Kamigamo group tour

The group pose before the gate into the inner compound of the shrine (courtesy Inui sensei)


Shrine staff filing out for morning prayers

.. and filing back again afterwards


Kamigamo Jinja offers shrine tours by an English-speaking priest, and this week a group of young Germans were able to make a special visit to this World Heritage site. It was a rare chance to hear directly from a Shinto priest familiar with Western thinking. It enabled participants to enter into parts of the shrine normally off-limits, as well as to see firsthand the work involved in the 21-year cycle of rebuilding.  By good fortune, the beginning of the tour coincided with the procession of shrine staff to their morning prayers, and the end of the tour with a purification ceremony prior to a ritual celebrating the empress’s birthday.  It was quite an experience.

Inui Mitsutaka explains about Shinto to the group of Germans. In the background is one of the two conical piles of sand representing the shrine's sacred hill

After an initial introduction to the history of the shrine (‘Kyoto’s oldest’), Inui sensei led the group to the water basin, where they were instructed in the proper etiquette – left hand, right hand, left again and wash out your mouth. One interesting observation was that afterwards the ladle should be held up so that the water runs down the handle in order to clean it for the next person – in this way the Japanese custom of consideration for others is expressed.

As we approached the shrine proper, it was pointed out that there were three bridges in all that worshippers would pass over – a kind of purification in itself.  The streams passing through the shrine grounds are an example of early Shinto’s reverence for nature, and one building set over a stream, considered the most pure in the shrine, is reserved exclusively for the envoy of the emperor.

The shrine is full of symbolic crossings, the passage over water conveying the visitor to a purer world.


The shrine was built by the Kamo clan, who settled the area some 1500 years ago, and dedicated to a thunder deity called Kamo Wake Ikazuchi no mikoto.  In the inner courtyard a room with paintings by a twentieth-century artist tells the story of the his virgin birth.  His mother, a shamanness called Tamayori no hime, was purifying herself in the river one day when a red arrow came floating by.  She took it home and placed it in her room while she slept.  Next day she found herself pregnant.

Inui sensei prepares to perform the purification ritual

When the young boy came of age, he was asked at a ritual of celebration to place a cup of saké in front of his father.  Declaring his father to be up in heaven, he ascended into the skies accompanied by thunder and lightning.  Later he appeared in a dream to his mother and told her that he would revisit if a suitable ritual was put on for him with aoi leaves (thought in the past to be a protection against misfortune).  This was the beginning of the famous Aoi Festival held every May, the oldest of Kyoto’s Big Three Festivals.

Prior to visiting the main sanctuary where the kami resides, Inui sensei conducted a purification ceremony and instructed the Germans in the correct way to pay their respects (2 bows, 2 claps, 1 bow).  The clapping he pointed out was a way of connecting with the kami, with the left hand representing heaven and the right hand earth.  Mindful of the fact that the young Germans were attached to a Christian organisation (the NCC in Kyoto), Inui sensei was careful to stress that activities such as washing hands and paying respect were cultural rather than religious activities.

Our ‘prayers’ took place not in front of the Honden, which was under repair, but the adjacent Gongen – ‘a permanent temporary sanctuary’.  This is unique to Kamigamo Jinja, and indicative of the high status the shrine enjoyed in times past when it was ranked no. 2 after Ise in importance.  Unusually the komainu guardians are not statues, but painted on the wall.  However, at the Shingu Shrine adjacent to the Honden are strikingly colourful statues of komainu, made of wood covered with lacquer and then silver-leaf in one case and gold-leaf in the other.

A silver-leafed komainu...

... facing a gold-leaf covered komainu


Every 21 years the shrine is renewed in a shikinen sengu cycle (only about a dozen shrines still keep this expensive custom, including most famously Ise Jingu). The roof alone involves an extraordinary amount of time and labour.  First strips of cypress are torn from a tree, which must be over 80 years old.  The bark will grow back after ten years, and the reason for the use of cypress is because it is resistant to bugs.  After the renewal, the old bark strips are returned to the soil to be recycled by nature.

