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Black Lion Festival of Nagai

The annual festival to appease the river spirits in Nagai city, Yamagata Prefecture Japan

The Black Lion festival is an annual festival that takes place in Nagai, the city I was stationed to teach English. So, this time, I didn't have to travel far to enjoy the experience. I merely had to pull out my bike and ride it fifteen minutes to Shirotsutsuji park at the center of the city. As I drew near to the park, it became obvious that the event I was about to attend was a particularly popular and important one. There were crowds everywhere, and so many cars coming to park that a traffic policeman had been hired to direct them. Shortly outside the park the crowds became too thick to bike and I had to dismount to walk the rest of the way.

I was attending the event with a friend and his family, and we met outside the park before walking in together. It wasn't easy to get inside. The entire park was filled to the brim with people and with makeshift stalls that had been erected in a large circle around the park. The center of the park was composed of another circle, of people crowding around a guard railing which had been placed to keep the onlookers outside the performance area. This was a large circular clearing where a Black Lion could already be seen dancing, weaving, snapping and bobbing around the clearing at the instigation of a priest and a priest's assistant with a rice paper lantern.

Immediately, I understood why the festival was so popular. The Black Lion, which was really a sort of makeshift dragon composed of a fiersome head and a massive dark blue cloak that hid at least a dozen men underneath, was enchanting to watch. The many seperate movements of the men under the cloack made the cloak ripple and undulate in an unexpectedly life like way, as if it was the real skin and veins coiling along the tail of a dragon. The mask at the head also had a simple mechanism inside it that allow someone at the helm to open and close the mouth, giving the dragon the ability to snap its jaws with deep "thwacks" that resounded around the clearing. The snapping was an important part of the performance - the priest led the dragon around the clearing to the crowds hanging at its edge, yelled at them in a deep voice (in Japanese) to bow their heads, and when the crowd had bowed before the Black Lion it would lower its maw over their heads and deliver an impressive Snap.

Being snapped at by the dragon, in this way, was actually good luck explained the friend who was with me. The people prayed as they bowed their heads, wishing for fortune in different pursuits in their life, and the dragon's maw snapping shut above their heads indicated the acceptance of their prayers. It was quite exciting for someone in the crowd to have the good fortune of being snapped at.

All of this performance was accompanied by a unyielding stream of flute-song and drums. There was a team of about ten men at the drums, and another ten women at the flute (I believe it was gendered in that way, though I didn't pay close enough attention to see if some women were at the drum and some men at the flute). The flutes delivered a shrill, unearthly sort of pining sound that was at one and the same time unsettling and comforting. It seemed to sort of rend the mind and the spirit from the body, making you feel like you had truly entered into the spirit realm where the Black Lion lived to behold its dance. The drums, along with the war-like shouting of the priest, made the heart race. It felt almost like the scene of a battle.

Once again, my friend provided valuable context. The logic behind the ceremony was that the Black Lion (again - not really a lion, but a dragon) represented the spirit of the local rivers, especially the Mogami river which flowed through the whole region. The dance of the Black Lion began with the river-spirit escaping from a local shrine, where it would ceremonially dance with and "battle" the priest, before ultimately being forced by the priest to return to the confines of the shrine. There, the river spirit's rage would be contained for another year, allowing for an abundant harvest (it was no coincidence that the festival took place every year at around the same time Nagai filled the rice fields with water into order to facilitate the final stages of growth of the rice).

There were many Black Lions all across Nagai that evening, my friend further explained. Each of them represented either a different river or a different neighborhood in the area. Close attention would show that the masks of each Lion were slightly different - a heritage of the different towns and districts under Nagai's purview. And just about every shrine in Nagai was currently witnessing its own performances. For that one day, Nagai was alive with Black Lions, weaving and dancing through all the streets in a majestic, fearsome display of the sort of natural-spiritual power that was the beating heart of Shinto.

Shirotsutsuji park did not actually have a shrine, so one had been temporarily erected at the front of the clearing in which the dance took place. Eventually, the priest steered the dragon to the shrine's entrance, where it laid down and pretened to refuse to enter. Then, with a might shout and a heave, the priest forced it through the shrine's gate where, with a final round of lethargic, almost sorrowful dancing, the lion approached the altar of the shrine. With a mad flurry, the entire dragon was then cast off and swiftly poured into a sort of container within the altar, representing the imprisonment and the appeasement of the dragon's wrath. Dethrobed of their Black Lion cloak, the large team of men who'd made the dance possible then turned to the crowd and gave a deep bow to mighty applause.

It seemed for a moment like that might be the end of the festivites. Then, only a short time later, fresh shouting sounded from the edge of the park, and a new Black Lion appeared. This dragon too was eventually steered into the clearing, where it began a new dance, and a new battle, with a different priest. In that way, at least five Black Dragons danced that evening before the final performance that marked the true end of the festival.

We took a break from watching the dances to wander around and explore the stalls. There were all sorts of traditional Japanese festival foods on offering, as well as numerous stalls representing popular cafes and restaurants in town. My friend's three kids bought some sugar candies (I was kindly gifted a blue, sugar-candy lollipop in the shape of a star) and then together we lazily strolled to the back of the park to the vending machines. We purchased some sodas there and then sat on some bamboo mats that had been placed at the circumfrance of the park to enjoy homemade Yakisoba (fried noodles) that my friend's wife had prepared. It was my first time trying fried noodles, and I was happily impressed (to the extent it made me wonder, why more restaurants didn't offer them on the menu).

We were sitting at these mats near the street when we saw the final performance of the evening appear - not one, but TWO Black Lions at once. My friend was surprised - apparently, it was very rare for two dragons to dance at the same time. As we watched, they began their steady approach to the clearing. Seeing that the festival was about to hit its crescendo, we wandered back to the clearing for the finale (though my friend's kids once again disappeared briefly, to purchase some spirit fox masks that had caught their eye).

The double-dragon dance was almost unbelievably well choreaographed. The two dragons moved in unison, as if of the same mind, and often side-by-side so close it was a wonder that they didn't run into one another. In fact, it was a good thing that they didn't. Part of the performance included the priest ritually pouring huge amounts of Sake (alcohol) down the dragon's throat, causing the performers underneath to get very drunk. Their drunkeness probably was one of the secret ingredients that made the performance and the dragon's undulating seem so random, life-like and convincing. But it also made it so that fights apparently frequently broke out at these festivals, with one drunk dragon-dancer laying into another. It wasn't difficult to imagine a full war of the dragons breaking out if even one of the dragons had stepped on the toes of the other.

Then, the scene of the dragons being led to the shrine and refusing entry repeated itself. This time, there were two priests to force the two dragons through and together, they turned and weaved their sorrowful final dance to the shrine's altar. In a rush the dragons were gone, and with another round of thundering applause, the festival concluded. I said goodbye to my friend and his family, walked back to my bike, and made the short ride home in the pleasantly cool air of the Japanese spring time at night.

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