Photo/IllutrationPerformers demonstrate Kuromori “kagura” music and dancing, a tradition dating back at least 340 years, in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, on Oct. 27. (Yasushi Okubo)

MIYAKO, Iwate Prefecture--Kuromori “kagura” (sacred Shinto music and dancing) may be centuries old, but audiences in Hungary and Poland will experience it for the first time in late February when a Miyako troupe performs there.

The Japan Foundation organized the upcoming central Europe shows to celebrate Japan's 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Hungary, and its 100th year of bilateral ties with Poland this year. The troupe will perform from Feb. 20 to 26 in three venues in cities including Budapest and Warsaw.

Three months after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck, the practitioners of Kuromori kagura, designated an important intangible folk cultural property by the central government, resumed a pilgrimage along the Sanriku coast to cheer people up with performances.

The kagura-shu (kagura performers) say they're looking forward to performing in central Europe to show their gratitude for donations to the disaster-stricken areas in the Tohoku region and to introduce audiences there to music featuring drums, gongs, and flutes, and dances with jumps and spins that date back at least 340 years.

“We want to show our thanks for support given to those affected by the disaster,” said Fumio Matsumoto, 70, chairman of a Kuromori kagura preservation association. “We also have three 21-year-old male kagura-shu, and we want to let people know we've been fostering young performers to keep the tradition alive for many years.”

They'll be taking two very special lion head puppets used in Shinto rituals along for the shows.

The carved wooden puppets, which symbolize the deity of Kuromorijinja shrine, were spared from being lost by chance when someone moved them a week before the 2011 disaster to a house on high ground of a person connected with the troupe.

They were dubbed “lucky Gongen-sama” after that and are used in every performance.

The troupe received standing ovations at their shows in Russia in 2011 and Paris in 2012. Some in attendance burst into applause when performers wearing the lion head puppets on their hands used them to playfully bite the audience members on the head in a ritual to protect the person from sickness, Matsumoto said.

“Although they live in different countries, they seemed to know it is a deity,” he recalled.

Miyako is considered the home base of Kuromori kagura, performed in dedication to the Kuromorijinja shrine on Mount Kuromoriyama in the city. It was originated by a group of “yamabushi" ascetic hermits practicing there. Sixteen kagura-shu in their 20s through 80s have picked up the baton there to carry on the performing art.

Kuromori kagura is traditionally performed in places along the Sanriku coast from the new year and also known as “mawari kagura” (traveling kagura).

The troupe makes stops on the “kita-mawari” (northern loop covering Miyako and Kuji) and the “minami-mawari” (southern loop covering Miyako and Kamaishi) in alternating years. The troupe is currently on its minami-mawari trek.

For two and a half months after the new year, the performers chant the “kagura nenbutsu” sutra for the repose of the souls of the dead and conduct prayer rituals including “hashira-gatame” (pillar-cementing), to celebrate the completion of a house rebuilt on higher ground.

Twelve kagura-shu will join the central Europe tour to perform “Yama no Kami” (mountain deity), the most important act in Kuromori kagura, “Ebisu,” which is dedicated to a god of fortune to pray for a good catch of fish, and other pieces.

A troupe that does Kanmachi-Hoin kagura, performed in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, and is designated an intangible folk cultural property by the prefectural government, will also join the tour to Hungary and Poland. The performers have been supporting other kagura troupes operating in areas hit hard by the 2011 disaster in the prefecture.

“We want to introduce people in the two countries to two kinds of kagura that are still playing an important social role for local communities,” a Japan Foundation official said.

Chairman Matsumoto added: “Residents who were severely affected by the disaster have been struggling hard, praying to gods for early reconstruction. I hope the audience can learn that this is how our reconstruction efforts go on.”