The strips are carefully laid one on top of each other, and considerable skill is required in the rounding of the roof shape to ensure rain runs off it.  Progress is slow – less than a meter a day – and bamboo nails are used to fix things in place (only two people are left in the whole of Japan, a father and son, who are able to produce these nails!).  For the roof above the kami, ceramic tiles are never used because they are made from soil on which humans have trodden.  It’s symptomatic of the high esteem in which the kami is held.

Inui sensei explains about the cypress strips that are used in the roofing


Our visit happened to coincide with the empress’s birthday, and Inui sensei explained that the ceremony held to honour this was also for the well-being of the country as a whole since it was written in the constitution that the imperial family was the symbol of the nation. Before dispersing, we were able to watch the priests’ purification prior to the ceremony, at which they pass a small stick over their body to absorb impurities which is then placed into the stream to be washed away.

Priests line up in front of the stream for ritual purification. A small stick is waved over the body to absorb impurities, then thrown into the stream in the background to be washed away eventually to the sea.



For tours of the shrine, notice is required in advance. Tel 075-781-0011  Fax 075-702-6618 (Tour time of 20 to 30 min. Donation 500 yen, per person (Group: 20 and more 450 yen per person)

For a detailed guide to Kamigamo Jinja, see Shinto Shrines by Cali and Dougill, p.115-118

Posted in International, Kyoto shrines, Shrine visits | 1 Comment

Kamigamo neighbourhood

Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto once used to lie well beyond the city limits.  It’s one reason why it has managed to retain so much greenery (it still owns several small hills and even the neighbouring large golf course).

Next to the shrine there grew up a small village consisting of shrine personnel and members of the Kamo clan, who first settled the area around the fifth or sixth century.  With little streams running through it, the area retains a delightful and distinctive atmosphere even today, though it has been engulfed by Kyoto’s expanding urbanisation. Some of the houses were built specially for Kamigamo priests, and though many have been replaced the article below describes how a foreigner is working to preserve those that are left. (Thanks to Paul de Leeuw for pointing out this article.)

Gert van Tonder bought this 110-year-old house in Kyoto as a wedding gift for his wife.


Living in the Shadow of Shinto Priests
Liza Foreman  Published: May 16, 2013 NYTimes

KYOTO — Centuries ago, it would have been difficult for anyone other than a Shinto priest to enter the sacred district of Kamigamo, let alone live here. But now this quaint neighborhood of narrow streets and old houses, nestled between the river Kamo and Kyoto’s northern mountain range, is home to Gert van Tonder, an educator born in South Africa, and his family.

Mr. van Tonder purchased the 240-square-meter, or 2,600-square-foot, property, which included a house and garden, in 2005. It was a present to his wife, Ai, a local artist, following their wedding at the nearby Kamigamo Shrine.  They spent the equivalent of $1 million buying and renovating the 110-year-old house, which Mr. van Tonder says is one of the best-preserved homes in the neighborhood.

The house was built of cedar and cypress wood, with bamboo and clay walls, a roof of baked-clay tiles and a stone foundation. It was designed in the sukiya style, which emphasizes naturalism and sometimes is called the Japanese teahouse style.

In the prewar period Shinto scholar Richard Ponsonby-Fane was much taken with the area and resided there for many years

The home was in good condition when Mr. van Tonder purchased it. But to make it more comfortable, he added underfloor heating and improved the bathroom. He also turned the attic into an extra room, now stuffed with toys as a playroom for the couple’s daughter.

“I bought my house from an urban developer,” Mr. van Tonder said. “He did a fair amount of restoration, but he never lived here. He wanted to sell it to somebody who would preserve it as it is, and he had tremendous trouble finding someone.

“Many younger Japanese would love it but would not be able to afford it. The older generation, generally, does not want to live in a traditional house,” he continued. “If he were unable to sell the house, the plan was to demolish it and create a parking lot — a very common fate for old houses in Kyoto.”

The house consists of five main rooms in addition to the attic playroom. Just to the left of the main entry door is a large, sparsely decorated tatami room, which is used as a living and sleeping area and for Mrs. van Tonder’s painting. Its floor-to-ceiling windows offer broad views of the garden, which Mr. van Tonder brought back to life and is one of his favorite pastimes. It contains more than 60 varieties of moss and 20 kinds of small wild orchids.

