ZAIDO

ZAIDO (Dedicated to My Late Father...)

Nothing had prepared me for my father’s death. He was taken by a blood cancer before the family knew he was seriously ill. There was little time to talk, to prepare. We couldn’t even say out last “SAYONARA” (goodbye). One day he was there and the next day- an empty place in the family.

When he was gone the seemed to be no recovering. The house seemed full of sorrow and shock. In my room at night, expecting to hear my fathers voice, I heard only the weeping of my sister.

Sorrow was eating away at my little sister's mind and body. It was during that time I also suffered two serious injuries to my face and legs by big accident. I lost sense of smell and could neither walk nor show myself. They seemed fatal. I felt death sitting with me in the darkness, waiting. but I somehow managed to escape death.

Very slowly, the darkness began to recede. The routine of life seem about to resume. Little did we know the next blow was poised over our heads.

As we were about to return to our daily lives, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck. Our tragedy seemed mirrored in the tragedy of the land itself.

Watching as the black waves engulfed the northern city, houses burning one after another, the people of Japan all felt unimaginable despair, losing all hope in one single moment. As if nightmares appearing one after the other, these new realities bruised my body and soul, leaving me feeling as if I had taken a severe beating. With no strength left whatsoever, I found it hard to even get out of bed in the morning.

On one such day, my deceased father came to me in a dream. “Go to this village hidden in deep snow where I lived a long time ago”, my father whispered to me. I followed my fathers instructions and boarded a train, called The Galaxy Express. When I got off at a small village it was covered in silvery white snow. Mist had settled, making it seem like a otherworldly dream place.

There, an ancient 1300-year old shrine ritual, dating from the Nara period, was being performed. One after another, people who had gathered from the four local communities – Ohsato, Azukizawa, Nagamine, and Taninai – carried out an elegant dance, dedicated to the patron god of the shrine. This festival is called ZAIDO and is said to be based on Danburi-choja or Dragonfly millionaire, an old legend. It is on the second day of every new year, well before the break of dawn – for the dances themselves start with the first rays of the sun – that the people of these communities make their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where the seven ritual dances – Gongen-mai, Koma-mai, Uhen-mai, Tori-mai, Godaison-mai, Kōshō-mai, and Dengaku-mai – are performed with the hopes of good fortune in the New Year. Though wearing different masks and costumes, young and old alike take part in the festivities, demonstrating an almost paradoxical set of values – the cultural variety of the communities they come from, as well as the unbreakable bond between the generations, and therein lies the reason for the long survival of the ritual.

ZAIDO, also known as Important Day Dance, is thought to have originated in the early 8th century when the Imperial Palace's ensemble paid a visit to Hachimantai in Akita Prefecture. After the decline in state support of Shinto temple complexes, the cast out court performers found abode in the small community, repaying their favor by teaching the locals their art. It is through this somewhat unlikely union that bugaku was preserved to this day, in the form of folk art.

Though the festival's history is long and it has been passed down to many generations during the 1300 years of its existence, there are said to have been times when it had a difficulty surviving – during the late 18th century, it ceased to exist for almost six decades. Because of numerous cases of fire, most ancient texts concerning the ritual, as well as ancient religious imagery were destroyed, and it had no other way of surviving than through repetition based only on word-of-mouth. There is said to have also been a time when the gold leaf covered mask used for Godaison-mai was stolen, thus interrupting the sacred gathering of the four villages. It was only because of the dedication of the community and their shared spiritual beliefs that the ritual managed to survive – not unchanged, but instead taking on the unique characteristics of this northern place; something that the people of Hachimantai still take great pride in to this very day.

Before the ritual, the noshu, that is – the people performing the sacred dance – are required to undertake a very strict purification. In the longest documented cases, some of these noshu are known to have gone through 48-day long periods of complete abstinence. During these periods of religious asceticism, the participants of the ritual are prohibited from sleeping in the same room as their spouses and must avoid childbirth in their own home, as well as visiting the homes of the recently deceased. They must also not eat the meat of any animal that walks on four legs. Though currently preserved as a part of the purification ritual at only a fragment of the localities, a ritual involving the performance of mizugori (cold water ablutions) also exists. These purification rituals still hold great importance, because it is thought that bad things would occur if the noshu were to neglect performing them. It is good to note that all of this is performed thoroughly, regardless of the fact that the place, located at the border of three prefectures – Aomori, Iwate, and Akita – can reach temperatures of -20°C in winter. From our modern society's viewpoint, shojinkessai (self-purification) seems like a very hard thing to do.

Japan is a country surrounded by sea from all sides. That is why, a specific way of life and culture, unlike that of any other country, exist here. This, however, is not the only difference between Japan and the rest of the world. Sadly, natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions are also much a part of the Japanese everyday life.

