Oh, deer! Discovering ‘Shishi-odori’

Japan is a country of amazing contrast. You can jump aboard a bullet-train in the middle of Tokyo or the suburban sprawl of Sendai and, in minutes, be surrounded by lush, mountainous countryside and rice-fields. Despite its image as a technological mecca, Japan’s rich nature still plays an integral part in the culture and lifestyle of its people.

One of the best ways to gain a true appreciation of the Japanese reverence for nature is to experience one of the highly varied forms of folk performing arts. As precious traditions passed down over centuries, these arts provide a glimpse into the relationship between nature and living beings that has shaped the experience of generations of Japanese people, and continues to do so today.

However, there is a prevailing image of such arts as rigid, difficult to understand and…kind of boring…So, when invited to attend a whole weekend of performance and workshops of Iwate Prefecture’s ‘Shishi-odori’ (deer dance), to be honest, I was slightly concerned that our party of five might be ‘shishi-ed out’ by the end…but, I was wrong! We discovered that Shishi-odori is so much more than just a ‘dance’.

Our journey begins in Iwate Prefecture; specifically, the beautiful seaside town of Kamaishi on the Sanriku Coast.

Kamaishi is abundant in blessings from the ocean, as the iconic ‘Daikannon’ watches protectively over the bay. 

It is also the birthplace of Japan’s modern iron & steel industry and the site of the country’s first Western-style ‘blast furnace’ which received World Heritage status in 2015.   

Kamaishi is also famous for its talented Rugby team, the ‘Seawaves’, and is busy preparing to be host to the Rugby World Cup in 2019!

Image credit: Kamaishi City Portal Site http://en-trance.jp/

As the second largest prefecture in Japan, it is no surprise that Iwate is home to over 1000 different folk performing arts, many of which have been recognised as ‘important intangible folk cultural assets’. Iwate boasts some incredible natural beauty, but is also no stranger to nature’s wrath, having frequently battled fire, earthquakes and tsunami throughout history. Indeed, the coastal area of Kamaishi was among some of the worst affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster in March, 2011.

The progress of recovery in Otsuchi town, north of Kamaishi. Much of the town was completely destroyed in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Huge sea-walls are being constructed along much of Iwate’s coastline to replace the much smaller sea-walls, proven ineffective against the mighty force of the tsunami. Many towns are also undergoing massive construction to raise the overall ground-level of the town.  

The sheer force and size of the tsunami ensured that there was virtually nothing left unaffected by the disaster, including the folk performing arts, with generations of implements, costumes and instruments destroyed, along with the tragic loss of loved community members and their precious knowledge.

However, it was also these performing arts which proved to be a vital tool in the recovery of the region. The dances became a huge spiritual support for the community and a way of bringing dispersed residents back together. It was this experience which instilled the locals with renewed mission to pass on the traditions to the next generation, and even to other countries…

Which is where we enter the story!

Five international students from Tohoku University (from Latvia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Fiji) were recently invited to Kamaishi by NTT Docomo’s ‘Rainbow Project’ and Iwate Prefecture, as part of an initiative to give internationals living in Japan the opportunity to experience and appreciate traditional Japanese culture. This time we joined a whole weekend of folk performance workshops to discover ‘What’s Shishi-odori?‘.

What is Shishi-odori?

‘Shishi’ is an ancient Japanese term referring to any wild mountainous animal that was considered a source of food eg. wild boar, bear, deer etc., and ‘Odori’ means ‘dance’. Whilst there are many theories pertaining to the origin of Shishi-odori, it is generally believed to have started as a memorial service for the souls of the deer/wild animal killed in hunt for food, or simply as an artistic imitation of the movements of the revered creatures.

Shishi-odori dances are usually performed during the Bon festival in summer, and sometimes at Autumn festivals.  They can generally be separated into two types: ‘Taiko-odori’ (drum dance) and ‘Maku-odori’ (curtain dance).

Over two days, the kind and welcoming locals of Kamaishi introduced us to three different types of ‘Maku-odori’ from three different regions, each with its own set of unique characteristics in costume, dance, music and lyrics.

