One September 2019 night while wandering Nagasaki, we heard the most mysterious sound. Exotic music of flutes, cymbals and drums pierced the darkness and led us up steep steps to where a Nagasaki 長崎くんち Kunchi Dragon Dance rehearsal was taking place.
Nagasaki Kunchi is a centuries-old autumn festival at the Suwajinja Shinto Shrine that the Japanese government has designated as an important intangible folk cultural asset. Held typically from Oct 7-9 it has been held since the Edo Period (1603-1867) the past 387 years.
The Dragon Dance, or Ja-Odori, is mesmerizing. Dragon, Ryu 竜. In the East, dragons symbolize magic, luck, strength, courage and nature’s powers active within us to harness to bring about heaven on earth. Demons and dragons are just doing their jobs, taking up their part in duality, Mythologist Joseph Campbell would say.
Western myth, symbolize nature’s powers turned selfishly inward, evoking the image of hoarding treasure and negative outcomes as the hero must slay the dragon, his ego.
Dragons feature prominently in Japanese myth. NAGA were incorporated early on into Buddhist mythology as water spirits. They also can be seen as negative in Shinto Kagura plays, such as when Susanoo, God of storms, slays the 8-headed snake Yamata-no-Orochi.
The beauty and power of ritual cannot be underestimated, especially when done collectively and traditionally, for it bonds people together via the reenactment of the myth. And this myth points to ourselves and to awaken to that we are identical with the powers of the universe – that awesome dragon power.
The music accompanying the dance was hypnotic, as were the strength, endurance and agility of the performers as the other-worldly dragon image pitched us out of ordinary time and space and into mythical time and space for a taste of eternity and renewal. That is the power of ritual and watching the Dragon Dance. It’s a resurrection! Hence, the serpent has shed its skin.
The Nagasaki Kunchi was not held the past two years because of Covid pandemic. It along with other traditional festivals in Japan are struggling financially, and a sexual harassment scandal involving the Suwajinja Shrine’s head priest threatens the future of the festival as well. But we can still enjoy from our living rooms the incredible myths and symbols of Japan that transcend all this human messiness, because thats what they are there for! The hero has gone before us.