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Thursday, March 03, 2016

Hattori Yashiki - Dancing and Drumming on Hachijo Island

服部屋敷 八丈太鼓 樫立踊り

Kashitate odori dance & Hachijo Taiko drumming performance at Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island, Japan.
Kashitate odori dance & Hachijo Taiko drumming performance at Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island
(Animated GIF - click if it doesn't start)
We recently visited Hachijo Island, about 50 minutes south of Tokyo by air. This tiny, gourd-shaped island in the Philippine Sea is part of the Izu archipelago and is formed from two volcanoes and the saddle of land between them.

Our first stop after landing and picking up our 3,000 yen-a-day rental car with a temperamental starter engine was  - thanks to a flyer on the rental car company counter - an old homestead in the south of the island called Hattori Yashiki.

Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island, Tokyo, Japan.
Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island, Japan.
Yashiki means "homestead" and Hattori is the name of the family that used to be charged with the upkeep on the island of government ships that would visit for administrative purposes (the most important of which was the collection of silk cloth as tax).

A dance event there was advertised, starting at 10 a.m. We had nothing planned so it sounded like a good way to start our island experience. Nothing remains of the original homestead, and there is now a sprawling ramshackle building there, one half of which is a workshop and store making and selling Kihachijo silk goods in distinctive yellow, brown and black, dyed using local plants, and a large space with wooden seats and a stage, covered in beautiful flowers.  The grounds feature numerous big sago palms.

Sago palms on the grounds of Hattori Yashiki, Hachijojima Island.
Sago palms, Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island.
Nearly all the denizens of Hattori Yashiki are old, and its days seem numbered. We were the first ones there and for a few minutes fancied we might be the only ones - a lone pair in the great big hall, outnumbered by the performers. However, a busload of mainland tourists (from rural Hyogo, it turned out) turned up, and the atmosphere took on a buzz.

While waiting, we tried the warm yuzu juice and the coffee on sale, and I got chatting to a friendly middle aged man from the tourist group who had come and sat down alongside us.

The performance began on time. Two old men and two old women did the Kashitate odori dance: a dance that reflects the various origins of those who found themselves on Hachijo Island when it was a place of exile and banishment, and which is now registered as a Japanese intangible cultural property.

Another woman, who was the MC before the performance began, sang while the four danced. I was jolted when she produced her first note. As MC she had an old lady's voice, but as singer she came out with the clear tones of her lusty girlhood.

Orchids in front of the stage, Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island
Orchids in front of the stage, Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island
The dance was similar to most Japanese dances in its simplicity and in the way the lower half of the body seems weighted compared to the  more fluid upper half, yet belied by a surprising buoyancy and lightness of foot that saves that weightiness from being at all stolid.

Perhaps because the dancers were so old - all at least in their sixties, their personalities came through without any effort on their part to project them, adding another level of charm to the performance.

The two women were typically courteous and amiable in their demeanor. The glassy-eyed old man on the left looked as if he very much liked his sake, and from the way those eyes seemed rested on something beyond, could well have been wishing he was back with his bottle, his bluntly dexterous dancing seeming dutiful and dour. The taller, thinner man on the right was in a different world from the other, as if in the throes of drinking merriment - not its aftermath.

Old family photos, Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island, Japan.
Old family photos, Hattori Yashiki, Hachijo Island, Japan.
After a spot of audience participation, there was some Hachijo Taiko drumming. As with the dancing, the rhythms weren't tight, but very infectious. So were the short, sharp whoops both drummers made either side of the drum as they beat it; and the rhythms, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, were hypnotic in a way that only years of familiarity with, of being steeped in, rhythm-making can muster.

Next up was a spear dance, that brought a sharp, silvery hint of danger to the proceedings, yet at the same gravity-tethered pace.

We bought a cute little silk owl from the souvenir shop later for 600 yen, and  said goodbye to the group from Hyogo (who we kept bumping into for the rest of the day here and there!)

The animated gif above that I made of the event is because I was too busy taking photos to remember to take a video - which also explains the lack of a soundtrack. Imagine and enjoy.

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