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Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2001

Probing the borderline between life and death

Special to The Japan Times

AOMORI -- The Shimokita Peninsula is a broad thumb of land at Honshu's northern tip, curling around Mutsu Bay and up toward Hokkaido. It is a wild place. Here you can find feral horses, the world's northernmost wild monkeys, some of Japan's last remaining wilderness -- and a holy mountain, Osorezan.

The dramatic volcanic landscape around Lake Usori contributes to the awe in which the ancient fane is held.

As you approach on the mountain roads you can feel sulfur in the air. When you arrive, a moon landscape spreads out before you. The mountain is a composite volcano. In the caldera is a lake, but the water is as clear as glass while the streams feeding it are bright yellow with sulfur. Only one kind of fish can live in this acid water, a variety of dace or chub called the ugui (Tribolodon hakonensis) which has become the subject of much research.

On the shore of the lake stands a Buddhist temple, Entsuji, said to have been founded by the ninth-century Tendai prelate Ennin. Its main hall is dedicated to the bodhisattva Jizo (Sk. Ksitigarbha), considered the patron of children, and around the temple grounds people have piled up melancholy cairns of stones in memory of dead children. It is said that amassing these piles helps the spirit reach the heavens, but that small devils cruelly push them down. We, the living, must continue to add new stones to the cairns.

Entsuji's annual festival, July 20-24, has all the usual features of a Japanese festival plus one specialty: mediums who communicate with the dead. The Japanese shamans, or itako, as they are called, have been associated with Osorezan for centuries. All are blind or sight-impaired women; during this festival they sit inside the temple wall, in a row of small blue tents. Long queues stretch out in front of them. People sit for hours waiting for their chance to talk to one of the old blind women.

A blind shamaness at Osorezan opens the way for believers to communicate with lost loved ones.

The itako once were quite a common sight in Japan. Yo Mori, a researcher on itako, estimates that as recently as 150 years ago there may have been up to 1 million of them roaming the country. They practiced healing magic and were widely relied upon by the common folk.

"Since they were blind," says Mori, "they always walked in company with a yamabushi [male mountain hermit, also regarded as magicians and healers]. At the Meiji Restoration, the yamabushi were banned as quacks in an effort to promote modern Western medicine."

According to Mori, the itako were then driven out of the bigger cities, but otherwise left alone. They lingered mainly in small villages until after World War II, when new religious freedoms liberated them. The itako at Osorezan were already established in the 1920s, though. Their activities as mediums were tolerated inside its walls, but they had to give up their healing activities.

These days the women are becoming increasingly rare. "An itako should train as an apprentice for between five to seven years," Mori explains. "At the side of an experienced itako she learns how to take care of clients. Then, as initiation, she should go through a number of endurance tests. This is hard work, so few choose it these days. Actually, none of these itako are native to this area. They all come from Iwate and western Aomori Prefecture."

"Blind people in old Japan had very few choices, of course," Mori notes. "Today they can do many things."

The itako still attract the general populace. During the four days of the festival at Osorezan a good 3,000-4,000 people came daily. Osorezan is remote, yet ordinary people from all over the country make the trip.

For anyone who sees Osorezan, it is easy to understand its traditional connection to the underworld. The lake boils, the streams are yellow and it smells like hell. It is thus not so odd to further imagine that here one may meet supernatural beings.

People come here to commune with their dead children. They offer the spirits favorite toys or candy to comfort them in the other world. That the bereaved themselves receive comfort from the itako is clear.

The seance usually follows a pattern. The itako receives the death date of the requested soul and its relation to the petitioner. She rattles prayer beads rhythmically and sings to call down the spirit so that it can possess her. The spirit usually begins by thanking the person who asked for the visit and wishing him or her a good life without misfortune.

The spirit then talks about personal matters, with comments such as, "I am very sorry for having died before my parents, but I am glad that you have come here. I am OK, and hope that you are too." It goes on for about 10 minutes and costs 3,000 yen per spirit summoned and spoken to.

The tradition of the itako is deeply rooted in pre-Buddhist folk beliefs, part of a greater Northeast Asian shamanism in which women take on the role of society's direct intermediaries with the gods.

On the premises there is also an onsen where you can enjoy the heat and the sulfur of the volcanic springs, and as I took the waters I passed the time by asking the five older gentlemen in the pool with me if they had come here for the itako and whether they thought them trustworthy. One and all said they firmly believed in the itako's power to raise the spirits of the dead, and all had traveled to Osorezan to consult them.

While the modern Japanese are often painted as being materialistic, the continuing popularity of Osorezan and its itako show that a current of dark belief still flows through the Japanese psyche.

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