On the day to celebrate the new season1 in the Sonai area of Iriomote Island, the beach was packed with locals and filled with an air of excitement. It was before the shoreline reinforcement work started. I was wondering where these people had been, given that the village usually felt all too quiet. There were lots of people sitting on straw mats spread out on the grass by the beach. I realized one of them was an elderly tsukasa (female shaman). If I had seen her working in the field, she would have looked like an ordinary elderly woman, but not on this day. She was full of dignity as a female medium representing the village. Her gaze was firm, seeing something incredible that is unfathomable to us. People kept singing and dancing. I couldn’t decipher the meaning of the lyrics. I remember feeling a vague uneasiness and refreshing excitement, as if I had been taken to a foreign country and left alone. The performer dressed as Miruku (Buddha) started to dance, as if to hope for a future as promising as the Miruku-yu (future world brought by Miruku). Sān, sān, yūyasā, suri, sāsa… they sang. The sounds of the waves and breeze, as well as the people’s voices, filled the village in perfect harmony.
Led by two mysterious figures, their bodies covered entirely in black clothes, a group of about twenty women with blue headbands appeared. Their dresses were also unique. They looked as if they were the noble ladies from the mural at the ancient Takamatsuzuka tomb in Nara, although the colors of their dresses were different. The mysterious ladies performed the Shichi-Angama, the well-known ritual dance in the region, followed by a comical performance by characters called Pachikai, Roppo and Kippo. Last of all, the group did a stick dance and lion dance. The climax was the boat rowing ritual. Two boats moved offshore and raced against one another, gaining speed through the uniform movements of the rowers as they sang a ritual song. When they reached a certain point, the boats headed back towards the shore. The women on the beach ran to the shoreline all at once. With lower bodies submerged in the water, they started to dance, celebrating the future world that the boats had brought to the island. The festival then ended.
I couldn’t contain my desire to be immersed in the excitement once again, so I revisited the festival in Sonai in the fall of 1976, two years after my first visit. Within a couple of years, the reinforcement work had been completed, drastically changing the shoreline and view. However, the event took place in the same manner as always. I felt a bit awkward sitting among the villagers, watching the performances at close range as I handed them some gift money.
Shichi celebrates the arrival of the new season, like Setsubun in mainland Japan. As in Sonai, Shichi festivals are also held in other regions like Hoshitate in Iriomote and Kabira in Ishigaki, as well as Miyako Island.
- The event is held for three days in October on the lunar calendar.