Study From the Field: Japanese Shamanism

From the Field: Japanese Shamanism

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On the bank of sai-no-kawara visitors are busy praying and building cairns.

The itako, 50 years after Carmen Blacker.

Ioannis Gaitanidis, a WREAC PhD scholar researching Japanese shamanism, is currently on his field trip near Tokyo, Japan. Here he discusses the itako; traditionally a blind female shaman in Northern Japan.

For most Japanese, visiting festivals in the north of Japan during the summer season is a frequently advertised way to escape from the humid and hot weather reigning over the rest of the country during the months of July and August. For me, it filled the need to observe one of the most talked and researched magico-religious practitioners of the country, the itako.  As Japanese religions specialist Ian Reader observes, "the itako have become extremely well-known in Japan, as much as anything because they represent the last and dying vestiges of a shamanic tradition that once was very strong in northern Japan". Hereafter, I shall describe my experience of 'consulting' one of these practitioners.

The traject from Tokyo to Mount Osore.

Five hours and a half from Tokyo ( 3 hours on the bullet train to Hachinohe [八戸], 1 hour 30 minutes to the city of Mutsu [むつ市] on a local train, and 45 minutes by bus through the woods), stands Mount Osore (恐山), one of the three sacred, spiritually meaningful peaks of Japan.

The bus to Mount Osore ("sacred ground" in red lettering).

In fact, to the Japanese themselves, as the name suggests (Mount "Fear"), the place recalls much more out-of this-world images than the two other mounts of Hiei in Shiga prefecture, and Kōya in Wakayama Prefecture. The story narrated on the pamphlet distributed to guests, places the identification of the mountain as a holy location about 1,200 years ago, when the Buddhist priest Ennin (known as 慈覚大師円仁, 793-864 A.D.), during his travels in China saw this area of the Shimokita peninsula in his dream and was struck by the other-worldliness of the scenery and the omnipresence of spiritual power. Indeed, the extremely rocky, sulfur-fuming pits-filled landscape had been for centuries believed to be the gateway to hell, and, as such, every one of its composing elements has been awarded with the physical representation of the paths and crossings the dead soul traverses after death.

"Danger": some areas of the mountain are of restricted access.

Here and there streams of sulfur colour the grey landscape.


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© White Rose East Asia Centre 2008.