The Nagai Kurojishi Festival
It’s mid-May in Nagai City. White azaleas swirl like snow in the wind, carrying with them the sound of wooden flutes and drums in the distance.
The sound marks the commencement of a tradition passed down over 1000 years; kurojishi. The mythical black lion dragons begin to dance simultaneously at over a dozen shrines within Nagai city, snaking through the streets like a raging river, before congregating at the White Azalea Park to complete their mystical ceremony signaling the start of the Kurojishi festival.
What is a Kurojishi?
Each shishi – lion – has a different face, carved with expert care by local artisans, all sharing the same wild hair and angry, bulging eyes. They gnash their teeth as they wind through the city – but this sight is nothing to be frightened of. In fact, Nagai citizens and visitors alike gather in the hundreds to take part in the annual ritual. Groups eagerly wait for their turn to bow under the clashing jaws of the shishi, offering their respects and prayers for prosperity.
Although lion dances are commonly seen in East Asia, the Nagai Kurojishi Festival is unique – while most lion dances are performed by one or two dancers, the kurojishi dance is performed by more than a dozen dancers beneath a large black curtain painted with white waves. The kurojishi’s monstrous carved head may look like a lion, but it actually represents a giant snake or dragon, meant to symbolize the spirit of the local rivers.
The white hair flowing from the beard and nose of the shishi comes from yaks in Tibet and other high altitude areas. The chief priest of each shrine wields a hossu – a short staff with hair bundled at the end meant to exorcize evil spirits – made of the same yak hair, and the shishi weaves along with the hossu’s movements. The chief priest leads the the shishi from house to house, sometimes stopping to fight with the wild spirit, and directing it to give blessings to the people by snapping its jaws over their bowed heads.
To fully understand this ancient festival, one has to dive into the centuries of interconnected history and legends that Nagai City is built upon.
History of the Kurojishi Festival
The embodiment of a dragon god, the shishi, with its long, snake-like body, is colored black to represent water in accordance with the Japanese onmyodo, “the way of Yin and Yang.”
Nagai, known as the “city of water”, is the perfect home for this god. Surrounded by mountains, the land where Nagai City was founded was created by runoff from mountain streams that formed a lush delta. The Mogami and Nogawa rivers carry especially soft, smooth water through the area, perfect for growing crops and drinking. Blessed by the water, people gathered and thrived in the area.
However, the blessings came at cost – the villagers lived in constant fear of violent floods.
In 801, the 44 villages in the area came together and erected a Shinto shrine at the confluence of the Mogami and Nogawa rivers, to pray for peace and calm waters. Enshrined here are the local deities of each of the 44 original villages, and the shrine became known as Somiya Shrine, the ichinomiya (highest ranked shrine) of Nagai to this day.
The Ledged of Princess Unohana
Over 200 years later, the lines of history blur into legend.
During the late Heian period, the Imperial Court in Kyoto and the Abe clan of Mutsu Province, modern day Northeast Tohoku, struggled for the upper hand in the Zenkunen War (1051-1063).
The Abe clan led the Emishi indigenous peoples of the region, and often fought with the province’s governor over taxes and administrative control. Seeing that the Abe clan refused to bend the knee, The Imperial Court sent samurai lord Minamoto no Yoriyoshi and his 15-year-old son Minamoto no Yoshiie north to meet Abe no Sadato, leader of the Abe clan, in battle and reclaim power over the Tohoku region.
Meanwhile, Abe no Sadato recognized Nagai as a stronghold vital to his cause. Strategically, he sent his beloved daughter Princess Unohana to rule over the area and send intel back to him.
It is said that Princess Unohana was as beautiful as a deer running through the woods. Strong-willed and skilled in training horses, she was often seen galloping the 400 meters (1300 feet) between Henshoji Temple and Somiya Shrine on horseback.
One day, Minamoto no Yoshiie and his retainer came to Nagai to pray for victory in the war. Yoshiie ran into the princess praying to Bato Kannon, the horse-headed Bodhisattva of Compassion, and she fell in love at first sight. Yoshiie made her believe that he did not want to fight her father’s army, telling her that though he sent troops to fight against Abe no Sadato, he only did so because he could not disobey the emperor’s orders. He assured her that he did not want to fight in vain, spilling more blood than necessary. If her father delivered his army to Kyoto, he said, he would beg the emperor to stop the war and let the Abe clan be safe and sound.
Princess Unohana, believing Minamoto no Yoshiie to be a trustworthy man and of the same heart and mind as herself, told him of her father’s strategy.
As soon as he heard this, he betrayed her by laying siege to her father’s fortress on the Kuriyagawa River in Iwate Prefecture. Abe no Sadato launched a strong counterattack, but it was too late. After several days of fierce fighting, with his water supply diverted and his fortress in flames, Abe no Sadato surrendered to the Minamotos. They carried his head back to Kyoto as a war prize.
Distraught at this betrayal and her father’s violent death, Princess Unohana saw her father in a dream. He appeared as the horse-headed Bodhisattva she so often prayed to, glaring down fearsomely at Yoshiie. Taking this as a sign, she hurriedly called her retainers and had them make a carving of the Bato Kannon she had seen in her dream, while she made an offering of the eight scrolls of the Lotus Sutra, written in her own blood.
Yet the Minamoto army still advanced upon Nagai. Hearing the army approaching, she took her clan and fled into the mountains, relying on warrior monks to lead the way. When at last they reached Mifuchi Gorge at the mouth of the Nogawa river, the monks came fleeing down the mountain, warning her of the fast-approaching Minamoto army who had cut down everyone and burned everything in their path.
Hearing this, Princess Unohana could not contain her grief. She knew that she had no chance of escape, and made the choice to throw herself into the gorge rather than be killed by her enemy. Sinking to the bottom of the river, her last thought was a prayer for peace.
At last, the war came to an end in 1063.
In celebration of their victory, Minamoto no Yoriyoshi had his men perform the first Black Lion Dragon Dance as they rebuilt the parts of Somiya Shrine that they had destroyed.
Princess Unohana’s spirit was present as well. Legend has it that as she sank into the Nogawa River, her spirit fused with the dragon god of the river – becoming a shishi herself. Constantly worrying about her village, the people of Nagai believe that she returns each year during the festival in her spirit form, bringing with her life-giving rain and promises of a plentiful harvest.
In this way, the princess’ love for Nagai and Nagai’s connection to the water that created it has been passed down and celebrated over countless generations.Today, the festival is held annually on the 3rd Saturday in May, and in addition to the lion dancing, street food and festivities light up Nagai White Azalea Park until the late hours of the night.Come experience the mystical Nagai Kurojishi Festival and find yourself transported back 1000 years to ancient Japan, where the spirit and human worlds collide.