Noilly Prattle: Getting Reacquainted 18 – A Little Journey Beyond the Mists of Time. . .

Monday, April 6, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 18 – A Little Journey Beyond the Mists of Time. . .

. . . into a world of gods and myths.

GPS Navi
     We rented a car with a GPS navigation system in Kumamoto for the next three days of our getaway. I have sung the praises of a good GPS system for traveling in unknown country before, and this one proved its value for the extra cost of the rental fee. It really takes all the guesswork and detours out of driving. I wouldn't travel by car away from home without one.

high country around Mt. Aso
       Our route took us through the high country of Mount Aso, an active volcano in central Kyushu, to the city of Takachiho, which, according to the Kojiki, is the place where Ninigi, the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, descended from heaven to plant rice and sire the Imperial line of Japanese emperors. He is considered the First Emperor. Thus, Japanese emperors claimed divine descent from Amaterasu up until World War II, being forced to renounce their divinity after the War.

Shirakawa Suigen shrine
delicious, cool, clear spring water
       There is a ropeway to the Mt. Aso crater but it was closed due to the high level of activity in one of the vents which was spewing smoke and ash several times a day. We simply bypassed the volcano (which is just a series of undifferentiated peaks, no single dramatic conical shape like Mt. Fuji), content with viewing it from a distance. To make up for the mild disappointment of the undramatic Mt. Aso, we ran across one of those little unexpected bonuses called Shirakawa Suigen. (White River Spring Source) From this spring, 60 tons of water gush out every minute. The spring is the source of the river. As is usually the case with such unusual natural phenomena in Japan there is a Shinto shrine located near the spring and a placid pool of unbelievably clear water with gentler bubbles rising to the surface. The cool clear water is deliciously drinkable. 

Shirakawa Source

Bubbling Spring

Shirakawa (White River)
      And so, on to the land of gods and myths as promised in the subtitle.

main altar with the mirror
and 16-petal chrysanthemum
logo of the Japanese emperors
mirror symbol of the sun goddess
(with me reflected in it)
       A seminal legend of Amaterasu is said to be based in the Ame-no-Iwato cave near the city of Takachiho. The myth goes like this: Amaterasu had a fight with her brother Susanoo, the storm god. He destroyed her rice paddies and looms and she was so angry that she decided to go down to earth to hide in a cave thereby casting the world into darkness. Things being in a chaotic state the other gods went looking for her and suspected she was hiding in a certain cave by a river. To lure her out the gods gathered in front of the cave and threw a “party”. Curious about the noise and merriment, Amaterasu peered out and saw her own face in a mirror. She was then pulled out of the cave while one of the strongest gods ripped the stones from the cave mouth and threw them far away. Light, thus returned to the world.

statue of Tajikarao hurling the stone
from Amaterasu's cave

footpath along the river to the cave
stack the stones and make a wish
       Naturally, we were curious to see this cave and drove to the site, where, of course there is a Shinto Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu. This shrine is authorized to display the 16-petal Imperial Chrysanthemum since it is associated with the Imperial line. The main altar features a round mirror, the symbol of the sun goddess. A map indicates the path to the cave, which, on the map looks fairly close by—an easy hike along the river through the woods. It turned out to be quite a hike with a steep descent down to the river with lots of steps and ups and downs along the path. But! Eventually you come to a bend in the river with a cliff face obscuring what's round the bend. Suddenly, as you walk around the cliff this enormous cave is staring you in the face. There is a rather primitive looking torii in the opening and as you approach you find yourself in a forest of stones piled one on top of another all around. My first impression was: “Ah, yes, I see.” A hiding place for a truly majestic being. The stone piles are, of course, for making wishes. You balance one stone on another without toppling them and make your wish. If they topple, I suppose you don't get your wish.

truly a cave fit for a goddess to hide in

tough climb back calls for some rest and refreshment

venue for the Kagura performance
       The main thing on our itinerary for visiting Takachiho was to attend a traditional dance performance called Kagura (神楽; "god-entertainment") accompanied by drums and bamboo flute at the Takachiho Shinto Shrine. It was the culmination of our little journey into the world of gods and myths. As it turned out, our trip to the Ame-no-Iwato, was the perfect prelude to the Kagura dance. The dance performance was a rendition of the cave story in mime, dance and music. Although these dances are performed only by men in full costume and masks there was originally it seems a far more risque version.

Shrine priest blandly talks
about tits and ass
       Before the start of the performance, the Shrine priest made a little speech of welcome and explanation for those not familiar with the topic of the dances. He was at pains to point out that the dance of the goddess Ame-no Uzume, though appearing quite chaste nowadays, was actually quite, as he put it “etchi” (lewd), with the goddess behaving like a burlesque stripper doing bumps and grinds in the nude and swinging and shaking her “oppai” (tits) to the great amusement of the gods who were engaged in what I can only imagine was an orgy. It was this wild revelry that lured the sun goddess out of her cave. I suppose she felt left out and wanted to join in the fun.

The Dances:

Dance of Tajikarao

The Dance of Ame-no-Uzume
(sorry, no video)

To be continued...

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