“Nobody thinks that a foreigner can maintain a garden here,” he said, explaining that he became fascinated with moss as a child and developed a desire to move to Kyoto when he realized that he might find lots of it there.

To the right of the tatami room, there is a modern kitchen that overlooks the garden, and beyond a room stuffed with futons. The bathroom has a cedar tub and a small toilet room.  Since completing the renovations a few years ago, Mr. van Tonder, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, has become interested in saving and restoring other neighborhood houses.

The house where Ponsonby Fane lived, now taken over and being done up by a company

In the recent past, Mr. van Tonder said, there were many old homes in the area, including at least 400 sha-ke, or shrine houses, built for the Kamigamo priests and dating to the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Now only 20 of them remain, he continued, the others torn down in Japan’s drive for modernization or because the country’s steep inheritance taxes made it impossible for the next generation to maintain them.

“One of the distinct features of the sha-ke houses are their white facades with black wooden latticework, like a Tudor house,” Mr. van Tonder said. “The houses are divided along the length into two halves, one with a ground floor and another with a raised tatami floor. Each half has its own front door — the lower door serving for peasants, the upper door for official visitors. The sha-ke houses are surrounded and hidden by high clay walls.”

The professor now is working on plans to ask some of Kyoto’s larger businesses and other companies overseas for donations to buy some of the surviving homes, which he wants to use for a small architectural research center. While the Kyoto city government designated one of the houses he wants to save as a “cultural asset of highest significance,” there has been no additional support, he said.

“These houses are in a neighborhood that existed as a village for the last 1,500 years — that is three centuries before Kyoto was founded as a city and capital of Japan,” Mr. van Tonder said. “The architecture of the old dwellings is a blueprint for much of the quintessential sophisticated Japanese architectural design famous from the 1700s onwards.”

“I personally consider the whole area a zone of very high cultural and architectural significance,” he said. “If preserved properly, by 2050 it will definitely be a Unesco heritage site that will be on the list of everyone visiting Kyoto.”


For a report on Kamigamo Shrine, see here or an account of its horse race see here.
For more about Ponsonby-Fane, click here.

Kamigamo Shrine, a World Heritage site, is the area's biggest landowner and dominates the activities of the neighbourhood to its south, where descendants of the original Kamo clan can still be found.

Posted in Kyoto shrines | 1 Comment

Emoto R.I.P.

Sadly, news has come of the demise of Dr Emoto, whose water crystal photography stunned many and raised awareness of the damage done by pollution and negativity.  Here is a statement from Michiko Hayashi, his Personal Assistant.

“I am sad to let you know that our dear Dr. Emoto passed away at 12:50am on the 17th October, 2014 Japan Time. His very last word was ‘Arigato’ (‘Thank you’ in Japanese). He wanted to say it to every precious friend of his around the world. And as his personal assistant, I would like to say “Thank you very much” from the bottom of my heart to you and to my dearest Dr. Emoto.

“Now he is a light, and I am very sad, but I know he is in a higher dimension now and watching us, helping us to continue to make this place a beautiful and peaceful place. As he asked me to inherit his life work ‘EMOTO PEACE PROJECT’, I am honored to have the responsibility to spread the beautiful and powerful project to bring the true peace on earth.

“I would like to ask you please to take one minute to send love, light, and gratitude to Dr. Emoto who is now a light and is watching us from above. Please also continue to support EMOTO PEACE PROJECT, and please let us all work together to make this planet earth the beautiful and peaceful place to live for all beings in harmony.”


Masaru Emoto’s website (English version) is here.  Click and prepare to be amazed….

Five-minute video of how the crystals are photographed here.

Posted in Animism, General, Green issues | 2 Comments

Yasui Konpira-gu

A happy visitor to the shrine's famous power stone, passing through which helps cut bad relationships and form good new ones


Yasui Konpira-gu is one of Green Shinto’s favourite shrines.

Mochitsuki, or making rice cakes.

It’s in the heart of Kyoto, next to Gion’s traditional geisha era.  It’s small but full of history, and it houses the country’s first ema museum. It is famous for its enkiri enmusubi ‘power rock’.  And it hosts a wonderful Kushi Matsuri (Comb Festival) featuring the gorgeous hairstyles of Japanese women down a millennium of changes.

