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Saturday, July 9, 2011

JAPAN LITE

On rock worship and the Shinto gods


Special to The Japan Times

On my morning jogs on Shiraishi Island, I pass many things: some scary (spiders and snakes), some interesting (what's been washed up on the beach overnight) and some spiritual. The other day I had to take a detour to avoid a Shinto priest and a procession of men climbing the stairs to Myoken Shrine for a special ceremony.

News photo
The Shinmei Shrine is located in a mountainside cave on Shiraishi Island. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

Much of my jogging route follows the ancient pilgrimage path modeled after the 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Shikoku. The way of choosing 88 sites on the island was influenced by Shinto beliefs that the sacred can be found in natural phenomenon such as mountains, rivers, waterfalls and rocks. Shiraishi Island (which means "White Rock Island"), as you might guess, has lots of rocks. Big spiritual ones. Divine rocks are part of rock worship derived from ancient Japan.

Over 400 years ago when they created the replica pilgrimage here, small rock sculptures of Buddhist figures were placed around the perimeter of the island at predetermined sacred spots. While some of these 88 "shrines" are near the sea or on top of mountains overlooking the sea, most are located next to large rocks in the forest. Once spiritual places have now become super spiritual.

Other spiritual spots on the island are Benten Island (where the Goddess of the Sea lives), Kairyuji Buddhist Temple (where one of the buildings is set underneath a huge overhanging rock), Myoken Shrine (set just below one of the largest boulders on the island) and Shinmei Shrine (located below a small cave set in the side of the mountain).

While some spots are deemed spiritual by the presence of natural phenomenon, others seem to be devoid of anything special. Wondering how these other places got their spiritual status, I went to ask my own personal guru, Man-chan.

Part yamabushi and part spiritual healer, Man-chan is 84 years old and considered the person most in touch with the Shinto spirits (kami), on our island. He alerted me to a couple of yorishiro or spiritual antennas to the gods. These days the kami probably have handheld GPSs made in China, but in ancient times you still had to send them a spiritual sign. So special rocks or trees were designated as antennas to invite the kami to descend there. No batteries necessary.

The most famous rocks of this sort in Japan are perhaps Meoto Iwa, the "husband and wife rocks" off the coast of Mie Prefecture. These rocks invite the kami to descend on them from above. You often see these two rocks in photos, a special shimenawa rope connecting them across the water. Let's hope they never divorce.

Man-chan told me that Shinmei Shrine was considered sacred because of the small cave there. But the two other places he told me about, Myoken and Hachiman, were given their status by a Shinto priest. In other words, the priest invited the kami to descend there. When a priest calls to the kami to descend, he must feel the kami enter his body. He must feel the spirit of the kami in his heart. He may even prostrate himself before the kami. If he does not feel the kami inside him, they have not descended and the spot is not made sacred.

In the old days, people merely demarcated sacred areas with a rock in the center and a small sakaki tree. From this space, people could offer their prayers and the rock acted as a vehicle of communication between the people and the kami. These days, however, buildings are erected to designate Shinto shrines.

Really special rocks actually contain the spirits of the kami. These rocks must get rays from both the rising and setting sun. Such designated rocks hold spiritual energy. Their power can last forever, as long as the area is well preserved and clean. You can tell if a rock possesses a kami or not by touching it with your hand to feel its energy. Women are said to be especially sensitive to this energy. Yes!

You've probably heard Mount Fuji referred to as a sacred mountain. This is because it is believed that the kami descend and reside there. The kami tend to occupy places among concentrations of nature such as mountains, rocks, waterfalls and forests.

In his book, "The Essence of Shinto: Japan's Spiritual Heart," Motohisa Yamakage says the purpose of a shrine is "to create a pervasive sense of reverence and awe and so enable us to access the spiritual dimension."

As I jogged up past Shinmei Shrine to the cave, I noticed there were quite a few offerings out on the Shinto altar that day. One was a five-pack of beer. The gods were off to an early start! I followed the steep staircase behind the building up to the real shrine with a torii gate at the entrance. Behind the gate is a small cave nestled in the side of the mountain. Inside are candles, fresh sakaki branches and a small altar with a mirror. The shrine is still frequented by the islanders, who make the climb to convene with the kami.

As I came back from my jog, the Shinto priest and his entourage had also finished their ceremony with the kami at Myoken Shrine and were headed back down the mountain.

With the hustle and bustle of life in the big cities, people often talk about getting back to nature. But here on Shiraishi Island, we've never left it.



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