Nothing had prepared me for my father’s death. He was taken by a blood cancer before the family knew he was seriously ill. There was little time to talk, to prepare—we couldn’t even say our last “sayonara” (goodbye). One day he was there, and the next day we had an empty place in the family.

After he was gone there seemed to be no movement towards recovery. The house was full of sorrow and shock. I sat in my room at night expecting to hear my fathers voice; instead, I heard only my sister’s weeping. Sorrow was eating away at her mind and body. During that time, I also suffered two serious injuries—I lost my sense of smell and couldn’t walk. The injuries were nearly fatal. I felt death sitting with me in the darkness, waiting.

© Yukari Chikura

Somehow, though, I managed to escape. Very slowly, the darkness began to recede. And yet, little did we know the next blow was poised over our heads. As we were about to return to our daily lives, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck. Our tragedy seemed mirrored in the tragedy of the land itself. As the black waves engulfed the northern city, houses burning one after another, the people of Japan felt unimaginable despair; we lost all hope in one single moment.

Like nightmares appearing one after the other, these new realities bruised my body and soul, leaving me feeling as if I had taken a severe beating. On one such dark day, my deceased father came to me in a dream. “Go to a village hidden in deep snow where I lived a long time ago,” he whispered to me. As if in a dream, I followed his instructions and boarded a train; when I disembarked at a small village, I found it covered in silvery-white snow. Mist had settled; the landscape was an otherworldly dream.

© Yukari Chikura

In this village, the inhabitants were performing a shrine ritual that had been practiced for over 1300 years. One after another, the people from four local communities—Ohsato, Azukizawa, Nagamine, and Taninai—carried out an elegant dance dedicated to the patron god of the shrine. This festival, called Zaido, is said to be based on an old legend. The rituals take place on the second day of every new year, well before the break of dawn, for the dances themselves start with the first rays of the sun. At that time, the people of these communities make their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where the seven ritual dances—Gongen-mai, Koma-mai, Uhen-mai, Tori-mai, Godaison-mai, Kōshō-mai, and Dengaku-mai—are performed with the hopes of good fortune in the New Year. Young and old alike take part in the festivities wearing different costumes and masks. The ritual ceremonies demonstrate a dual set of values: they highlight the cultural variety of the communities as well as the unbreakable bond between the generations. Therein lies the key to the ritual’s longevity.

Into the dream… © Yukari Chikura

Zaido, also known as Important Day Dance, is thought to have originated in the early 8th century when the Imperial Palace’s ensemble paid a visit to Hachimantai in Akita Prefecture. After the decline in state support of Shinto temple complexes, the cast-out court performers found a home in the small community, repaying their favor by teaching the locals their art. It is through this somewhat unlikely union that bugaku [editor’s note: a traditional Japanese dance] was preserved to this day.

© Yukari Chikura

Before the ritual, the noshu—the people performing the sacred dance—are required to undertake a very strict purification. In the longest documented cases, some of these noshu are known to have gone through 48-day long periods of complete abstinence. During these periods of religious asceticism, the participants are prohibited from sleeping in the same room as their spouses and must avoid childbirth and death. They must also not eat the meat of any animal that walks on four legs. Though currently preserved as a part of the purification ritual in only a few of the localities, a ritual involving the performance of mizugori (cold water ablutions) also exists. This ceremony is performed regardless of the fact that the place can reach temperatures of -20°C [-4°F] in winter. From the outside, this seems like a difficult task to endure. But for them, it is all part of their life and the rituals that surround it.

© Yukari Chikura

These days, I fear that this special culture, which has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation through many sacrifices, is starting to disappear. And yet, regardless of how many hardships they have to endure, there are still people who are willing to protect it. Witnessing their dedication, their spirituality, and their devotion, I am able to find meaning in life again. I hope this project expresses my great respect for the villagers’ love of their local community, my gratitude for the people of that community, who opened their homes to me, and my thanks to my father, watching from Heaven, who sent me to find them.

—Yukari Chikura

If you’re interested in seeing more work like this, we’d recommend the following previous articles: Fluorite Fantasia, Chikura’s earlier project about losing her father; Namikake: At the Coastline of Niigata, dream-like images of the ever-changing Japanese landscape; and Not Seeing as a Flower, a poetic project that at Japan’s modern beauty while exploring its lasting influence on Western art.