Usuzawa Shishi-odori: Coastal Spirit of Survival

We started our journey in Otsuchi town to the north of Kamaishi. The town itself is currently a hub of construction, with new roads and buildings popping up all over the area that was inundated by the tsunami in 2011. The town suffered not only from the force of the tsunami itself, but also from a subsequent fire that broke out from spilled fuel and spread across the sea of debris. Any structure that wasn’t already destroyed soon succumbed to the flames…except for, miraculously, Kozuchi Shrine.

Kozuchi Shrine is the spiritual heart of Otsuchi and especially significant for the Usuzawa Shishi-odori community, with around 19 groups of performers visiting the Shrine every September at the Otsuchi Festival. By some miracle, the tsunami only reached the lower parking area in front of the shrine, and those residents who had managed to evacuate there worked together to keep the fire at bay as the flames licked the main Tori gate.

The Usuzawa Shishi-odori Preservation Society Hall itself became one of the main evacuation centres for hundreds of local residents. Throughout the weeks and months of evacuation following the disaster, the dancers performed for evacuees, providing a source of comfort and spiritual healing as the familiar dance and melodies reconnected the residents to the town and memories they had just lost.

We were lucky to have lunch at the hall with the Preservation Society leader, Toubai-san. He introduced us to the distinctive characteristics of the Usuzawa Shishi costumes while teaching us about common features of music and lyrics that different regional groups share.  We learnt that children played an important role in the dance, with some of the youngest participants (including his own grandchildren!) starting at the age of just two or three!

The Usuzawa Shishi feature a light-blue curtain painted with waves that covers the body and is held tight while dancers energetically twist their bodies and jump in time to the taiko drums. The hair of the Shishi, called ‘Kannagara’ is made from thinly planed wood of the Doronoki tree. Between the antlers of each head-piece rests the ‘Tatemono’, a carved family crest framed by fish. The dance itself involves female and male Shishi, musicians (flutes and taiko drums) and fierce sword-wielders.

The movements of the Shishi are strong and fast, and as any of our group members will attest – physically tiring!! At the Otsuchi festival, Shishi-odori groups will visit over 200 houses and businesses to pray for good luck for the coming year. At each stop they will dance for at least 20 minutes (or until the drumming ceases)…we were exhausted after less than five minutes trying!

Our visit to the Usuzawa Shishi-odori Preservation Society was inspiring on many levels. The dancing was impressive enough, but the stories of how this art has become such a central pillar of support for the community touched us deeply.

We were starting to understand that Shishi-odori was more than just a dance!

Tozenji Shishi-odori: Timeless Tradition

Another form of ‘Maku-odori’, Tozenji Shishi-odori, originates from the Tsukimoushi region in nearby Tono City. Tono is known as the heart of Japanese folklore and its collection of ‘Monogatari’ folktales, including that of mythical creatures like the elusive ‘Kappa’.

Features of the Tozenji Shishi-odori include the white curtain adorned with the Kenkuyomon family crest of Hayachine Shrine. Every year, Tozenji Shishi-odori is offered at the festival of Hayachine Shrine. The relaxed, almost hypnotic rhythm of the drums contrast with exciting foot-work and twists of the body. We enjoyed a lively performance of the ‘Nagekusa’ – a dance to demonstrate appreciation after receiving an offering; in this case, money which we handed to the Shishi in an envelope!

My immediate impression of the Tozenji Shishiodori was that it was all a bit of fun – the dancers didn’t seem to take things too seriously! The costumes were colourful and movements almost jester-like, with the children waving around ‘Fukube’ – symbols of manhood or ‘perpetuation of one’s descendants’ and a bountiful harvest.

‘Fukube’ – symbols of ‘manhood’ or  ‘perpetuation of one’s descendants’

Apparently the Tozenji Shishiodori Preservation Society are working towards giving the dance a modern spin by collaborating with contemporary musicians! Whilst protecting tradition is, of course, important, it is inspiring to see a community willing to grow with the next generation and ensure that tradition remains timeless and relevant for all members, regardless of age.

