Friday, October 6, 2017

An Empty Space in the Forest: Afuri Shrine Fire Festival and Torch Light Performance of Noh 大山阿夫利神社火祭薪能

This week, I tell you my metaphysical adventure of Noh theatre in the forest of Mt. Oyama Afuri Shrine 大山阿夫利神社. Besides being a weekend hiking destination for Tokyonites, Mt. Oyama has been a deity in Japanese mythology for centuries. Oyama Afuri Shrine is an interface between us mortals and the supernatural Mt. Oyama. Before iPhone X, such media has had many features for millennia to establish the link between humans and something beyond no-genius comprehension. Noh festival of Afuri Shrine is one of them.  For two nights before the first full-moon of every October, the shrine holds Noh theatre where the performance under the light of flaming torch is dedicated to God Oyama. Mt. Oyama presides over rain and thunder, i.e. fire, and so, the Noh under the flame makes sense. You may purchase a front seat for 4000 yen (or 3500 yen for an advance ticket; phone reservation only at 0463-95-2006 from 3 weeks before the first performance, 9:00-17:00). But the event has 1000 free tickets that are available only by postal application (detail at the end of this post). I of course chose a free ticket, and situated myself at the furthest, but the highest (in altitude) seat of the venue. That was a bingo. I could immerse myself naturally in a fantastic world of Noh surrounded by primeval forest of Mt. Oyama under the 13th night of beautiful moon … Yeah, you may prefer actors standing just before you. But don’t you think you can do it in National Noh Theatre in Harajuku, surrounded by the ocean of buildings in Tokyo? In Mt. Oyama, I’ve witnessed an effortless resonance between Noh and the forest. If you are in the metropolis Tokyo in October, Noh in Mt. Oyama is the event you should experience!

Actually, the performance is not held at the top of the mountain, nor the shrine sanctuary halfway up to the peak. The venue is at the administrative complex of Afuri Shrine near the hiking entrance to the purification site, Misogi-no-Otaki (禊の大滝 “the Big Waterfall for Purification”), where I reported my adventure last spring. The bus stop to the waterfall is Shamukyoku-Iriguchi Bus Stop 社務局入口. “Shaumukyoku” = Admin Office of the Shrine. Got it? When you plan to visit them directly from Isehara Station 伊勢原駅 of Odakyu Odawara Line 小田急小田原線, please take Kanachu Bus 神奈中バス I-1010 or I-11 11 from the Terminal #4 in the North Exit of Isehara Station. (Time Table, here.) It’s a 20 minuets’ bus ride to Shamukyoku-Iriguchi. The performance starts at 16:00 and the door is open at 15:00. BUT, there is almost no parking facility and the public transportation is only with Kanachu Bus. Although the organizer arranges special bus services from the station to Shamukyokku-Iriguchi stop, we’d better expect a long wait at Isehara Station for the next available bus. Our options are (1) arriving at Isehara Station at least by 14:00 to join the cue for the bus, (2) if you are a group of more than 4 people, take a taxi from the station and prepare to pay about twice as much as the bus ticket, or (3) hike Mt. Oyama on that day, and come down to the admin place of Afuri Shrine by 15:00.

At Isehara Station.
In this photo,
Terminal #4 itself cannot appear
as the line is too long …
From the north exit of the Isehara Station,
you may notice a big Torii
鳥居 next to Isehara Branch of Resona Bank.
On the day of Noh Festival,
there is a notice propped up on the pillar of Torii,
“Afuri Shrine Fire Festival and Torch Light Performance of Noh.”
We are getting on the bus.
This signboard says
“Although Oyama Afuri Shrine has
Noh theatre performance tonight,
we cannot guarantee a fine weather.
Please accept any radical changes
in program due to weather.
All the seats are outdoors.
Please prepare yourself for rain or winds.
Usage of umbrellas is strongly discouraged.”
Shamukyoku-Iriguchi Bus Stop 社務局入口

At Shamukyoku-Iriguchi stop, we get off the bus, and cross the road and the bridge over Suzukawa River 鈴川. The road to the performance site is VERY congested from the bus stop. It’s difficult to get lost your way, so don’t worry. There is a community surrounding the administrative office of Afuri Shrine including several tofu shops. You can purchase tofu there before entering the venue, and ask the store people to keep your tofu in their refrige to be picked up after the performance. Their tofu is De-Li-Cious. If you are a bit more courageous, you can also ask them to give you tofu refuse, Okara おから in Japanese, made of soy beans. Normally, the people in Oyama town are generous and give you okara for free. Okara can be a very good veggie burger and many dishes (recipes here.) 😋 Once you situate yourself in the venue, just relax. Your fellow theatre goers may have a good time with beer and sake under the open air of Mt. Oyama … the atmosphere was very similar to summer concerts in the forest of Kenwood. Picnic foods, wine, laughter ...

