The White Herons of Asakusa
The subway station of Asakusa has this lovely mosaic of a white heron parading through the streets of Asakusa. I ventured into Asakusa to see if I could spot these dancing white herons during the annual Culture Day parade.
I am in Asakusa, a part of what is now old Tokyo. From being a boisterous entertainment district in its heyday, Asakusa has come a long way to its festive and quaint present. Its center revolves round the famous Senso-ji temple and the long shop lined Nakamise street. Twice a year, a parade winds through the tourist clogged streets of Asakusa, leading a musical procession of drummers, warriors, children and white herons to the Senso-ji temple. Luckily, my visit to Tokyo coincided with one of the dates of this procession – 3rd November, which is the annual Culture Day.
The White Heron holds a unique place in Japan and is heralded as a symbol of good luck. Shirasagi-no Mai which means “White Heron Dance”, is a millennium old dance meant to ward off disease and usher in peace and a bountiful harvest. The earliest reference to this dance comes from an ancient picture scroll called “Keian Engi Emaki”, which shows scenes from the parade in ancient times1. The dance itself was in danger of dying out until it was revived in 1968 by the Asakusa Tourist Federation in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tokyo as the nation’s capital.
While I know that the dance will start sometime in the afternoon, there are no signs anywhere in English (and probably in Japanese) to guide me on. I spend quite sometime wandering in the side streets of Asakusa, searching for the parade. The tourist clogged street of Nakamise doesn’t help much either.
It’s almost lunch time now, and the stomach grumbles for food. I spot locals eating some kind of bun on the streets. I decide to try one of these and it’s delicious !!! This is what is called a curry bun or Kare-pan. The curry bun is a delicious little treat and consists of some Japanese curry that is wrapped around in a piece of dough, then coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. The resultant bun, with its soft curry center makes lovely street food. With my hunger satiated for now, I resume by search for the white herons. And luckily, the parade is not too far off from the curry bun stand.
The parade hasn’t yet started and the various participants are gradually lining up. The parade consists of eight dancers dressed as herons, with three attendants. One of the attendants leads the herons, “feeding” the birds ceremonial confetti. The musicians make up the rear of the parade, while guardian children lead from the front. Everyone is dressed in the traditional attire of the Heian period. The parade usually moves slowly along Nakamise street and ending with a dance on the Senso-ji temple grounds. I spend quite a while, anxiously waiting for the show to begin.
And then the parade begins. At first, there is some low drumming with some poetry being recited to the tune of the drums. The herons move slowly and gracefully and then they stop. And open their “wings”. I am spellbound at the wonderful white wings that suddenly sprout from under their arms. The wings along with the heron headpieces, white wigs and robes and white make-up make for a pretty breathtaking transformation.
The herons continue their slow and graceful march, imitating the graceful behaviour of their namesake bird. Periodically they stop and open their wings, stand on one leg and even “peck” at the ground.
The dance continues onwards towards the temple. Having had my fill of the graceful herons and not wanting to be caught up in the increasing crowds, I melt away into the background for a late sushi lunch. As I depart the only thought I have, is that, the mosaic at the train station simply did not do justice to the beauty and grace of the white heron dance of Asakusa.
You can reach Asakusa via the Ginza Subway Line or the TOEI Asakusa Line.
When to visit
The Senso-ji Temple, the main attraction of Asakusa, is open all year round. The parade and the white heron dance happens twice a year – on the 2nd Sunday in April and on 3rd November, the National Culture Day. The dance is usually held in the late morning or afternoon.
- Shirasagi-no Mai (White Heron Dance) , Go Tokyo