Miyagi: Kagura mask maker fights to preserve tradition

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takahiro Sato and some kagura masks he has made

KURIHARA, Miyagi — “The role of kagura masks is to connect gods and humans,” said Takahiro Sato, a wood-carving craftsperson who specializes in masks for kagura ceremonial Shinto dances.

Using as many as 40 different carving knives to make one mask, Sato glides each blade across kiri, or paulownia wood, while checking the thickness of the wood. He gradually teases out round cheeks and a nose from the surface.

Sato, 42, was born as the fourth-generation master of the Sato tatami mat shop in the Kurikoma district of Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture.

Kurihara has a tradition of Nanbu kagura, a popular form of kagura derived from the Hoin kagura, which was started by yamabushi mountain hermits.

As a child, Sato begged his grandfather to take him to a local festival to watch kagura performances. His father bought him an “aramen” kagura mask of a scary man with a beard, which helped draw Sato into the wonders of such expressive masks.

Sato bought three carving knives when he was a sixth grader at elementary school and tried his hand at carving his own mask. He completed the mask and showed it to a local sculptor specializing in Buddhist statues as he was repairing an old statue. The sculptor simply replied, “Did you bring me geta wooden sandals?”

Still, Sato’s passion remained unshaken. He bought kagura masks for himself, and in his second year of junior high school, he visited Unichiro Sobu, a kagura mask maker in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, and became his apprentice. Upon arriving home from school every day, he devoted himself to making masks until midnight. His mother would drive him to Sobu’s house, where he showed the masks he had made, asked for advice and reworked the masks again and again.

After graduating from high school, Sato enrolled in a vocational school in Saitama Prefecture to prepare for taking over his family’s tatami mat business. He lived in the school dormitory, where he trained hard day in and day out. He came home every weekend and always made kagura masks — living away from his hometown strengthened his desire to preserve the local kagura tradition. After returning to Kurihara, he continued carving kagura masks while also making tatami mats, his main business.

Sato is often asked to repair old masks or create new ones by kagura groups from all over the nation. He has worked on more than 500 masks, including those he has repaired.

“I love it that a simple piece of wood transforms into different faces,” he said.

He uses all proceeds from mask sales to purchase Noh masks and other items, which he collects as reference material.

The mask-maker attended a local kagura viewing event when he was in the fifth grade of elementary school and was asked if he would like to try kagura dancing. Since then, he has been active as a kagura dancer as well. There are not enough people to carry on the local tradition due to the falling birthrate and aging population, which prompted Sato to form a kagura group in 2019 called “Shinyugaku” with people in their 20s to 40s. The group is working to keep and pass down the tradition by performing at local events and introducing kagura to children at elementary and junior high schools.

“My goal is to preserve kagura for future generations,” Sato said. “I have a duty to pass on the kagura that our predecessors left to us. I want kagura to be engraved in the lives of as many people as possible.”

His hands, holding a carving knife, are filled with his love for kagura.