Kari Grohn's Home Page - Japan - Shirasagi no Mai

Shirasagi no Mai




Shirasagi no mai (白鷺の舞)
Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo (浅草寺 東京)

The white heron (shirasagi) dance is one thousand years old. It is a religious rite to drive out the plague and purify the spirits on their passage to the next world. The white faces of the dancers signify innocence, purity and gentleness. People love the beautiful snow-white figure of heron and crane (tsuru) as a symbol of peace. According to religious belief pure white cranes inhabit the Isles of the Bless and their powerful wings are able to convey souls to the Western Paradise.

Many old tales tell about white big birds which have been admired in Japan for their noble and graceful appearance. There is an old story about a lonely farmer who saved a crane’s life. The bird turned into a beautiful woman and became his wife. One day she asked the husband to build her a weaving room and promise never to peek inside. The wife wove beautiful thousand-crane patterned fabric from which the farmer could make a lot of money. They had been living happily but due to the wife's diminishing health the farmer looked into the room and saw a crane weaving cloth by picking up beautiful feathers from her body. After becoming aware that the farmer had discovered her true identity the crane flew to heaven. 

In old days white cranes were regarded divine birds which started rice farming bringing grains from far away. They are known as the birds of happiness and are associated with fidelity because they mate for life. They are also symbols of longevity and are often drawn with pine trees, tortoises, stones and bamboos, which are all symbols of long life. The cranes are also associated with good fortune and prosperity. So they are often painted with the sun, which is a symbol of social ambition.