An excerpt from Gretel Ehrlich’s book Islands, The Universe, Home, in which she travels to Japan, meets with an itako medium, and explores Mt. Osorezan.
Early in the morning we were on our way to the northeast corner of Honshu to meet the itako, mediums who go into trance and communicate with the dead. We would also climb Osorezan, the lone mountain where all the dead spirits of Japan reside.
I bought coffee from a cart going through the train, amused by the segregation of Western-style snacks from Japanese and the fact that the honorific o is used only before Japanese foods.
Out the window, Iwateyama, “the Fuji of the north,” rose abruptly from fields where rice straw had been tied in bundles like conical hats or smaller mountains paying homage at Iwate’s feet. Everything I saw seemed imbued with the kamisama: the unplanted rice fields and the little gardens where winter vegetables—cabbages and scallions— had been bruised and blanched white by the cold. Even the old food vendor pushing his cart through the train chanted: “…bento—ni… o-cha …bento—ni…o-cha…” in a voice as sweet and clear as a priest’s.
Passing through a knot in the Ou Mountains, snow flew. Water ran between thick hips of snow as we crossed over a gorge on an iron bridge that shuddered with the train’s weight. In this island culture, bridges occur everywhere in the literature. The frequent necessity of crossing water has come to stand for the pilgrim’s journey from this world to the next, from samsara to nirvana.
“Yume no ukihashi” in The Tale of Genji alludes to the tenuous romantic ties between men and women as well as the ghostly ones between the realms of the living and of the dead. Impermanence figures so strongly in Asian religions: I wondered if it might not have evolved from a geography where islands rise precipitously out of the ocean and the earth shudders under everyone’s feet.
As the train pushed down from the mountains toward the Pacific Ocean I read this poem by Fujiwara no Teika:
The bridge of dreams
floating on a spring night
soon breaks off:
parting from the mountaintop,
a bank of clouds in open sky.
An anthropologist, Toshimi Sakuraba, was to meet us at the station, but since he didn’t show up, we walked to the sprawling, Disney-land-like spa—an onsen— where his folklore museum was housed. A friend of Kanzaki, our New Year’s Eve host, he met us at the front desk, and after arranging for rooms, we followed him on a whirlwind tour of indoor Japanese onsen kitsch. Mile-long hallways connected football-field-sized dining rooms; public baths gave way to entertainment centers loud with high-decibel video games. Couples on holiday strolled by in yukata and flip-flops, with damp towels over their arms. Small and serious, our guide moved so fast we had to run to keep up with him.
Down in the basement were the dank rooms of the Misawa folkcraft museum. After exhibits of farming and fishing tools, ancient weavings, and pottery, we found ourselves in front of a photographic exhibit of itako in trance on top of Osorezan.
Itako are not considered true shamans, because they are not called by a dream spirit and led to strange mountaintops, nor are they suddenly possessed from within. A woman becomes an itako because she is blind; blind men become masseurs. Before braille, these were the only professions deemed possible for a person without sight.
Despite the practical aspect of an itako‘s calling, her apprenticeship is long, beginning when she is twelve or thirteen. Innate talents and motives vary, but it is said almost universally that people who are blind possess a gift for inward vision.
In the afternoon, Sakuraba-san took us to a small farming village to meet an itako he had interviewed before. The museum sent a car and a driver with a wide, Mongolian, face and an angular nose. When he was out of earshot Leila commented that he looked Ainu or Chinese, to which Sakuraba-san retorted, “No. We are all Japanese.”
In the village of Itaya we pulled into the driveway of a well-cared-for suburban house. The itako, Mrs. Nakamura, met us at the door. Touching her hand to the wall, she went down on her knees and bowed deeply as we removed our shoes and handed over gifts. We followed her to a room, speckled and green, where she receives clients who come to make contact with the dead.
Middle-aged, she had a radiant smile and wore an angora sweater the color of a mustard field. She spoke in a sexy, breathless voice. “I’ve been blind since I was three years old, but I could see colors until I was twenty. My training began when I was thirteen. There was nothing else I could do, so I became an itako.”
Her husband, a rice farmer, brought in tea and oranges, then left the room. “The first time I heard an itako call up the dead I was scared and envious. I wanted to do it myself. A teacher was found for me, and I lived with her for two years.”
When I asked if it was difficult, she said that because she was so young she was able to learn quite fast. She told us of nights of pouring cold water over her back, hours and hours of memorization and recitation of sutras, invocations, prayers, and a long, three-part monogatari—a tale about a young girl who falls in love with a horse; rather inexplicably, this goes with an itako‘s training.
