Ever since learning about the shishiodori, the traditional “deer dance” native to Japan’s Iwate prefecture, I’ve been fascinated by it. An ethnic folkways LP recording and online videos of questionable quality were all I had to reference, but those were enough to get a feel of the elaborate costumes, athletic dancing, and powerful drumming of shishiodori. Just the sheer scale of some performances, with dancer/drummers numbering in the hundreds, is in itself impressive.
The dance is oddly called shishiodori (しし踊り), which directly translates to lion dance (lion dances are common in Chinese culture). Apparently, “historically, ‘shishi’ meant any kind of animal that yielded edible meat.” (greenshinto.com). This etymology would explain the unexpected name. While the exact origin of the dance is unclear, the animistic nature of the dance/ceremony suggests an origin within the native peoples of Northern Japan, with possible influence from early settlers from the North - perhaps Siberia, where deer worshiping ceremonies have been taken place for centuries. The dance, which emulates the movements of the deer, is likely an honoring of the animal killed for food.
In any case, after mentioning to Takuya my interest in seeing the shishiodori in person, he learned there would be a performance at the annual Esashi festival. We took a road trip to check it out. It exceeded all expectations. The drumming, dancing, costumes - all fantastic.
Sadly, the second half of the shishiodori program was cancelled due to rain, so I didn't capture nearly as much video as I had hoped, but here is a short sampling.