At the start of the new year Mainichi Shimbun (one of Japan's leading newspapers) featured an article by Otani Wakako on Sasama kagura. The Japanese text is shown in the image; an English translation follows (below). 2020年始に大谷和佳子さんに書いて笹間神楽の記事が毎日新聞に載せられました。日本語版がイメージから読めます。英語版は下記です。
15-year resident transmits the local tradition
3 January 2020
Boom, boom, boom--last October the sound of kagura echoed through the Hachiman Shrine in Shimada's Sasama village. Inside the kagura sanctum wearing a red hakama and crow hat, Shelley Clarke (54) performs a prayer dance asking for a good harvest and people's safety while villagers sit quietly and watch.
In Sasama the kagura has been designated as an intangible cultural heritage and it is still being practiced. Shelley, who came to Japan in 2003 as a shark researcher, became a kagura troupe member in 2009, and every year at this time dances the kagura. "It’s a very special tradition that I really appreciate. I am happy to do what I can to preserve the local culture".
Sasama kagura dates back to the Edo period (1800s) when pilgrims to the Ise shrine brought back dances directly or via the Kiyosawa shrine over the mountains in the next valley. In the chaos after WWII, the dances stopped being performed until local schoolkids revived the tradition and in 1968 re-constituted the kagura troupe.
Shelley was employed at the fisheries research institute in Shizuoka in 2005 when a friend introduced her to a farmhouse which took her interest in Sasama. With a population of about 400 and facing slow de-population, the Sasama kagura troupe was continuing to have trouble keeping up the performances. She had become familiar with the kagura through various local ceremonies and festivals and when she was invited to join she thought she would give it a try. "I never had thought that a foreigner who had just moved there could be a part of the troupe", she said. But even though she had those doubts, she melted into the Sasama environment and ascended into the world of kagura.
The first dance she learned was "Jun no Mai". The dance involves standing in the center of the stage, with footwork facing each of four directions in turn and in repetition. It is a basic dance but when she first started dancing she worried about "what will happen if I trod on the hakama while dancing?"
After several months of guidance from the troupe, she made her debut in October 2009 at the Kiyosawa "all night" kagura festival. When she finished the audience burst into applause and the Sasama troupe members welcomed her into their dwindling numbers. She seems to be genuinely appreciated by the local residents.
Although the Sasama kagura has about 10 different dances, including the men's sword dance that is meant to ward off devils, Shelley only performs Jun no Mai. But this year she is planning to master the "Devil Dance" in which a devil searches for her lost child.
The Chairman of the Sasama Kagura troupe, Takeshi Naruse (73) said "She's doing her utmost to become a Sasama-ite and she's really a great member of our community". Shelley said "the openness of the people is Sasama's great charm. I want to continue to support this community however I can."