Squeezed into an L-shaped space, the shrine leads from the geisha houses of Gion towards the streets running up to Kodai-ji and Kyoto’s Kiyomizu tourist area.  The shrine is noticeably sandwiched between love hotels at both its entrances, appropriate for a place which prides itself on promoting happy relationships.

Last weekend was the annual Taisai (main festival) of the shrine, when its mikoshi (portable shrine) is paraded around the parish (there’s a fully illustrated report of last year’s event here).

This year I attended the community event on the day prior to the parade, featuring mochitsuki (making rice cakes).  There was a pleasant relaxed atmosphere, which allowed me to explore some of the shrine’s unusual features while talking to the locals and learning of the folklore.

Below follows a listing of 7 striking features I came across in the charmed small compound of the shrine.

1) The entrance torii, unusually, has square pillars instead of round ones.

View from inside the entrance torii with its square pillars, looking towards the east

The slogan across the torii advertises the shrine as a place to sever bad ties and make good new ones


2) Thanks to the recent boom in ‘power spots’ and ‘enmusubi’ (good ties), the shrine has got popular at weekends.

The queue to crawl through the shrine's 'power rock' can stretch all the way down the approach and past the adjacent love hotel.


3) The power rock has a crack running down from the top through which ‘cosmic energy’ passes down into the circular hole through which crawl those wishing to cut off bad ties and make new happy ties.

There's a special spot to stand respectfully before crawling through the hole

You have to be a certain shape and flexibility to slip through so easily


Being reborn to a better life is cause for celebration


3) The Comb Mound (Kushizuka) is relatively recent.  Contrary to expectations, the burial mound to pacify used and discarded combs is not ancient but was (re-)created by a scholar in the Showa era.  His statue can be seen next to the mound.

The Comb Mound and the scholar whose ideas led to its creation


4) There’s a fantastic dragon carving in the honden (sanctuary).  Most people only get to see the Worship Hall (haiden).  However, if you take the trouble to look behind it and into the honden building, you’ll see a magnificent ranma carving featuring a dragon.

Hiding in the rafters of the Honden (Sanctuary) is this superb dragon


5) There’s a ‘distant prayer’ shrine facing towards the main Konpira shrine in far-off Shikoku.

The shrine faces towards Kotohira-gu, known as Konpira-san, in Shikoku


6) There’s a Buddhist-style subshrine, most unusually.  Inside is a Buddhist bell and incense set before the statues of eight sumo-style figures, representing strength.  They are carved from the base stones (‘strength stones’) which supported the massive pillars of the temple to which Yasui Konpira-gu was attached prior to the enforced separation from Buddhism at the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868.

The shrine of the 8 strong men is a legacy of the temple-shrine complex to which Yasui Konpira-gu once belonged

inside are eight sumo style strong men, carved out of the pillars of the former Buddhist temple that once stood nearby


7) The shrine claims to have Kyoto’s oldest existing komainu, by its northern entrance.  I would like to get that confirmed because they’re surprisingly not that old, dating back to the middle of the Edo Period.  The faces are worn, but one can make out the closed mouth (yin) and open mouth (yang), and no doubt these fierce creatures are still vigilant enough to see off any evil spirits trying to lurk into the shrine.



For a full page report of the shrine by Hugo Kempeneer as part of his Kyotodreamtrips.com site, please click here. The page also contains a video of the Comb Festival, which takes place in September and features a parade of women’s hairstyles and fashion over the past millennium and a half.


Posted in Festivals, Kyoto shrines, Shrine visits, Syncretism | 1 Comment

Awata Jinja festival

The eye-catching lantern festival of Awata Jinja with Seiryu (blue dragon) at the front


Autumn is a busy time for festivals, and this weekend in Kyoto there were fascinating events at two of Kyoto’s less well-known shrines, Yasui Konpira-gu and Awata Jinja.  Green Shinto has reported on the festivals before (see here and here).  Last year we very much enjoyed the daytime event at Awata Jinja, when mikoshi (portable shrines) are paraded around the parish.  This year, because of a typhoon, it had to be cancelled; however, the lantern parade the evening before was able to take place – and what a fascinating event it was!

