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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 1999

Cheeky gods, mystic mountains


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

A forested haven with deep gorges and countless mountain shrines, how could Takachiho not be a home for the gods? Legend has it that the sun goddess Amaterasu once hid her light from the world in a cave here, and that nearby Kirishima is where demigod Ninigi no Mikoto descended from heaven to earth. Takachiho has long been associated with the mythic beginnings of Japan.

High up in Miyazaki Prefecture's moist green highlands, Takachiho is popular in summer for its steep cool gorge, clear rivers, waterfalls and lush forests. But now, winter is the season to catch Takachiho's kagura.

This mythical performance, dating back to before the ninth century, is one of the oldest such versions of the over 2,000 kagura that are known to exist throughout Japan.

Kagura is a performance that blends dance and theater, usually in 33 "scenes" that invoke the Shinto gods inherent to natural life. In rural areas, it is also a celebration of harvest thanksgiving and a plea for the long days of sunshine to return to earth. Although many smaller kagura performances are held in Takachiho's surrounding areas, the winter yokagura (night kagura) at Takachiho Jinja is the most elaborate and dramatic. It is nevertheless a satokagura or rural kagura, as opposed to a mikagura, or Imperial court performance.

Takachiho's yokagura is held in the months between the dark, short days of late November and the middle of February when the days begin to lengthen. It begins with "Hikomai," a solo performance explaining the very birth of the Japanese islands and the gods with them. The popular fourth dance, "Chinju," shows the gods' descent into the shrine. Thus the tales of the mischievous gods' foibles begin, a colorful journey through sibling rivalry, love, lust, drunkenness, eating, friendship, loyalty and more. It ends with the "Kumo-oroshi" dance, in which five gods (and a cloud) make their noisy exit.

The origins of kagura are said to stem from the ancient belief that, upon a person's death, rituals of song and dance could prevent the soul from leaving the body. But perhaps the real fascination of kagura lies in the human imagination, our ability to thrill and horrify with our own spooky creations and somber settings.

Masks representing grim and crazed demons are donned, instantly transforming dancers from local farmers to ominous spirits. Wearing elaborate robes, they whirl and leap to the raw, intoxicating rhythm of the bamboo flute, taiko drum and cymbals. Children in the audience squeal in real and affected fright. Adults look out at the darkness beyond the dimly lit stage, and shudder at the presence of innumerable natural forces.

Takachiho Shrine's winter yokagura is held around 8 p.m. (see schedule below) and continues until dawn or midday the next day. It's so popular that a one-hour adaptation is also performed every day of the year, between 8 and 9 p.m. Audiences are as likely to come from Sendai as they are from San Francisco.

On the other hand, at Mukoyama, just 14 km away and high up in the mountains, the audiences gathered for each of January's one-day-only performance are usually relatives, unless the ice melts and the steep slippery road there becomes navigable. But visitors are generally welcome at kagura performances -- they are believed to bring good luck.

Vast quantities of sake and local cooking help keep up the ritual and the frenzied, frightening energy of the performers. At some villages, specialties such as wild boar soup are served to all from a seemingly bottomless caldron. The smaller the kagura gathering you attend, the more likely you are to befriend the locals or end up with a belly full of delicious local cooking. It's all great fun.

Of course, Takachiho's numerous other sights help make it very worthwhile visiting. The town itself is old-fashioned and charming, with well-kept wooden houses and gnarled trees -- a refreshing change to the relentlessly plastic look of Japan's more modern townscapes.

Several temples and onsen are dotted around Takachiho, along with pottery workshops selling unique and finely crafted kagura-style masks. You'll also find a number of inexpensive inns and simple eateries here.

The main road meanders down to the spectacular Takachihokyo gorge. Here, a narrow clear river slices a dramatic path through steep cliffs, and if you stand or take a boat ride at the bottom you will enter another world. The vertical rock faces are covered with moisture and fine waterfalls, and the sky is a remote light beyond the dark green forest. It is truly magical.

Many walks can be made from here, to nearby destinations such as the Unkaibashi bridge and Yunotaki caves, or to the distant peaks of Mount Sobo -- a good 20 km. Ascending to the peaks late in the day in autumn you may see, if you're lucky, the valleys below filled to the rim by thick fluffy clouds, a distinctive phenomenon of the area known as unkai, a sea of clouds.

For a fun, final Takachiho story to remember, head 6 km up the road to Amano Iwato Shrine. A cave here may be the site where, according to legend, the enraged sun goddess Amaterasu once hid herself, only to be lured back by an outrageous dancer. The instant Amaterasu peeped outside, a mirror was used to steal her brilliant light and shine it back on the world permanently. The gods are no doubt still flourishing in Takachiho, making their mischief somewhere between the lush forests and the mask of a kagura dancer.

From Fukuoka, take the Kyushu Expressway to Matsubashi IC, then Highway 218 to Takachiho, or take public transport to Kumamoto, then an express bus to Takachiho. For more information, contact the Takachiho Tourist Information Center at (0982) 73-1213 or Takachiho Jinja at (0982) 72-2413). The winter kagura schedule is Dec. 4, 11, 14 and 18; Jan. 8, 15, 22, 29 and Feb. 10.


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