Just follow the crowd.
Fire trucks are ready for the festival.
At the end of the road is the ticket booth for reserved seats.
Turn left at the booth for reservation,
and first right to the “free” seats.
You have to have an invitation postcard
to pass the gate over there.
More to this postcard at the end of this post.
One of the tofu shops
located in front of the admin office of the shrine
From the admin office,
we could admire the peak of Mt. Oyama,
under the cloud …

There is a bit of a story about Noh performance in Afuri Shrine. During the long history of Oyama worship, the most powerful patron for the shrine and Oyama Temple 大山寺 was Tokugawa Shogunate that governed Japan for 1600-1868. It was the time when Oyama pilgrimage from Tokyo (Edo 江戸) became uber-popular. Many people and, inevitably, conflicts were brought in to the sacred mountain. One of the most serious was a rivalry between temple monks and Yamabushi priests 山伏 affiliated with the shrine. Often, they were young and ambitious “religious males” to pursue the “purest doctrine of their belief” and disdained “unbelievers” active in the same Mt. Oyama domain. They fought, physically and daily. (Sounds eerily familiar in some other parts of the current world, doesn’t it?) Shogunate worried the escalation of violence, and envisaged a clever solution. In the late 17th century, they dispatched a Noh master, Kishi Matashichiroh 貴志又七郎, from Kishu Kanzeryu School 紀州観世流 to Mt. Oyama and let him organize twice-yearly official Noh performances acted by monks and priests TOGETHER. Creating a theatrical performance requires a damned-well team work. If that’s the order of Shogun with absolutely superior military power, young gangs in the mountain had no choice to study and work together under master Kishi. (Hm. Sometimes, a dictator could act very effectively ...) Eventually, they had no time to fight and the peace arrived in Mt. Oyama. The tradition of Noh performance continued till Americans started bombing Japanese cities in 1944. After the war, for a while, money and people were dissipated to hold performing arts in Mt. Oyama. Then, about 40 years ago, together with the previous chief priest of the Afuri Shrine, the largest school of Noh, Kanzeryu 観世流, and the oldest school of Kyogen 狂言, Okuraryu 大蔵流, began the project to resurrect the tradition. In 1980, the current style of “Afuri Shrine Fire Festival and Torch Light Performance of Noh” was established. The 2017 event is its 37th. Oh, by the way, for a full-Noh performance program, Noh and Kyogen must be presented alternately.

They are the seats for 4000 yen.
The Noh stage of Mt. Oyama Afuri Shrine.
It’s one of the best Noh stages in Japan.

The idea of revived Noh festival in Mt. Oyama is a combination of the fire festival traditionally held in late August and the Noh performance under torch lights with a community theatre component. This year, the first night of the festival was opened by Kaniyamabushi Kyogen story 蟹山伏 by Oyama Community Kyogen Group 大山狂言. It’s a classic comedy of arrogant Yamabushi who was tormented by a mountain crab goblin. The actors of the program were enthusiastic amateurs who train themselves to preserve 300 years’ tradition for a community theatre of peace. It was a fun! Come to think of it, the origin of the event was bigheaded behavior of Yamabushi and monks. Ordinary people laughing out loud their snobbism is the best fit for the occasion. After Kaniyamabushi, the mayor of the City of Isehara and the local representative for the National Diet gave a small speech to celebrate the festival. They were followed by a ritual of purification by the priests of the shrine to announce the beginning of the fire festival. Next, in time to ancient hypnotic court music played by priests, young shrine maidens brought the fire created at the peak of Mt. Oyama to the sacred space next to the Noh stage. A pile of firewood was situated at the center of the place demarcated by 4 pillars of purified bamboos on which the maidens lit the fire. Then, the priests recited the chant, expressing the gratitude to God Oyama, and asking peace in human world. The prayer was reinforced by following arrow-and-bow and Japanese pole sword rituals 弓矛神事 on the Noh stage. Finally, the priests transfer the sacred fire to the torches strategically located around the Noh theatre. When the community actors performed, the sun was still shining and the cicadas were singing merrily in the forest. By the time the priests made the fire torches, the voice of evening cicadas was echoing in the forest of slightly chilly but pure air. The stage was ready for the professional Noh actors.

Kaniyamabushi Kyogen
The shrine maidens to transfer the sacred fire
The fire ritual
The arrow and bow ritual
The priests are making torch lights for Noh performance.

