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Dedicated to my late father
Nothing had prepared me for my father’s death. He was taken by blood cancer before our family even knew he was seriously ill. There was little time to talk, to prepare. We couldn’t even say our last sayonara. One day he was there and the next day – an empty place in the family. After he was gone there seemed to be no recovering. The house was full of sorrow and shock. In my room at night, expecting to hear my father’s voice, I heard only the weeping of my sister. Sorrow was eating away at her mind and body. During this time I also suffered severe injuries to my face and legs in a serious accident. I lost my sense of smell and could not walk. I felt death sitting with me in the darkness, waiting. But I somehow managed to survive.
Very slowly, the darkness began to recede. The routine of life was about to start again. Little did we know the next blow was poised over our heads. In 2011 the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck. Our personal tragedy seemed mirrored in the tragedy of the land itself. Watching as the black waves engulfed entire cities, houses burning one after another, the people of Japan felt unimaginable despair, losing hope in a 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. With little strength left, I found it hard to even get out of bed in the morning.
On one such day, my deceased father came to me in a dream. “Go to the village hidden in deep snow where I lived long ago,” he whispered to me. I followed his instructions and boarded a train called the Galaxy Express, named after Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad. When I alighted at a small village it was covered in silvery white snow. Mist had settled, and it seemed like a dream world.
Here, an ancient 1300-year-old shrine ritual dating from the Nara period, was being performed. One after another, people who had gathered from the four local communities – Osato, Azukizawa, Nagamine and Taninai – carried out an elegant dance dedicated to the patron god of the shrine. This festival is called Zaido and is said to be based on Danburi-chōja or Dragonfly Millionaire, an old legend.
It is 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 – that the people of these communities make their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where the nine ritual dances – the Miko-mai, Kanate-mai, Gongen-mai, Koma-mai, Uhen-mai, Tori-mai, Godaison-mai, Kōshō-mai and Dengaku-mai – are performed to bring good fortune in the New Year.
Zaido, also known as the “Important Day Dance”, is thought to have originated in the early eighth century when the Imperial Palace’s ensemble paid a visit to Hachimantai in Akita Prefecture. The court performers repaid the locals’ warm welcome and generosity by teaching them their art. Through this somewhat unlikely union the dance has been preserved until today in the form of folk art.
Though the festival’s history is long and it has been passed down to many generations during the 1300 years of its existence, there are times when it was threatened – during the late eighteenth century it ceased to exist for almost six decades. Because of numerous fires, most ancient texts concerning the ritual as well as ancient religious imagery were destroyed, and its only way of surviving was through word-of-mouth repetition. There is said to have also been a time when the gold-leaf-covered mask used for the Godaison-mai was stolen, thus interrupting the sacred gathering of the four villages. It was only because of the dedication of the communities and their shared spiritual beliefs that the ritual managed to survive – not unchanged, but instead taking on the unique characteristics of this northern place, something that the people of Hachimantai still take great pride in.
Before the ritual, the nōshū – those performing the sacred dance – are required to undertake a very strict purification. In the longest documented cases, some of the nōshū have gone through forty-eight days 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 in their own home, as well as visiting the homes of the recently deceased. They must also not eat the meat of any animal that walks on four legs. Though currently preserved as a part of the purification in only one of these communities, the performance of mizugori (cold water ablutions) also exists.
These purification rituals still hold great importance, because it is thought that bad things would occur if the nōshū were not to perform them. All of this is executed thoroughly, although temperatures here, at the border of the three prefectures Aomori, Iwate and Akita, can reach minus 20°C in winter. From our modern society’s viewpoint, shōjinkessai (ritual cleansing) seems like a very hard thing to do.
Japan is surrounded by sea on all sides, creating specific ways of life and culture unlike those of any other country. This is of course not the only difference between Japan and the rest of the world. Tragic natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons and volcanic eruptions are also part of Japanese everyday life.
These days, I fear that this culture that has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation through many sacrifices, is sadly starting to disappear. And yet, regardless of how many hardships they endure, how many times they fall down and get back up, there are still people willing to continue protecting it. It is through their dedication and the great impact it has left – and continues to leave – on me that I am able to find meaning in life again.
To the villagers’ love and enthusiasm for their local communities, to all who treated me like family, and to my father, watching from heaven...

— Yukari Chikura