Between lessons, a young itako acts as a maid in her teacher’s house, cleaning and preparing meals. Near the end of the apprenticeship, the austerities intensify: less food and sleep, more cold-water rituals, more recitations in order to go into trance and receive help from the kamisama to communicate with the dead.
When I asked her why women, not men, are itako, she thought for a moment, then said: “I think it is because women are more devoted. They can open themselves to the kamisama and let the spirits in. When I began, I did not want to be an itako. But what else was there for me to do? Now, l am very pleased to be able to help people. They believe in me, and that is good.”
It was late afternoon when her husband came in to turn on i the light. She laughed because she had not realized it had gotten dark. I told her we were going to Osorezan in a day or two. “I have never seen that mountain,” she said. “But I have I been there.” She said she went to the mountain every year in July and again in October with the other itako. “We walk up the mountain together. It takes a long time because we never know where we are. That’s how it is when the blind lead the blind. As soon as I get to the top I can hear the young spirits crying. We line up, and people come to us. The trance lasts about ten to fifteen minutes. I can’t remember what the spirits say; I let them go on as long as they want. But if it is a young one I am calling back, I feel a tingling down my spine and a heaviness.”
Just before we left, she leaned close to me and whispered: “The dead spirits live in back of the mountain. Don’t go there, especially at night. If you do, you won’t come back.”
That night Sakuraba-san took us to one of the onsen‘s dining rooms, where the food was terrible. He didn’t bother to eat. As soon as the table was cleared, we went to one of the in-house bars and ordered the whiskey. For a while he flirted with the hostess, but she had eyes for someone else. Then he wanted Leila and me to sing. It was the kind of bar that offers an open mike, with a backup tape of any popular song. The barmaid shoved a list of possibilities before us. We found a Beatles song we thought we could manage, but when she opened the case, the tape was gone. By then Sakuraba-san was tipsy, his cool, anthropological demeanor gone.
A little sheepishly, he said, “The museum makes me use that driver because I get drunk every night and they’re afraid I’ll kill someone.” He looked around for a barmaid. It was near closing time, and she already had her arms around a good-looking young man with big biceps. “My wife is away,” he said. Pale and disheveled, he gave the barmaid a rueful look as we went to our separate rooms.
The next day we visited an itako in a village whose name I never knew. She lived in a falling-down, tin-roofed shack. A blind man answered the door and let us in. He showed us to a room with an earthen floor covered with crude straw mats. The smell of cat piss and human piss was breathtakingly strong. A door slid open on uneven rails, and a small hunchback woman with dark glasses crawled in on her knees. Her short, curly hair was held by a hair net, and she was missing a front tooth. “My house was once an old shrine. When the priest died, an itako came to live here. I had known her for a long time, and when she died, I took her place.”
The room looked unvisited. A huge altar took up the entire back wall. Strips of silk brocade were so dirty it was hard to distinguish any color at all. A four-foot-high candleholder in the shape of a ginkgo leaf stood on the floor next to a large drum. “This is the shrine of the Agurasama,” she said, putting on a white robe over a moth-eaten cardigan.
She threaded her rosary between her fingers and began rubbing them together. When she sang, her voice was beautifully clear. “At Osorezan the spirits go over the bridge and out into the lake. People say they see them … but I am blind. Sometimes they sing.”
Then she drummed as she talked, right hand over left. “All the itako are dying,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen when we are all gone. The spirits will be in trouble. They will be lonely without us. They will have to return to the place of the dead, to hell, and no one will call them home. No young people are becoming itako. I’ve never had a student. I’m eighty years old, and no one has ever come to me and said she wants to go between the living and the dead.”
In Hirosaki, Leila and I visited an itako who lived in a caretaker’s shack behind the Shinto cemetery. Following a snowy footpath up a hill, we walked through half an acre of mortuary stones to get to her house. We knocked, and a tiny woman in her seventies, bent almost double by osteoporosis, greeted us. Though she was blind, she wore clear glasses. There was a bruise under one eye. “Konnichi-wa,” she said cheerfully. Sun poured into the little room, and newspaper insulated the walls against the cold. When temple bells began to ring, she cocked her head like a bird and smiled. She had been an orphan, raised by an older brother, who wasn’t kind to her. Then she married and had four children before starting her training. “It took me seven years to learn how to bring the kamisama down,” she said, “because I was already thirty-three when I began. My teacher got very mad at me and kept telling me to quit, but I kept on. Now it has been forty-five years since I first went to Osorezan.”