These days, I fear that the culture that has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation through many sacrifices, is sadly starting to disappear. And yet, regardless of how many hardships they have to endure, how many times they have to fall down and get back up, there still exist people who are willing to continue protecting it. It is through their dedication and the great impact it left – and continues to leave – on me that I am able to find a meaning to life again. I would like to express my greatest respect for the villagers' love and enthusiasm for the local community, as well as my gratitude to the people of the community who treated me like family, as well as to my father, watching from Heaven.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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Children dancing the bird dance. The bird dance is said to be the dance of the birds kept by the Danburi Chouja in the legend of ""Danburi Chouja"". There are three dancers, each of whom wears a male, female and chick crown on their heads as they dance the dance.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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On the morning of the festival, the moon was still in the sky, looking down on the land. The snow had completely covered the lush summer fields with a blanket of snow. Winter can be very cold, sometimes as high as -20 degrees Celsius, and it can be very harsh.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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The performers walk through the snow to the shrine. In a place where the temperature difference between summer and winter is so great that the maximum temperature on a winter day can be as low as -20 degrees Celsius, this practice can be very demanding for the young participants. We tried to capture this in a fantastic atmosphere where reality and fantasy intersect.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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The green bamboos that are erected in the four corners of the house, mainly during festivals held outside, such as ground-breaking ceremonies, are known as bamboos and are also written as sai bamboos. When a festival is held outside, a shimenawa (generally, a sakaki with a paper streamer attached) is erected at the location and the gods associated with the festival descend to it. Since the first priority is to keep the gods clean, the place where the gods descend must be a purified and clean sanctuary. For that reason, we set up the bamboos and stretch a shorenawa to show that it is a sanctuary. The bamboo is also considered one of the clean plants, along with the sakaki.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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The Nohsu(Performer) make their way to the shrine on the snowy road. The difference between the annual high and low temperatures here is so great that some days it's midsummer and Celsius (C: Celsius), with some days as cold as -20°C. Winters are extremely cold, with snowfall, snow cover and mid-winter days being observed early in the county. The month of January, when the festival takes place, is very cold and difficult for children who have to walk on long snowy roads.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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Behind the Heian Shrine, in a place called "Nishino-Kakuchi", noshu from the villages of Azukizawa and Ohsato perform "Gongen-mai" and "Koshoh-mai"

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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This is the shrine grounds where ZAIDO takes place. Of the four settlements, from the shrine's main approach Nohshuperformers from Nagamine and Taninai villages come into the path. From the back approach, Nohshu players from Ohsato and Azukizawa villages come in. They each carry a flag and a lantern (chōchin).

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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On that day, the Taniuchi and Nagamine group will enter the precincts from the front approach, and the Osato and Shodusawa group will enter the precincts from the back approach, and when the four districts are gathered together, a shu-poaching ritual, Jizo dance, and Hagozo event will be held. The photo shows the dancers dancing in a circle around the precincts.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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A child of the bird dance drinking water at the Chouzuya, Chouzuya, and Temizuya, or hand water house. Some years ago, he was buried in the snow that fell from the roof of the shrine and his life was in danger. His mothers rescued him and he survived.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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The staircase is so long that you can't see how far it goes. When you look at these stairs, you don't know whether you're going up or down, like in Escher's painting. Also, where does it lead to? Does it continue into the past or into the future? It's a strange staircase that can be interpreted differently by the viewer.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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Nohshu( performers) must perform strict devotional jesusai, which may be long or short, depending on their role. The longest Noh actors have performed the act for forty-eight days. During the jisai, couples must keep their bedrooms separate, avoid giving birth in the house of a noh actor, and not go to the house of a dead person or eat animal flesh. In today's society, devotional jisai seems to be very strict.

© Yukari Chikura - Old pictures, hanging in an liquor store which has been open since 1856.
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Old pictures, hanging in an liquor store which has been open since 1856.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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An astronomical telescope placed in the attic of an old house. This area has a very heavy snowfall, so it has a sloping roof to keep the snow off.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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Ema (picture-horse; a name, originating from the tradition of donating horses to shrines)–little wooden slabs with wishes or prayers on them, left at the shrine by the worshipers for the kami (Shinto gods). Often depicting animals and bearing the word gan’i (wish), they can be found at any shrine, the shrinegoers’ hopes for good health, marital happiness, successful exams, etc. written on them.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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Cold water ablutions are perfomed in the middle of the night to cleanse the body as a part of this purification. Seems like a very tough thing to do as a young person, doesn't it? On the day this photo was taken, there was a particularly heavy blizzard. The weather was so bad that it was impossible to see well in front of us. Out of the four villages that hold this festival, only one still performs the cold water ablutions.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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The many ravens are arranged like musical notes on a staff. The mythical ""Yatagarasu"", the three-legged crow, is said to have three legs and is worshiped as a God of Guidance or Incarnation of the Sun. The three legs of Yatagarasu are said to represent heaven, earth, and man,respectively. It is also said that he is a divine messenger sent by Amaterasu-Omikami. As the shrine where ZAIDO is performed is dedicated to Amaterasu-Omikami, I felt a strange connection to this scene.

© Yukari Chikura - Before dawn, the boys lowered their lanterns and walked to the shrine.
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Before dawn, the boys lowered their lanterns and walked to the shrine.

© Yukari Chikura - Image from the ZAIDO photography project
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It's a fantastic night, a shrine in the snow. This is a shrine to Amaterasu-Oomikami, Goddess of the Sun. It is said that Amaterasu-Omikami is the goddess who deified the sun. There is a legend of Amaterasu-Omkami, called ""Legend of Amano-Iwato"" (The Heavenly rock gate).

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