Hanamaki-shi, in the center of Iwate-ken, presents stunning nature, including jaw-dropping mountain ranges, rivers and lakes. In the winter, it is common for snow to gently fall in the sunshine, creating a dreamlike environment as the sky glitters with delicate, sparkling snowflakes. Particularly beautiful is Kitakami Range’s highest peak, Mt. Hayachine. Surrounded by majestic mountain landscapes, its innate spirituality from Buddhism has a powerful presence throughout the region.
Mt. Hayachine towers over the region, reaching a height of 1,917 meters. Despite its challenging height, legends say Tanakano Hyoubu discovered the mountain in 807. He reportedly reached the mountaintop while following a white deer with a golden star-shaped mark on its head. As the stories suggest, Iwate’s beloved mountain, known as Azumane-dake at the time, majorly influenced the culture of the region.
From every angle, the view emits waves of awe-inducing beauty. Looking out over the breathtaking scenery, it is easy to understand how the mountains became a source of such culture and spirituality. Consequently, ancient people, including Buddhists, considered it a holy place, and the many alpine flowers and animals that inhabit the area inspired large collections of poems and literature.
In fact, Japanese religion believes that mountains are gods, and long ago the people gave thanks to the water from the mountain allowing them to farm. As a result, this mountain worship created the mysterious folklore cultural. Hayachine Shrine still gives tribute to the god residing within Mt.Hayachine.
Hayachine Kagura is traditional folk performances that features a series of 40 masked dances with live music that originated from Mt. Hayachine. Ancestors handed down this culture through generations in the Uchikawame area of Hanamaki Ohasama. Now, the performance is a designated UNESCO intangible cultural heritage with over 500 years of history. Actually, the Hayachine Kagura refers to two kinds of Kagura, or schools – the Take Kagura, dedicated to the Hayachine Shrine, and the Otsugunai Kagura, for the Otsugunai Shrine.
Traditional Hayachine Kagura requires men perform all roles. In addition to the many masks, dancers wear costumes or Isho. The male gods dress in Japanese hakama (pants) and chihaya, an upper garment with large, flowing sleeves. Female gods wear chihaya and kimono. In contrast to more solemn performances, dancers wear sashes with leggings for wilder acts that require aggressive movements.
Masks, or omen, appear during many of Hayachine Kagura dances. Ones including omen are special because the artifacts are said to channel the gods. While under the influence of the mask, performers enter a state called “neri”. Interestingly, the Kagura are said to be choreographed adaptations of Buddhist prayers from ancient priests who worshiped at Mt. Hayachine. Therefore the performances act as an offering to the gods rather than entertainment.
Surprisingly, local people with a passion for Japanese culture and history lead the performances. Indeed, their presence has a real impact and adds character to the important cultural dance in the Tohoku region. Though Hayachine Kagura is only performed during certain parts of the year, it can still be appreciated at the beautiful and informative Hanamaki Cultural Heritage Center. Throughout the seasons, the facility displays many masks and replicas like the legendary lion head that is featured in many of the dances.
In addition to supporting local culture, Hayachine Kagura strongly influenced Japanese Noh, a classic form of Japanese dance. Noh theatre rose to popularity during the Edo period (1603-1867). In its prime, Sado Island had up to 200 functioning Noh theatres where many people could perform or be entertained. On the whole, Zeami receives credit for perfecting the art. As a result, Sado, where he spent many years in exile, still carries on his legacy. The performances in Sado became known as “the people’s Noh”, and many locals and influential residents participated in the festivities. To show appreciation for Zeami, performers carry out firelight Noh in his honour.
The Oga peninsula in Akita-ken, projecting west into the Sea of Japan, is home to the Namahage ogres (demon-like characters) in traditional Japanese folklore. Every year on December 31st, locals wrapped in knitted straw known as kede put on fearsome masks unique to their district. Walking with legs lifted high (similar to wrestlers before a match), they warn delinquent teenagers and young children to work hard, to study and to listen to their parents.
With information quickly spreading in recent years, the unique culture of Namahage gained attention within the traditional folk rituals. By combining the Namahage event and the Saitou-sai (Festvial), which boasts a history of about 900 years at Shinzan Shrine, the locals have created Oga’s Winter Festival. This is also known as Namahage Sedo Festival. Every year, the area holds the event on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February, satisfying the tourist’s curiosity about the Namahage culture.