By Greg Beck
For most Americans, the name Hiroshima still conjures images from the end of World War II, atomic blasts, mushroom clouds, and questions about radiation. In truth, life in Hiroshima City returned quickly, and has no more radiation today, than any other major city in the world. While the devastation to the city, survivors, and their families should not be diminished, it also blocks our view of the rich culture and artistic traditions that continue to this day.
One such traditional art form is called Bugaku. A combination of beautifully visual costumes and stylized dance accompanied by court music, ancient and serene. Introduced to Hiroshima during the late Heian-Period (1100s) by Taira no Kiyomori, the performance art actually traces all the way back to India, through China and Korea. Despite being so well-travelled, the Bugaku art form now only exists in Hiroshima, and a few other locations in Japan, such as the Osaka Buddhist temple, Shitenno-ji. Performed for special occasions throughout the year at Miyajima’s UNESCO World heritage site, Itsukushima Shrine, which itself also famously features Heian Period architectural flourishes, unique to this free-standing Shinto Shrine.
While less unique to Hiroshima than the costume and dance, Bugaku’s musical component, known as Gagaku, is another art form complete unto itself. Brought over from Chinese court music, in the 7th century, the most popular, and well-known instruments are the Koto and Biwa. Both can be found all across Asia, and to a far lesser extent, western countries too. In the more rural townships of Hiroshima, however, special attention is given to the woodwind and percussion instruments. The patient and methodical harmonics, punctuated by understated hand drums and cymbals, are played on the Yo scale, omitting minor notes. This creates an immediately recognizable and distinctly “Japanese sound” in the same way an Arabic Scale distinguishes Middle Eastern music. The mesmerizing melodies are at once soothing and captivating, and provide the listener a direct link with the past.
Another, more lively, way to feel that connection is through Kagura. Bugaku and Gagaku share a sense of courtly refinement. Unlike these, the live musicians and singer, who also narrates the Kagura stories, are often hidden off-stage to make room for action! Interestingly, the origin of Kagura was religious. Just like Sumo wrestling, Kagura plays’ primary purpose was to entertain the kami, or Shinto Gods, as well as the local people. Other versions of Kagura also exist throughout Japan, but each region is unique, with dozens of stories in any given town or village. In Hiroshima, every Kagura performance can differ based on the town or group performing it, but they all share the following characteristics: They are wildly entertaining. Each story focuses on one or two great heroes who receive orders to vanquish a (sometimes shapeshifting) demon, and save their tormented villages. There are usually multiple battles, with at least one initial fight scene before the climactic showdown. The “fighting” is highly stylized, with both heroes and villains spinning in complex orbits around one another, while brandishing weapons and adorned in flashy, elaborate, and heavily-embroidered kimonos.
Hiroshima Prefecture also boasts many tangible arts, including world-renowned Kumano makeup and calligraphy brushes, Takamorie lacquering, sake breweries, and a boundless food culture from the mountainsides, river deltas, and rich inland seas. These intangible performance arts however, can only be enjoyed by visiting Hiroshima. Now when you go, you will recognize what you are seeing.
Bugaku Events at Itsukushima Shrine
You can enjoy Bugaku at the Itsukushima Shrine, World Heritage Site, at special events. Here is the calendar of the events you should check before you plan your visit to Hiroshima.
January: Goshin’i Kenjo Shiki, Saitansai & Futsukasai, Omatsubayashi Shin Noh Performance
March: Kiyomori Shrine Festival
April: Toka-sai Festival (Peach Blossom Festival)
May: Memorial Service for Empress Suiko
July: Ichitate Festival
October: Chrysanthemum Festival, San-o Shrine Festival
December: Tencho Festival
Bugaku performances at historic Itsukushima Shrine are captivating.
Action-packed, lively Kagura in Akitakata City, 10 mile north of Hiroshima City.
Greg Beck: writer, journalist, and home brewer. University of Arizona graduate, unrepentant host to the travel bug. @CIRBECK