Shirabyoshi Dancer, Gion Matsuri

The Gion Matsuri is Kyoto’s (and even Japan’s) largest festival.   It goes for the entire month of July and, in addition to the main event, the grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) on July 17, it is a unique opportunity to see a number of Japanese traditions, religious processions, dances, music, historical costumes, etc.  We attended one of such events, a series of presentations of traditional Japanese arts held at the Yasaka Shrine.  Among these, the one that impressed me the most was the dance of the Shirabyoshi.

Shirabyōshi (白拍子) female dancers perform a dance for the gods, dressed in men’s attire.  This profession developed in the 12th century when they would perform for nobles and high-ranking samurai.  They were required to be educated, including being able to both read and write – they were talented poets, musicians, singers, and dancers.

The outfit they wear, which is Shinto-inspired, is truly a man’s outfit featuring a tate-eboshi hat, worn by samurai, a tachi (a samurai’s sword), red hakama with white and red suikan, a male Shinto outfit, and finally a kawahori hand fan, which men carried.

The captivating dance was accompanied by a slow and rhythmic music performed with drum and flute.  There were four dancers at one point, moving around the center of the stage.  Then a lone one performed an intricate series of moves.  It really was beautiful.