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2,000 lions inhabit Tokyo’s shishimai museum

  • TAKU YAGINUMA / JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

    Yuichi Takahashi, right, collected various large shishi, or lions, in Japan and abroad. Each has a different expression and a distinctive personality.

TOKYO >> From the outside, this museum looks like an ordinary house. But step inside and you just might stop in your tracks — a pack of lions greets visitors who enter, staring with big, round eyes, their large mouths open.

This is Shishi, Yuichi Takahashi’s shishimai lion-dancing museum. On display are more than 2,000 items related to shishimai that Takahashi, 70, has collected from across the nation and abroad over some 40 years.

“Shishi” means lion, the king of beasts, in Japanese, while the animal goes by “simha” in India and “singa” in Indonesia.

In ancient Asian civilizations, lions were considered guardian deities, but they were also harmful animals that attacked livestock. Shishimai may have originated from a depiction of the defeat of a wild lion.

Lions did not inhabit East Asia, but the notion of the lion was introduced there, and records show that shishimai was being performed in China by at least the third century. In Japan, shishimai was part of gigaku dance and music performances, introduced in 612.

Today, says Takahashi, shishimai is performed at about 7,500 locations in all 47 prefectures and the lion is depicted as a guardian deity of each community.

“Shishimai in Japan is based on a simple belief, not a specific religion or sect,” Takahashi said. “There may be a guardian deity in your town that is rooted in the area.”

Events are generally the same: A lion walks around the area conducting purifications and performs at a plaza. But the designs of the lions vary from region to region, as do the number of people involved in the dance. For example, a lion’s head on display from the Haramamuro district in Konosu, Saitama Prefecture, is a shiny blue and white, featuring the tail feathers of Totenko Japanese red crowers and Tomaru Japanese black crowers.

Then there are the colorful lion heads, all with different faces, from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. They were given to Takahashi in 2007 by a group that visited Japan.

The museum is operated privately by Takahashi. In 1988 he opened a small lion exhibit space in his reception room. In 1993 he opened the museum behind his house.

Shishi museum is a five-minute walk from Shiraoka Station on the JR Utsunomiya Line, or about 15 minutes by car from the Kuki IC of the Tohoku Expressway. There is no museum parking, but a coin-operated parking lot is nearby. Reservations are required.

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