Kitakami is a city where many performing arts have been passed down over generations. The most popular one of these is called "Onikenbai," which can roughly be translated as "Demon Dance with sword." This local dance has enjoyed a long history dating back 1,300 years ago and has been performed by local people ever since.
Currently, there are twelve Onikenbai teams in Kitakami and two of them are designated as significant intangible folklore cultural assets of Japan. Furthermore, amateur Onikenbai groups can also be found outside Kitakami in areas such as Sapporo, Niigata, Tokyo, and Kyoto.
"Oni," which means "demon" and "kenbai," which means "sword dance" is said to originally have begun as a prayer to Buddha. Onikenbai dancers wear stern looking demon masks, but as they symbolize the incarnation of Buddha, the masks have no horns. A typical performance requires performers to dance bravely and move their heads and waists vigorously with a sword and a fan in their hands. Each dance troupe consists of eight dancers. The leader wears a white mask and the other seven dancers wear green, red, and black ones. These four colors indicate the seasons and also depict Buddha (the wisdom king) as the one who saves people from demons. Therefore, it is said that the dancers represent Buddha and not actual demons.
◆Character Mascot <Onimaru-kun>
Onimaru-kun is the character mascot of Kitakami city. He was designed based on the image of Onikenbai.
Even though they can be quite stern looking, the demons can comfort our hearts with humorous faces.
Their masks are made from paulownia wood and are quite popular not only as souvenirs but also as talismans.
Shishi Odori, which can roughly be translated as "deer dance," originally began to commemorate deer and like Onikenbai it evolved to praise Buddha. However, the original purpose of this dance being a prayer became vague and people have changed its style of performance. Nowadays, it has become an entertaiment of local people.
Shishi Odori dance is divided into two types: 1. with a shroud and 2. with a drum. In Iwate, the second type is considered to be the standard.
The main feature of this dance is that each performer plays three roles: beating drums, singing songs, and dancing while wearing an elaborate fifteen kilogram deer costume. Each dance group consists of eight dancers and the leader dances at the center.
Kagura is a performing art well known throughout Japan which can roughly be translated as "god-entertainment." The art form is deeply concerned with Shinto beliefs and mountain priests. In Iwate, there are four types of Kagura depending on its origin, purpose and identity.
- Daijo Kagura
This type is known as the "calm" Kagura because of its easiness in showing Buddha’s teachings to people. In this dance Dainichinyorai (The Japanese version of Vairocana, one of the Five Dhyani Buddhas) is worshipped as the greatest Buddha.
- Yamabushi Kagura
There are two types of Yamabushi Kagura. One is strongly influenced by Shugendo (a religion formed by a mountain belief of esoteric Buddhism and Taoism). The other isn't connected to the Buddhism and is performed as the closest Kagura to Shintoism. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of this Kagura is that the performers wear a lion mask on their head. The lion is not actually a representation of the animal itself, but more of a depiction of God who borrows the shape of the lion to show his existence to human beings. This performance is called "Gongen."
- Nanbu Kagura
This type of Kagura has taken root as an entertaining performance art for common people. Different from the Yamabushi Kagura, a lion’s head costume isn’t worn during the performance.
- Dai Kagura
People used to call this performance "Ise Kagura." During the Edo era, faith in Ise Shrine was spread out among Japanese people, but most of them couldn’t visit the shrine because of its faraway location. Due to these circumstances, "Ise Kagura" went out to the people and was performed so that everyone could worship the shrine. Dai Kagura is mainly composed of a lion dance in which the lion drives out an evil spirit. Nowadays, it has taken root as an entertaining performance art.