The Heron Dance｜鷺舞 (Sagi-mai)
The Sagi-Mai, or Heron Dance, is considered one of the important cultural treasures of Japan. This is the sacred dance of the Yasaka Shrine festival, performed on the 20th and 27th of July at the Gion Festival. It has its origin in Kyoto, and in Tsuwano it is designated as an intangible cultural asset by the Japanese Government.
This dance originated at the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto but was later brought to neighboring Yamaguchi. It was in 1542 that the Yoshimi family of the Tsuwano clan introduced the Sagi-Mai from Yamaguchi and made it part of the annual festival. In the old days it was believed, that by performing this ritual one can protect oneself from infectious diseases.
It is said, that the Heron Dance has been performed for more than 450 years only in Tsuwano as even at its origin, the then-capital Kyoto, at one time this tradition was discontinued. For generations now, it has been carried on by the people of Tsuwano, who are proud to continue this tradition.
In the dance, there are two white herons, one male and one female (the one with open mouth is the male). There are also two, red wigged boufuri who are fending off daemons with their long sticks.
Heron Dance in the Tsuwano domain
It is said that the festival was held each year on Jun 7th and 14th (according to the lunar calendar), and that the domain lord himself would watch from the watching-tower on the main street in front of the palace.
Hyakkeizu No. 17 Sagi-mai (Dance of the Heron) at the Gion Festival
The Dance of the Heron would start from Yasaka-shrine, go to the front of the palace, and then it performed at the residence of the given year’s organizer, as well as at the otabisho (temporary destination or midway resting point of the deity) and in front of mansions in Tonomachi, Hara, and Nakajima.
There is also a Heron Dance performed by elementary school students, which started in the 1950s. Make sure to watch this charming performance too.