Next to Senso-ji, the big Buddhist temple in Asakusa, 8 dancers in white heron costumes perform, accompanied by 3 warriors, 1 baton twirler, 1 feeder, 1 grand-umbrella holder, 19 musicians and guardian children, all in traditional costumes of the Heian period. First, they come up Nakamise-dori in a procession, pass through the gate and enter the main hall of Senso-ji. There, they remain for a prayer leave through the left hand side entrance and then gather in a free space for the dance.
On November 3rd, Culture Day, the Dance of the White Herons, shirasagi no mai (白鷺の舞) takes place. This year, it was on one of these steel blue Tokyo autumn days with crystal air that bring views of Fuji-san.
Now, the mythical beasts spread their wings which catch and reflect the clear autumn light.
The person standing under the big umbrella now leaves her place and throws colored paper snips to the birds – she’s the feeder, as it turns out.
The origin of the White Heron Dance can be traced back about 1000 years to the Yasaka Shrine Gion Festival in Kyoto, where it was used to drive away the pestilence.
The dance is linked to Senso-ji by a historical picture scroll which depicts the white herons in a ceremonial parade to pray for peace after the large-scale restoration of the temple in 1652. Long discontinued, Shirasagi no Mai was resuscitated in Asakusa only in 1968, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tokyo becoming the capital. Since then, it has been a yearly event.
The crowd around the dancers is considerable. Being taller than the average for once becomes a plus. The birds circle around, bend down to peck turn their heads. Why white herons, I wonder? Do they symbolize purity, are they messengers for the gods?
After the dance has ended, I realize that the colored paper strips must be very lucky, since people precipitate themselves to gather them. By the time I figure it out, there are none left, the old ladies already took care of them.