Esashi drum battle

Also of note at the Esashi omatsuri, other than the famous shishiodori, was an epic drum battle - floats full of taiko drumming youth attacking one another with sound.  Each float playing separately wasn’t particularly compelling, but when they went head to head, playing different tempos and different parts, it was unexpectedly and wonderfully cacophonous.  Anyone who has attempted to hold together a musical line (especially as an ensemble) while in close proximity to a loud and highly contrasting ensemble will appreciate the concentration involved here.  Beautiful tradition! 

Zenkichi's mother's funeral

Of the oldest photos in the farmhouse collection, two stood out in particular.  They were both taken on the day of Zenkichi’s mother’s death in Meiji 43 (1910).  In an era when photos were so rare, I found it very interesting that her funeral was documented.  The funeral photo shows the front facade of the farmhouse as it was over 100 years ago.  I find this photo striking in that is isn’t a posed photo, as would be expected of the time.  It captures the movement, mood, and overall feeling of the moment.  This photo is also particularly compelling in that Zenkichi wrote of his mother’s passing in his memoir, in what is one of the more heart wrenching passages. 

Our misfortune came again as report from Japan my dear mother’s death. She was weak long time, still not very old in age so it was unexpected sad news to me. I held the private memorial service with brothers and intimate friend, later I got a letter from my sister who attended mother’s deathbed. Mother wanted see me, her eldest son, so bad. “If there is no Pacific Ocean she will walk even one year to see my son.” I thought of my unfilial past, my sorrow was very, very deep.

The other photo taken on this day was a photo of the farmhouse taken from across the rice fields at the Kurodasuke shrine.  The tori gate of the shrine marks the spot the photographer stood quite clearly.  I recreated this photo to the best of my ability, standing in the same spot, 105 years later.  

Kikuchi farmhouse photo collection

During my stay at the family farmhouse I looked through the family photo collection with Migaku. It was a great way to connect with him, as we have a mutual interest in family lineage.  The photos, which are entirely disorganized, are a fascinating amalgam of the family in Japan and photos sent from those in America.  To me, the collection itself beautifully represents the biculturalism of our family lineage - the disconnection and also the need to stay connected. Many of the photos, especially the old ones, Migaku had no idea who was pictured.  I found great pleasure in going through these photos, and I took photos of the entire collection, including any writing on the back.  I’m hoping it will be of interest to members of my family, but I also imagine there will be appeal to those who have interest in old artifacts and ephemera.  

Kurodasuke farmhouse

Zenkichi Kikuchi was born and raised in this farmhouse in this small town called Kurodasuke, a short distance outside the larger town of Mizusawa.  He was the eldest son of six children - Zenkichi, Nisaburo, Sannosuke, Matsu, Take, and Katsuhiro.  When Zenkichi left for the states in 1900, he was probably expected to only stay for several years, make money, and return to Japan.  His duty as the eldest son was to the household, as most eldest sons in Japan stay on the family estate to continue the lineage.  When Zenkichi didn’t return after several years, his two younger brothers, Nisaburo and Sannosuke, figured that because Zenkichi was such a nice guy, he was unable to save money in America.  Perhaps he was being taken advantage of.  The brothers decided that they would go to America to help Zenkichi.  None would return to resume life in Japan.  

Zenkichi’s younger twin sisters, Matsu and Take married, one settling in the Iwate area and one settling on the northern island of Hokkaido.  This left the youngest son, Katsuhiro, to stay at home and continue the family lineage. Katsuhiro and his wife, Hanayo, raised 9 children in the farmhouse.  Migaku Kikuchi, one of Katsuhiro’s grandchildren, is currently living in the farmhouse with his mother, Takayo, and is the sixth generation Kikuchi to live in the farmhouse.  Our family has had connections to Migaku and his mother since my parents first visit to Iwate in the early 1970’s.  It was my first visit to the farmhouse in over 15 years.  

Kurodasuke is a small village of 100 or so inhabitants nestled in a small valley about 10 minutes from Mizusawa.  A small river, which was much bigger in Zenkichi’s day, winds through the valley, and rice fields cover much of the area. The farmhouse, which was originally a traditional thatched roof, dirt floor abode, was renovated around 1980 with a modern roof and flooring.  Much more than my previous trips to Kurodasuke, I was struck by the craftsmanship of the structure.  It’s heavy and sturdy, with a wonderful open feeling inside, and beautiful detail in the woodworking.

Migaku, a stoic, quiet, and genuinely friendly man of 60 is a trained electrician, and is currently working at a hotel/hot spring resort near Mizusawa.  He works a night shift, arriving at work at 5PM, working until midnight, resting from midnight until 4:30AM and working until 8AM.  Migaku speaks a heavy northern dialect, and I don’t know what he’s talking about much of the time.  After his night shift, we sat in a discount shop parking lot as he enjoyed a canned coffee and a cigarette.  “kohee to tobako wa saikou!” - rough translation: “coffee and cigarettes are the shit!”


In Migaku's free time he farms.  He has one rice field and he grows fresh wasabi, the latter of which is quite unusual, as it’s not an easy plant to grow, and the roots take up to 2 years to mature to be ready to harvest.  The flavor of fresh wasabi is incomparable to the tubed wasabi most are accustomed.  It is light and delicate with nuanced flavor, while simultaneously offering an unbelievable kick.  According to Migaku, the winter harvest is the spiciest.  

On a hillside close to the farmhouse, above a small shrine, is the family haka, or gravesite.  Many generations of Kikuchi are buried here.  We bring flowers to the graves and light incense and pray. 

The small shrine in Kurodasuke is perhaps the oldest shrine in the area.  All six generations of Kikuchi’s living in the farmhouse surely played around the shrine grounds, hid behind ancient trees, heard the ringing of the bell, and prayed.  In Zenkichi’s memoir he writes of going to the shrine as a child and chanting with the monks. 

Shishiodori (しし踊り) Deer Dance

Ever since learning about the shishiodori, the traditional “deer dance” native to Japan’s Iwate prefecture, I’ve been fascinated by it.  An ethnic folkways LP recording and online videos of questionable quality were all I had to reference, but those were enough to get a feel of the elaborate costumes, athletic dancing, and powerful drumming of shishiodori.  Just the sheer scale of some performances, with dancer/drummers numbering in the hundreds, is in itself impressive.  

The dance is oddly called shishiodori (しし踊り), which directly translates to lion dance (lion dances are common in Chinese culture).  Apparently, “historically, ‘shishi’ meant any kind of animal that yielded edible meat.” (  This etymology would explain the unexpected name.  While the exact origin of the dance is unclear, the animistic nature of the dance/ceremony suggests an origin within the native peoples of Northern Japan, with possible influence from early settlers from the North - perhaps Siberia, where deer worshiping ceremonies have been taken place for centuries.  The dance, which emulates the movements of the deer, is likely an honoring of the animal killed for food.  

In any case, after mentioning to Takuya my interest in seeing the shishiodori in person, he learned there would be a performance at the annual Esashi festival.  We took a road trip to check it out.  It exceeded all expectations.  The drumming, dancing, costumes - all fantastic.  


Sadly, the second half of the shishiodori program was cancelled due to rain, so I didn't capture nearly as much video as I had hoped, but here is a short sampling.