Noh, often associated with the masks worn by actors playing certain roles, is widely regarded as Japan’s oldest surviving performance art, with 650 years of history. (There are, of course, many older arts, such as Kagura ritual dancing, but those were developed for the entertainment of the gods, not for entertaining humans.)
The stories portrayed in Noh are often legends or spiritual tales, usually also associated somehow with Japan’s pantheon of gods. Noh was original performed at Shinto shrines and even today many shrines have Noh stages on their grounds. Having attended Noh performances in specially-designed Noh theaters and on a shrine grounds, I have to say that the performance is far more interesting in its original, “natural” setting.
One great place to enjoy outdoor torchlight performance of Noh is at the annual Takigi Noh Fire Festival of Oyama’s Afuri Shrine, held in the first week of October. This year, 2021, marks the 40th time the festival was held, after being cancelled in 2020 due to the Corona pandemic and in 1989 due to the death of the Showa emperor.
Mt. Oyama, in the western part of Kanagawa Prefecture, has been a site of religious worship for millenia and became a particularly popular pilgrimage destination during the Edo Period (1603-1868) since its proximity to the city of Edo meant travelers from there did not require travel permits. At the same time, the presence of various religious factions on the mountain resulted in rivalries that the Tokugawa shoguns sought to quell by ordering them to work together to stage Noh productions twice a year.
Noh, and its comic counterpart, Kyogen, remain key features of visits to Mt. Oyama today, particularly during the Takigi Noh Fire Festival. The festival includes various ceremonies and rituals as well as amateur Kyogen performances and finally the Noh performance itself.
The festival begins shortly before sunset when a sacred flame is carried down the hillside on a path behind the Noh stage from the shrine’s administrative center to a waiting pyre in a procession led by priests and musicians playing traditional instruments.
When they reach the clearing containing the pyre, the space delineated by purifying twine adorned with white shide zig-zag paper streamers. After brief prayers and ceremony, the pyre is lit by the four shrine maidens who have carried the flame down the hill.
As the pyre burns, the attention of the audience shifts to the stage, where further purification ceremonies are held. Most dramatic of these is the archer who mimes shooting arrows in each of four directions, but for the fourth, actually sends his arrow flowing over the heads of the audience to land safely nearby.
Next priests carry the sacred flame, in specially designated fire boxes, to two torch locations near the Noh stage. Although the stage itself is light with modern electric lighting, the torches add a touch of authenticity, an homage to the torchlight Noh performance of yesteryear.
Now that these torches have been lit, the remainder of the ceremonies shift to the Noh stage itself.
Noh stages are distinctive in their design, with the main stage and a runway, known as a hashigakari, at stage right. There is no curtain, so the players enter either through the small door at the back of the stage known as the kiridoguchi or via the hashigakari. Most Noh stages have a back panel with a painting of a large pine tree. Unusually, at Afuri Shrine the Noh stage is open at the back and the pine tree and other greenery behind the stage provides a natural backdrop.
Next comes the Okina, a ceremonial dance to pray for peace and prosperity. Here, for the first time tonight, spectators can see the hashigakari in use.
As is traditional, there is a comical Kyogen performance before the main Noh performance. Spectators were asked not to take photographs during these performances.
With the help of an app (and the loan of a tablet device if needed), spectators could follow the performances with text explanations in several languages.
The play I saw was based on the legend of two famous old pine trees, Sumiyoshi and Takasago. A traveler eager to see the renowned trees encounters an older couple on the road and asks them questions about the legend. The couple kindly explain how the male pine, Sumiyoshi, supposedly visits his wife, the female pine, Takasago, every night. In the course of their explanations, that also evoke love and fidelty, the audience probably begins to suspect, long before the travelers, that the old man and woman are actually the embodiments of the famous trees. These sorts of supernatural tales are common in Noh plays.
The splendid costumes and stylized movements (the feet movements are especially fascinating) are enhanced by the golden glow of the lighting. To be sure, this outdoor torchlight performance is the best way to experience Noh!
Anyone likely to be in Japan next October should mark their calendar now and watch around May 2022 for an announcement of the dates of next year’s festival.
© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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