Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Danger Lurks in the Year of the Tiger

Yokohama - Sometime during the New Year's holidays (which are of indeterminate length as far as I can tell), usually around the fourth, traditional shishimai (lion dance) performers call on each house in my neighborhood. If you'd like the dancers to perform inside or in front of your home, the suggested donation is one thousand yen, roughly ten dollars. I find this custom extremely interesting and never miss it, but to save on the expense I traditionally view it at my mother-in-law's house.

They say if you let the lion bite your head, you will become smarter than ever. As a stranger in a strange land I find it best to be always on my guard. There are those who would, for personal gain, spite, or other nefarious reasons go out of their way to take advantage of the naivete of someone like myself. So last year when someone (I think my nephew) suggested I let the lion bite my head, I smelled a whiff of deception in the air and declined the offer. I may be an "innocent" foreigner but I wasn't born yesterday.

This year's dance, which lasted less than 5 minutes, was just as fresh and exciting to me as the first time I ever laid eyes on it. I really appreciated it. I hope to see it again next year but that kind of tradition I've since learned doesn't come cheap. 

The neighborhood association who sponsors the whole thing lays out about two hundred thousand yen, or about two thousand dollars, to hire the dancers. A local real estate magnate covers about a quarter of the cost via the annual donation he forks over his doorstep. 

The said real estate agent is, coincidentally or not, the descendant of the former feudal lord who used to rule over the area. The family still owns most of the land in the vicinity and collects a handsome sum in land rent from local householders. While land reform swept the countryside after 1945 it never made it to the big cities for various reasons (none of them good). Other than the former nobility there are only a couple of other big time spenders who altogether usually donate about a third of the total bill, the balance has to come from the small time donors at one thousand yen a pop.

Not everybody welcomes the lion. It's mostly households with small children who, if they can afford it and are at all interested in that sort of traditional pageantry, who pay to see the lion dance. I think this year was kind of tough on the neighborhood association. New Year's fell on a Friday this year, which meant a short holiday for most people. Most places were open for business on Monday, which meant fewer people were home and in a festive mood. It's best when New Year's falls on a Tuesday than more people are likely to get the whole week off (that's 9 solid days of drinking, resting, eating, oh! and visiting temples and shrines!!).

Lions and Tigers Oh My!

This year I drummed in the New Year at a tiny local shrine with a Japanese drumming group I belong to, Myoujin Daiko (the God of Light Drums or Drummers, I'm not so sure which). When we started drumming (outdoors in the frigid cold and dark of night) at about 11 pm, people just started to trickle into the shrine. By the time we were finished with our gig at 2 am there was a line of people waiting to pray at the shrine that stretched about three New York City blocks long.

This year is the year of the tiger and everyone in the group had decided weeks earlier that we would all dress in tiger costumes for the big show. I thought that was a great idea since as the only foreigner in the group I always kind of stick out and this way I would blend in with all the other tigers.

I was the only one who came dressed as a tiger!

I should have let that lion bite my head when I had the chance.


  1. I really enjoyed this posting. I am thinking about creating a similar bamboo display in the front of my house nest year. Please send directions.
    Also enjoyed the information related to the lion dance and the how the costs are covered. Interesting information about the legacy of the real estate agents.
    I think you ae wise to doubt the guidance you are given as evidenced by your appearance in the tiger costume. Do you think maybe you didn't understand the request? Just a thought sometimes things are not done out of malice but are misunderstood communications.
    Your fan in Maryland

  2. Dear Readers,

    While I read every comment, due to the sheer volume(both electronic and print) I find that I am unable to respond to every single one. Once again thank you all for your thoughtful, heartfelt words of praise etc.