All About Japan

Full List—Japan's Intangible Cultural Heritage

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13. Traditional Ainu Dance (Hokkaido)

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan's northernmost regions, with their own distinct language, culture and nature-centric system of beliefs. While at one time their territory extended from southern Sakhalin to northern Honshu, they're now found predominantly in Hokkaido.

The Ainu people developed an array of ceremonial dances meant to pray for peace and share feelings of joy and sorrow with the gods. Best known of them is the Iyomante Rimse, which is performed at the Iyomante, a ceremony for sending the spirit of a sacrificed bear back to heaven. Beyond dances (rimse), the traditions also include a number of simple, everyday songs called upopo, often sung along with work and used as a form of prayer.

14. Kumiodori, Traditional Okinawan Musical Theatre

Inscribed with UNESCO in 2010, Kumiodori is an Okinawan performing art combining principles from China with Japanese theatrical traditions such as Noh and kabuki. Incorporating acting, singing, dancing and music, Kumiodori originated in the early 18th century as an entertainment for Chinese envoys to the former Ryukyu Kingdom, which flourished between the 14th and 18th centuries on the islands of Okinawa. Performed in the Okinawan language, the stories recount local historical events and legends while reinforcing social mores.

15. Yuki-tsumugi, Silk Fabric Production Technique (Ibaraki & Tochigi)

Also recognized by UNESCO in 2010, Yuki-tsumugi is a luxury fabric composed of hand-woven silk threads made in Yuki City in Ibaraki Prefecture and Oyama City in Tochigi Prefecture. The silk fabrics from this area of Japan were so well known that they were even mentioned in the Manyoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled during the Nara Period (710-794).

Yuki-tsumugi is soft yet stiff, light yet warm, and so long-lasting that kimono made with Yuki-tsumugi fabric would be passed down across three generations.

16. Mibu no Hana Taue, Ritual of Transplanting Rice in Mibu, Hiroshima

Mibu no Hana Taue is held on the first Sunday in June to conclude the rice planting season in the Mibu and Kawahigashi communities of Kitahiroshima Town in the Yamagata District of Hiroshima Prefecture. Consisting of a recreation of the key steps of traditional rice planting in the region, the ritual is performed to ensure a good harvest. As the rice is planted in a specially reserved field, songs are led by an elder called the sanbai. He keeps time with shakers called sasara, supported by a group of women singing along with drums, flutes and small gongs.

17. Sada Shin Noh, Sacred Dancing at Sada Shrine, Shimane

Inscribed in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011, Sada Shin Noh consists of a series of ritual purification dances performed on September 24 and 25 at Sada Shrine in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture. Literally meaning "Sada Divine Noh," the dances were initiated in 1608 after Sada Shrine's priests were inspired by Noh plays in Kyoto.

The dances are part of the Gozagae ("goza changing") ritual, in which the shrine's goza, or rush mats, are replaced each year. One set of dances is performed on the 24th to purify the mats, while another, more theatrical set of dances, using masks to re-enact Japanese myths, is performed on the 25th to celebrate the successful renewal of the shrine. Sada Shin Noh is also believed to have influenced Izumo Kagura, the local variant of kagura dance, and can be seen at autumn festivals at nearby shrines as well.