstrous foe admitted defeat.

The oni wasn’t the only mythical creature we encountered this night, though.

The second part of the Iwami Kagura performance was a reenactment of the battle between Susanoo, god of storms and younger brother of sun goddess Amaterasu, and Yamata no Orochi, a multi-headed dragon/serpent that terrorized western Japan.

Depending on the size of the venue, the Yamata no Orochi costumes used for Iwami Kagura can be truly massive, with the full versions replicating all eight of the creature’s fearsome fanged heads, like in the video below.

The cozy dimensions of the Yunomachi Kaguraden limited the Orochi we saw to three heads, but they still put up quite a fight.

If you’re wondering why Japan isn’t ruled today by a giant snake monster, it’s because Susanoo cunningly got Orochi drunk on sake, then lopped off his inebriated heads, both of which the Iwami Kagura actor did too.

Though Iwami Kagura and the Orochi legend date back centuries, performers aren’t averse to modern innovations to enhance the drama. Though made with traditional washi paper, the dragon head masks feature sinister light-up eyes

…and some of the mouths are equipped with small flame throwers that shoot out showers of sparks (though not at theaters where the audience sits as close to the actors as we did).

As for the human characters’ masks, these are often hand-carved from wood by local artists, like those at the Kakita Katsuro Mask Workshop in the Shimane town of Hamada.

▼ Self-taught master mask maker Katsuro Kakita

Handmade is the general rule for Iwami Kagura costume clothing too, into which the tailors weave gold and silver thread for extra shine.

In speaking with the staff at Hosokawa Kagura Isho (Hosokawa Kagura Costumes, which takes custom orders for non-Iwami Kagura costumes too), also in Hamada, we learned that a complete costume can take several months to complete, and cost as much as a small car.

Though it’s a regional form of theater, Iwami Kagura is warmly loved by the people of the Iwami region. The traditional narratives and aesthetics make it respected by elderly residents, and little kids enjoy the exciting, straightforward stories of good versus evil. Nearly 100 Iwami Kagura troupes are estimated to be active in the area.

And yet, there’s a bit of uneasiness in the Iwami Kagura community these days. Like in a lot of rural sections of Japan, many people born in the Iwami region leave the area as young adults to pursue academic or professional goals in more populous parts of the country. In particular, there’s a growing shortage of craftsmen who can make the costumes that give Iwami Kagura its characteristic flair.

Thankfully, though, there are still chances to see Iwami Kagura in the communities in which the artform was first developed, and maybe one day it’ll catch on with performers elsewhere too, like how Yosakoi dance troupes, which originated in Kochi Prefecture, can now be found nationwide. For now, though, Yunomachi Kaguraden has shows scheduled on Saturday nights from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., and catching one is an unforgettable way to help ensure this piece of the region’s past has a future.

Location information
Yunomachi Kaguraden / 湯の町神楽殿
Address: Shimane-ken, Gotsu-shi, Arifukuonsencho 546
Telephone reservations: 085505209534
Website (Gotsu City Tourist Organization)

Related: Hosokawa Kagura Isho, Kakita Katsuro Mask Workshop
Photos ©SoraNews24

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