When foreigners seek out a new experience in Japan, it often falls into one of four major categories: the “weird,” the food-oriented, sightseeing, or a “deep” experience that imbues the mind with a sense of truly knowing something about Japan. Mizudome no mai falls into the latter category.
The origins of this festival – whose name literally means, “Dance to stop the rain” – took place in the first centuries of the previous millennium. In the year 1321, the Omorimachi area of Tokyo’s Ota City suffered a terrible drought. The townsfolk begged the local temple’s high priest to pray for rain but, two years later, their prayers were answered in the worst way possible; the returning rainfall resulted in a flood. Fearing that their prayers were the cause of this excess in precipitation, the community then conceived this annual festival to ask the gods to stop the downpour; hence the “dance to stop the rain.”
In this celebration, visitors are captured by a net of their own heartstrings and cast into a sense of oneness with the local townsfolk. The shrill and haunting cry of traditional Japanese flutes launches the festivities near the vintage copper-blue gates of the local junior high school. Then, suddenly, two “dragons” are lugged down the approximately 30-minute procession to the local temple, in two to three-yard increments. These dragons are portrayed by two local men – horizontally swaddled in conch-shaped cocoons of woven straw, each sporting a shiroshozoku: a white, ceremonial two-piece garment. Every so often, a team of volunteers wearing matching dragon-scale patterned hanten jackets pelt the dragons with water, often soaking local bystanders in the process. The dragons, in response, blow into their conch shells: conveying the beasts’ shouts of joy. Numerous children run frantically through the crowds that follow the dragons’ procession, on either side of beasts’ path. Occasionally, the kids pause in mock fear of getting wet but, more often than not, they squeal with glee when they get drenched.
Following the dragons, the middle of the procession is made up of kindergarten children: one row of girls to one side, and a row of boys to the other. Each child sports a mini dragon-scale jacket, their heads capped by white bandanas. In their left hand, each child clutches a purple Japanese sensu fan, while their right hand grips a bamboo walking staff with which they pound the ground. Older musicians bring up the rear of the parade. Two young women wearing white monks’ robes, and sporting flower-basket headdresses on their heads, have their identities concealed by a 360-degree red curtain hanging from their headdresses. Three male dancers in dragon-scale robes also have their identities concealed by tubular curtains hanging from their dragon-themed headdress with black-feather hair.
An overwhelming scent of incense marks the transition as we pass through Gonshoji’s temple gates. The dragons’ soaking attendants gradually haul the aforementioned beasts up a ramp leading to a stage erected in the middle of the temple grounds. The beasts, in turn, try to resist their captors, knowing that they will be unraveled once they reach the top. Once atop of the stage, the headdress wearers then join them. It is said that at that point, the dragons become Shishi Lions. Their dance of supplication for the gods to stop the rain may then finally begin. A nearby father tells his daughter, “It was exactly like this when I was a child.”
The conclusion dance is divided into six parts. Firstly, the female lion dances by herself. Then, we witness the first encounter between the middle lion and the big one. In part three, all lions dance together. Part four consists of the “dance of Kohohon,” and part five tells the tale of the two male lions fighting over the female. Part six then sees all the lions dancing together again. Even if religious authorities themselves admit that the meaning of certain details has been lost through the centuries, the depth and weight of the ritual are still appreciated by the devoted and tourists alike. Should the reader still be searching for their piece of real Japan, this is definitely one place where it may still be had.
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JR Keihin‐Tohoku line [Omori Station] East exit; Keikyu‐bus towards Morigasaki, Omori Higashi Gochome, or towards Haneda‐shako at [Omori Police bus stop]; 5 minutes of walking distance.