Awata san is descended from the original clan that established the shrine

Awata Jinja in the east of Kyoto was once the home shrine of the Awata clan, who lived in the area in the early centuries of the first millennium.  In the seventh century however they left for Nagoya, and amazingly some 1400 years later I met one of their descendants who had come from Nagoya specially for the event.

Amongst the many things I learnt from Awata san was that the festival was closely associated with the famous Gion Matsuri, based on neighbourhoods sponsoring constituent parts of the parade.  In Awata’s case, these take the form of kenboko, long poles or halberds.  There are 18 of them in all, but not all of them are taken around in the parade because there are not enough people with the skills and strength to support them.

According to the shrine literature, the Awata Festival started in 1001.  Now there are two parts, the first of which is the parade of eye-catching lantern floats.  This is a modern revival, based on records that show in Muromachi times there were 20 huge lanterns some 3.6 meters in length.  Later in Edo times parishioners accompanied the mikoshi (portable shrines) with hundreds of lit lanterns.

The top of a kenboko halberd. Each is up to 8m long, weighing around 35kg, and carried by a single bearer.

Five years ago the head priest of the shrine initiated a new style of parade with the cooperation of Kyoto Art University, and the result has been a striking success which draws increasing attention from locals and tourists alike.  The floats are in modern manga style and based on mythological and folklore characters related to Awata Shrine.  Some reflect the local character, and some the Izumo myths about the shrine’s kami, Susanoo no mikoto and Onamuchi no mikoto (another name for Okuninushi).

The floats are not the only remarkable thing about the event.  The opening ritual called Yowatari shinjji (crossing into night rite) is deeply and distinctly syncretic, with the Buddhist priests of Chion-in taking an active part.  A temporary altar is set up in the street facing Chion-in before an iwakura (sacred rock), into which the kami descends.  The altar is Shinto, but the priests of Chion-in take full part in the service.  (Chion-in is the head of the popular Jodo Shu sect, which believes in salvation through the mercy of Amida Buddha.)

Like other shrines, Awata Jinja was part of a Shinto-Buddhist complex until the great separation of the religions at the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868.  The syncretic instincts it retains are now given public expression in the joint celebration with its Pure Land neighbour, a practice that apparently began some fifteen years ago.  It shows how even today the bonds between the two religions remain strong, and for many they are indeed inseparable.

In looking back to the past, Awata Jinja may well be blazing a trail for the future…

The five Shinto priests of Awata Jinja sit facing the twelve Buddhist priests of Chion-in


A Shinto priest purifying the assembled Buddhist priests


A Shinto priest pays respects at the altar...

... as does the Buddhist head priest of Chion-in

Buddhist priests lined up to recite the Hannya sutra before the Shinto altar


One of the enshrined kami at Awata Jinja is Susanoo no mikoto, who slew an eight-headed Orochi monster (the sacred sword he extracted is represented by the vertical piece)


White fox representing an ancient legend associated with Awata Shrine, which hosts an Inari subshrine


The one-eyed Kozo, sponsored by Fresco, representing the smiths who once lived in the parish area and whose eyes may have been damaged by sparks


Karasu Tengu (Crow Monster) is a reference to folk hero Minamoto Yoshitsune, who grew up at Kurama and was trained by tengu in martial arts. When he escaped from Kyoto, he stopped off to pray at Awata Jinja.


Onamuchi is one of the kami worshipped at Awata Jinja. The kami is considered to be the same as Okuninushi no mikoto, the main deity of Izumo Taisha.

In mythology Onamuch turns into a snake, thought to refer to an ancient snake cult (snakes symbolised regeneration because of being able to slough off their skin)


The blue dragon (seiryu) is a reference to the Chinese feng-shui symbol that lies in the eastern hills where Awata Jinja stands.


Shusse Ebisu is a reference to Awata Jinja's possession of the oldest statue in existence of Ebisu (the fisherman kami)


Akechi Mitsuhide was the traitor who killed Nobunaga, but was subsequently killed himself. His head is buried not far from Awata Jinja, and as a restless spirit (goryo) he is accompanied here by a komainu guardian to pacify his spirit.


Sheep are next year's Chinese zodiac animal, representing group togetherness

A couple of lambs to accompany the sheep


Each area of the parish has a base for meetings and displaying treasures. This is the one for Nakanomachi, reminiscent of the grander bases for the gorgeous floats of the Gion Festival.


