By Asuka Kaji
Asia News Network
THE SHISHI Museum in Shiraoka, Japan, looks like an ordinary house from the outside. The moment I entered, however, I stopped in my tracks. There was a pack of lions staring at me with round eyes, their mouths open.
On display are more than 2,000 items related to shishimai – the lion dance – that museum operator Yuichi Takahashi, 70, has collected from across the nation and abroad over 40 years.
In 1988 Takahashi opened a small shishi exhibition space in his reception room, and then the museum behind his house in 1993.
Shishi is a lion, the king of beasts. In ancient Eastern civilisations, lions were considered guardian deities, but they were also harmful animals that attacked livestock.
Shishi used in Bhutan masked dance
Shishimai may have originated from a depiction of the defeat of a wild lion.
The notion of the lion was introduced to East Asia, where lions did not exist, and records show that shishimai was being performed in China by the third century at the latest.
In Japan, shishimai was part of gigaku dance and music shows common in the 600s.
According to Takahashi, shishimai is performed at about 7,500 locations in all 47 prefectures, celebrating the guardian deity of each community.
Typically, the mock lion walks around the area conducting a purification ritual. However, the number of people involved in the dance and the design of the shishi vary from region to region.
For example, a lion’s head displayed at the museum, from the Haramamuro district in Konosu, also in Saitama Prefecture, is a shiny blue and white. From the head stream the tail feathers of long-tailed chickens, the Totenko red crower and Tomaru black crower.
You can also see various foreign shishi Takahashi has collected. Colourful lion heads, all with different faces, come from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a gift from a group that came to Japan in 2007.
Shishi is called “Simha” in India and “Singha” in Thailand. It’s no coincidence that the sounds are similar.
“Shishimai in Japan is based on a simple belief, not a specific religion or sect,” Takahashi says. “There may be a guardian deity in your town that is rooted in the area.”
DANCING LIKE A LION
>> The private Shishi Museum is in Shiraoka, Saitama Prefecture.
>> Reservations are required to visit.