Hashino Shishi-odori: Bonds of Steel

We headed away from the coast of Otsuchi and into the mountainous area of Hashino in Northwestern Kamaishi, once the centre of Japan’s steel industry and recognised by UNESCO as one of the founding pillars of modernisation. After meeting the residents we soon realised that, even centuries later,  Hashino remains a community steeped in local tradition with inter-generational bonds of steel!


The distinguishing features of Hashino Shishi-odori are the navy-blue curtain with the characters for Takizawa Shrine and the Shichiyomon crest left white. Similar to the Usuzawa and Tozenji varieties, the shishi also have ‘Kannagara’ made from the Doronoki tree and a ‘Tatemono’ crest mounted between the antlers. The movements of the deer are very energetic, with the highlights of the dance being the exchange between the deer and feisty sword-wielders, as well as the ‘Aijishi’, representing the clash of deers meeting in the mountains!

The Hashino Shishi-odori identifies with the beautiful Takizawa Shrine. Every year on the last Sunday in July, the dance is offered at the festival for the deity of the shrine. Before this dance, a quiet offering is given at ‘Oku-no-in’, the deep heart of the Shrine in a secluded forest. Whilst we were not able to witness this particular ceremony this time (the rainy weather had other plans for us), we were still taken into the forest to experience the serene atmosphere and listen to stories of the mystical shark that apparently swims upstream from the ocean to pray at the shrine every year on the day before the festival. Whilst we didn’t find any sharks, we did enjoy the natural beauty and Autumnal scenery.

We listened to some interesting stories and explanation about the history and culture of Hashino! They say that communication isn’t all about language, but we were still very glad to have docomo’s ‘Jspeak’ application on hand to look up any difficult words! Life saver.

If we got completely stuck for language, we had the convenience of docomo’s ‘Jspeak’ auto-translate application at our fingertips! It was super easy to use – you just speak into the app and it automatically translates your words from English to Japanese, surprisingly accurately! Definitely smoother than our dance steps, at least…

After experiencing the ‘roots’ of the Shishi-odori, it was time to get involved! We were honored to not only watch the thrilling performance of the Hashino Shishi-odori, but to participate in a performance of the ‘Suna-odori’, the dance of the sword-wielders and child dancers. Behind every great performance is a whole lot of practice, so we spent the previous evening in the community hall, learning the steps from our new friends.

By mixing together and laughing along with the locals, we really understood how the act of dancing can overcome not only generational gaps, but intercultural and verbal barriers!

It was so much fun!

By the time the main event came around, it almost felt like we were part of the Hashino ‘crew’. Before donning our ‘Hapi’ coats and jumping into the circle we were treated to a full performance from the professionals! It was an amazing show of colour, strength and infectious rhythm.

There is truly no better way to ‘discover’ local culture than by becoming a part of it yourself! In the space of just two days, we gained a precious insight into the lives of the locals of Kamaishi and how their folk performing arts function as so much more than just a performance. Through the act of dance, communities are created, stories are told, spirits are supported and bonds are solidified; bonds that transcend age, gender, language and culture!

NTT Docomo’s ‘Rainbow Project’  – The bridge to happiness! – Supporting recovery and rebirth of Tohoku: http://rainbow.nttdocomo.co.jp/  

Access to Kamaishi

From Tokyo/Sendai:

Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Hanamaki Station. Then change to the JR Kamaishi Line to Kamaishi.

Kamaishi City Portal Site – bilingual information about Kamaishi, including updates about the Rugby World Cup 2019: http://en-trance.jp/

Important dates/events for Shishi-odori:

  • Usuzawa Shishi-odori: 3rd Friday & Saturday of September at the Otsuchi Inari Shrine’s Ando Festival. 3rd Saturday & Sunday at the Kozuchi Shrine’s Otsuchi Festival
  • Tozenji Shishi-odori: July 8th, annual festival of Hayachine Shrine in Tsukimoushi
  • Hashino Shishi-odori: the last Sunday of July, every year, Takizawa Shrine.


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