The Nakanomachi altar and offerings

Posted in Festivals, Kyoto shrines, Syncretism | Leave a comment

Maiko ‘do’ Inari

A morning programme on  KBS television this morning saw a pair of maiko visit Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Maiko are young trainee geisha in Kyoto, aged between 16 and 20. These days many are from distant parts of Japan and are unfamiliar with Kyoto and its tourist sights. I recently saw a film ‘Maiko wa Lady’ which was a musical (done by the director of Shall We Dance?) based on the idea in My Fair Lady of a young woman being trained in how to speak and behave properly. In the Japanese version it involved the maiko learning the Kyoto dialect and geisha manners.

In the tv programme the pair of maiko went up the main ‘sando’ (approach) of Fushimi Inari, passing through the tunnel of torii to the small area where fox faces are filled in on the shrine’s ema, before returning and exiting along the ‘urasando’, or back approach, which is lined with souvenir shops.

Maiko and Inari are a winning formula for a television programme. Maiko tend to be treated like film stars and photographed wherever they go. For its part, Fushimi Inari was recently voted the most popular attraction in Kyoto, outranking even Kiyomizu temple, and it has become a no. 1 destination for foreign visitors too.


For a detailed description of Fushimi Inari, see Cali and Dougill Shinto Shrines, p.101.  For an illustrated visit, click here. For the Fushimi sai festival, see here.  For Fushimi as Kyoto’s no. 1, see here.

The main approach to Inari leads up to the magnificent romon gate

One of the guardian foxes has a ball of wisdom

... the other has the key to the rice granary

After saying their prayers, the maiko headed up the hill behind the shrine...

through the tunnel of torii.....

... to the place where the ema are filled in with do- it-yourself pictures of foxes

There's a rock there (Omokaru ishi) which you have to lift up to see if it feels heavy or light

... if it's heavy it means bad luck, but if it feels light then you're in for good fortune

Afterwards the girls headed back to the exit where they stopped at a traditional rice cracker shop

The shop has been in existence for more than 100 years and specialises in fox-shaped rice crackers

The girls also bought fortune cookies

... and were delighted to find they had 'Daikichi' or Good luck. It brought their visit to a happy end, and next time they declared their intention to climb up to the top of Inari Hill

Posted in Inari, Kyoto shrines, Shrine visits | Leave a comment

Harvest thanksgiving

A miko shakes hot water from bamboo grass (sasa) over the surrounding area (all photos by McCullough)


Spring and autumn are busy times of year for Shinto, as festivals take place based around the rice cycle of ancient times.  One such event took place this weekend in the charming village of Ohara, just north of Kyoto, and thanks go to David McCullough for providing information and photos.  As a resident of the village, David is on the organising committee for religious events in the area.

The Yu no Shiki at his local shrine involves boiling water in the traditional style, as shown in the photo below.  This is accompanied by a miko (shrine maiden) dancing for the pleasure of the kami in front of the hot water.  Salt and saké are added to the boiling water, which is scattered around the shrine, presumably as a form of purification.

This is a wonderful example of localised rites handed down from ancient times, and it reminds me of the way that rice spirit is strewn on the ground in Korean shaman practice. In ancient Japan boiling water was used for divination, and in some cases steam created in front of an altar was used to induce the miko into spirit possession. ‘In later ages,’ says the Kokugakuin encyclopedia, ‘the boiling water was believed to possess the power of purification, and the ritual was combined with dance and transformed into a performing art.’


Adding salt to the water, symbolic of Shinto's stress on purity


Posted in Festivals, Purity and pollution | Leave a comment

Christianity-Shinto seminar


The International Shinto Foundation will be holding a dialogue with Christianity at their 18th international seminar on Nov. 22 at St. Andrew’s Church in Minato-ku, Tokyo from 2 pm.

Academics and Christian priests will engage in the discussion, including some top names in the field of Shinto studies such as Michael Pye and John Breen (both resident in Kyoto, and both practising Christians).

Attendance is free of charge, and is restricted to 150 people.  Applications by Oct 31.  The seminar will be in Japanese, and further details can be had either by email (info@shinto.org) or fax (03-6805-7769).