The opening of a full Noh theatre is always Hitori-okina (“An Old Man Alone”) 一人翁. At the beginning of 2017 torch-light Noh in Mt. Oyama, a priest conducted a rite of purification for the actor and musicians of Hitori-okina on stage. Then, the Noh actor Kanze Yoshinobu 観世芳伸 performed the dance of offering to God Oyama, Hitori-okina. The beer-and-loud-chat atmosphere at the beginning completely disappeared. But unlike Noh theatres indoors, the forest in the mountain, darkening sky, smells of torch lights and water of nearby Suzukawa River … curiously claim their absolute existence during this semi-prayer dance. Hitori-okina was followed by two Shimai dance 仕舞, Dohkan 道灌 with Matsuki Chitoshi 松木千俊, and Matsukaze 松風 with Takeda Yukifusa 武田志房. Shimai is a sort of abridged Noh dance taken from a longer story and performed without masks or specific costume. I was amazed by simply-clad actor’s small movement of arm, or of a golden fan that could change the flow of air at once in the theatre. The expectation was mounting. The penultimate program was Jizohmai Kyogen 地蔵舞 performed by Yamamoto Tohjiro 山本東次郎 (an Living National Treasure title holder) and Yamamoto Yasutaroh 山本泰太郎. Jizohmai is a comedy where a monk declared abstinence during his pilgrimage but in his effort to find one-night shelter in a mountain succumbed to drinking and started to dance called Jizohmai. 80 years old Yamamoto Tohjiro sit very cute in the center of the stage, looked like an emoji of a teenage girl. The charm of Kyogen of that night was both programs incisively making sarcastic remarks about the self-importance of Buddhism monks and Shinto priests, without being cruel for anybody. Maybe, that’s the secret to settle a bickering among too-ardent religious people. By the end of Jizohmai, Mt. Oyama was in complete darkness where the torch fires illuminated brightly the stage, and the shadows of forests were drifting with the chorus of crickets. The entire space was vast-open, but the stage without any props was like a core of concentrated something. The conclusion of the evening was Funa-Benkei 船弁慶 which is a story of a defeated samurai master Minamoto-no Yoshitsune 源義経. During his rout, he had to bid a farewell to his beloved wife Shizuka 静御前 and battle against a ghost of slain enemy Taira-no Tomomori 平知盛, with a help of his faithful follower monk Benkei 武蔵坊弁慶. When the first protagonist Sizuka was on stage, the air was beautiful but painfully silent and tense. The actor Kanze Kiyokazu 観世清和 (the current grand master for Kanzeryu School and a recipient of L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) wore beautiful female mask and just by slightly changing a direction of his movement expressed silent agony of the brave but desperate wife. After the lovers separated, the second protagonist, the ghost of Taira-no Tomomori by Yamashina Yaemon 山階右衛門 (a younger brother of Kanze Kiyokazu), burst in the stage with a fury for revenge. He wore the mask of devil and menacingly approached to the party of Yoshitsune. The actor did not wear any bloody costume or smelly-looking gown like characters in Macbeth, but we could feel the death. I had a flush back of a scene I encountered ages ago in Bois de Vincennes for Théâtre du Soleil. My French is so rudimentary that it’s unfair to comment the intention of Ariane Mnouchkine … but I realized what she wanted to have in Paris could be this intensity in Oyama Noh created from the medieval script from Japan. Both stages were in the forest … Cartoucherie de Vincennes created a stage by closing off the space with a tent. Oyama Noh set a stage without any wall and let the forest to interact uncontrollably during the performance ... Oh what the difference a forest can make to human expression … Around the time Sizuka withdrew from the stage, the 13th night moon appeared above the stage, welcoming the ghost of defeated soldier. Over the waning moon, the clouds were moving slowly just like the movement of Noh actors. The moonlight and torch lights changed the silhouettes of the forest over the stage meditatively … The evening was ended by another prayer dedicated to God of Oyama. Great. The art in the forest.

Er, well, the photos of professional actors were not taken
as I thought there must be copy right issues.
But, the moon is beautiful, isn’t it?
An empty space again

If you plan to have an invitation ticket for a free seat for Oyama Noh Festival, you send a reply-paid postcard by Japan Post to

The Committee for Himatsuri-Takiginoh at Oyama Afuri Shrine 大山阿夫利神社社務局火祭薪能実行委員会
355 Oyama, Isehara City, 259-1107 伊勢原市大山355
(phone) 0463-95-2006

with your name, address, phone number and the date you plan to attend in message part. One application per person only. No group request accepted. Deadline of application is 2 weeks before the first performance. If the number of applications exceeds more than 1000, the shrine holds a lottery and luckies will receive an invitation postcard in reply. Otherwise, their reply says “we are sorry.” They accept the application from August every year. Good luck!

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