Shinto memorial for seventeenth-century Christian martyrs (Senninzuka on Ikitsuki Island)

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Fukuoka City with Hakata Bay, gateway to Korea and the continent


Roots of rural development [and Amaterasu?] found in northern Kyushu
By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News  September 23, 2014

Northern Kyushu is a very exciting area for anyone interested in the roots of the Japanese countryside landscape. Hakata Bay and Karatsu Bay are well-protected harbors facing north toward the Tsushima Straight and the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. During the formative centuries of Japanese civilization, when the satoyama landscape was just developing, these bays were the entry ports for new people, ideas and technologies coming into Japan from Korea and the Asian mainland.

The modern form of rice came to Japan through northern Kyushu, where continental practices first establshed themselves

For example, sometime before 2,600 years ago, people arrived here with the tools and technologies necessary for irrigated rice cultivation. The oldest paddies in Japan are found at the Nabatake archeological site in Karatsu. Irrigated rice dramatically changed Japan’s landscapes. Marshes were drained and diked to form paddies, and streams diverted into a system of irrigation ponds, sluices and canals. Populations increased, and virgin forests were cut down and replaced by managed secondary habitats such as coppice woods, bamboo groves and thatch grass fields.

Thus was born the beautiful Japanese traditional countryside landscape, which can still be seen today in many areas. The great productivity of paddy rice, however, also revolutionized the regional socioeconomic fabric. Wealth could now be created and stored as surplus grain. Soon regional power centers, called kuni or koku, appeared. The capitals of these kuni were substantial towns surrounded by moats, walls and fences. Gradually the kuni grew in size and power. One of them, the Yamato, eventually evolved into the fledgling Japanese nation.

In the mid-third century, the Chinese kingdom of Wei sent an envoy to the Japanese islands. His observations were later recorded in the famous Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sangoku-shi, written around AD 280). The Wei ambassador described what appears to be a loose confederation, under the leadership of a kuni called Yamatai-koku, which was ruled by a mysterious shamaness-queen named Himiko. Unfortunately, the envoy’s travelogue is hard to interpret, and the actual location of Yamatai-koku has become one of the great controversies of early Japanese history.

A third-century bronze mirror, similar to those found in the burial mound

One of the confederation kuni mentioned in the text is the Ito-koku, said to be located to the north of Yamatai-koku, and to serve as a sort of port of entry for all goods and people coming into the Japanese islands. The location of this kuni can be clearly traced by historic place names, as well as by spectacular burials mounds and archaeological remains dating to precisely the time of the envoy’s visit.

The burial mounds, along with an interpretive museum, are located along the Zuibaiji River, with flows south from Hakata Bay into the northern foothills of the Sefuri Mountains. As a glamour-sensitive Celt I have long been enthralled by the idea of third-century shamaness-queens, and quickly planned a bicycle excursion to Itokoku.

The most spectacular display at the Itokoku History Museum is a superb reconstruction of a third-century burial mound that is thought to be that of the kuni’s queen. Grave goods buried along with her include a long sword, 40 bronze mirrors, strings of colorful glass beads, magatama comma-shaped jade earrings, and beautiful ear decorations in the style of third-century Chinese noblewomen. Interestingly, the mirror, sword and magatama jewels are the three symbols that Amaterasu the Sun Goddess is said to have passed on to her earthly descendents, the historic emperors and empresses of Japan.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

The mirror, sword and magatama were adopted by the Japanese imperial family as their regalia

Posted in Kyushu, Origins | Leave a comment

Blood moon rising

Tonight's blood moon rises behind Kyoto's Eastern Hills


A special kind of eclipse is scheduled for tonight in Japan, in which the sun, moon and earth will align so that the earth’s shadow covers the moon and it turns a reddish colour. Cultures in the past feared eclipses and made up stories to explain them. Japan’s Rock Cave myth may be a case in point (an eclipse of the sun rather than the moon). As the article below indicates, there are plenty of other such myths around the world…


Photograph by Colleen Pinski, Your Shot, National Geographic


Solar Eclipse Myths From Around the World  (courtesy National Geographic)
People around the world, and through time, have come up with many a tale to explain the sun’s disappearance.
by Jane J. Lee, National Geographic, November 1, 2013

Viking sky wolves, Korean fire dogs, and African versions of celestial reconciliation—these are only some of the many ways people around the world, and through the ages, have sought to explain solar eclipses.

“If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is it’s always a disruption of the established order,” said E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. That’s true of both solar and lunar eclipses.

“People depend on the sun’s movement,” Krupp said. “[It's] regular, dependable, you can’t tamper with it. And then, all of a sudden, Shakespearean tragedy arrives and time is out of joint. The sun and moon do something that they shouldn’t be doing.”

What that disruption means depends on the culture, and not everyone views an eclipse as a bad thing, said Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa.

Some see it as a time of terror, while others look at a solar eclipse as part of the natural order that deserves respect, or as a time of reflection and reconciliation.

courtesy luc viator

Swallowing Fire
Many cultures explain eclipses, both solar and lunar, as a time when demons or animals consume the sun or the moon, said Krupp.

“The Vikings saw a pair of sky wolves chasing the sun or the moon,” said the Griffith Observatory astronomer. When one of the wolves caught either of the shining orbs, an eclipse would result. (Read “Vikings and Native Americans” in National Geographic magazine.)

“In Vietnam, a frog or a toad [eats] the moon or the sun,” Krupp added, while people of the Kwakiutl tribe on the western coast of Canada believe that the mouth of heaven consumes the sun or the moon during an eclipse.  In fact, the earliest word for eclipse in Chinese, shih, means “to eat,” he said.

Eclipse Wizard
In order to combat this devouring, people in many cultures made noise in order to scare the demon or animal away, said Nancy Maryboy, president of the Indigenous Education Institute on San Juan Island, Washington. She’s currently working with NASA on bringing indigenous astronomy into mainstream awareness.

People banged pots and pans or played on drums to get whatever was swallowing the sun or the moon to go away, she explained.  Krupp orchestrates a modern version of this during lunar eclipses on the front lawn of the Griffith Observatory. He dons a wizard’s outfit and leads the public on a march in front of the observatory while banging pots and pans to chase away whatever’s eating the moon.  “We’re always successful,” Krupp said.

This is what a total eclipse looks like. This is the total eclipse of October 27, 2004 via Fred Espenak of NASA.

Celestial Larceny
Other myths tell of deception and theft to explain the sun’s disappearance during an eclipse. Korean eclipse mythology involves fire dogs that try to steal the sun or the moon, said Krupp.  On orders from a king, the mythical canines try their best to capture the fiery sun or the ice-cold moon. They always fail, but whenever they bite either orb, an eclipse results.

One of the more colorful stories in Krupp’s opinion involves the Hindu demon Rahu, who disguises himself as a god in order to steal a taste of an elixir that grants immortality. The sun and moon see what Rahu is up to, and they report his crime to the god Vishnu.

“Vishnu slices off his head before [the elixr] can slide past his throat,” said Krupp. As a consequence, Rahu’s head turns immortal, but his body dies.  The demon’s head continues to move through the sky, chasing the sun and the moon out of hatred. “Every now and then he catches them and swallows them,” explained Krupp. But since Rahu has no throat, the sun and the moon fall out of the bottom of his head.

Nature and Reconciliation
“My favorite myth is from the Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin” in Africa, said Holbrook.  In this myth, the sun and the moon are fighting during an eclipse, she said.  The people “encourage the sun and the moon to stop fighting.” “They see it as a time of coming together and resolving old feuds and anger,” Holbrook said. “It’s a myth that has held to this day.”

A Navajo tradition regarding eclipses has also endured into the present day, notes Maryboy.  The Navajo regard the cosmic order of the universe as being all about balance, she said. “Something like an eclipse is just part of nature’s law. You pause to acknowledge that that time is special, [and] you reflect on the cosmic order.”

Maryboy explained that some Navajo still observe traditions associated with an eclipse by staying inside with their family, singing special songs, and refraining from eating, drinking, or sleeping.

You’re not supposed to look at an eclipse either, she added. “They say if you look at the sun during an eclipse, it will affect your eyes later.” A person who looks at the sun goes out of balance with the universe, leading to problems down the road. The same goes for eating and drinking during this time.

Stages of the blood moon, 2010 (photo Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty)

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