From her small household shrine she pulled down a square straw box and drew out her rosary, called an iratakajuzu. Strung between three hundred red soapberry beads were animal claws and teeth and ancient coins with square holes in the middle. She threaded them between her fingers, then stopped and turned to me. “You want me to call someone down for you, don’t you,” she said. I wasn’t prepared for this, but I gave her the name of a loved one who had died fourteen years before. She asked me where he lived, what day and hour he had died, the cause, and what relationship he was to me. Leila translated. Holding the beads threaded between her fingers, she began rubbing them in long, swift strokes, singing, asking for the kamisana‘s help.
She stopped suddenly. “He wasn’t your husband… he was an ‘outside’ person, wasn’t he?” Yes, I told her. Mistakenly, Leila had used the word “husband” instead of “husband-to-be.” The itako nodded, then began again. Above a butane-fueled hot plate and a bucket of water with a bamboo dipper, a clock chimed eleven. A dog tied up in back growled, and snow on the tin roof began to drip, melted by sun.
Her chanting intensified, then stopped. “I can’t understand him. He doesn’t speak Japanese.”
“He was Welsh.”
“I’ll try again.”
The rubbing of the beads made a harsher sound. During the months just before and after David’s death, I had felt something cold behind my left shoulder. Now bright sun warmed my back. She began mumbling. I looked at Leila.
“It’s in some weird dialect,” she whispered.
The itako clapped her hands, then stopped. “I can barely make him out,” she said. “But he says he hasn’t forgotten you. I prayed for his well-being. I’m sorry. But he’s so far away. It would be easier if we were on Osorezan.”
Sakuraba-san and his driver picked us up early the next morning, and we drove north five hours in bad weather up the narrow arm of the Shimokita peninsula, shaped like an ax; its blade, if lowered, would strike down through the middle of Honshu. I was filled with melancholy. The night before, I’d dreamed about my dead friend. Unlike any other dream I’d had of him, he wasn’t about to die, nor was he already dead: we had infinity before us.
Rain swept across the road in gray sheets, lifting off and blowing back into seawater. In the town of Noheji we passed a hearse. Its ornate, gilded frame curved out over the body of the truck on which it had been built. From there to Mutsu there were no towns, only fishing camps where boats were pulled up on beaches and turned over on snow. Small torii faced weather-beaten shrines where offerings were still made “for luck in fishing.” Rain turned to sleet. The driver put on a tape of an itako chanting. The sky, sea, and the snow-covered shore were all the same gray color. An old woman with a curved spine slogged through a dairy farm in gum shoes, dragging the pointed end of an umbrella across the ground.
A waitress in Aomori had warned us: “If you go to Osorezan, the spirits will attach themselves to you and go down the mountain on your back. Be careful. If you let them do this, you’ll suffer sickness. When you go there you have to be strong and not let them in.” Aomori is the place where the word for dying also means “going to the mountain.” I looked ahead to where the mountain, Osore-zan, should have been, but all I saw were particles of snow bombarding us as if the mountain had blown apart.
At Mutsu we stopped for lunch. Our driver didn’t want to have anything to do with Osorezan; he only wanted to eat and read the comic books the restaurant provided. Our young waiter’s sweatshirt had these words, in English, printed on the back: “O. Henry. His stories are famous for their urbane ironies and unexpected twist at the end.”
By the time we had finished eating, it was snowing hard. At the north end of town, where the road to Osorezan began, an iron gate swung across our path. The snow was too deep. Sakuraba-san looked crestfallen. All this way for nothing. But I had not come partway around the world just to be turned back by a gate. “We’ll walk,” I said. It would be a twenty-six- mile round trip. Sakuraba-san gave me an incredulous look, but when he saw there was no choice, he borrowed the driver’s galoshes and set off up the mountain ahead of us.
The road to Osorezan is not narrow but deep. Deep with snow, thick with forebodings, silent, inward, trackless. We started up through a dense forest, an island of wild vegetation in a country where rice fields dominate the ground. On either side of the road, thick stands of cedar, pine, and cherry were twined with the vines of wild grape like “red threads,” a Japanese term that alludes to passion. I remembered a poem from Genji:
Longing for the one
Who crossed over
The mountain of Death,
I gaze at tracks
And wander lost.
Ankle-deep at first, the snow was heavy as cement. Behind us, our tracks filled in quickly, so that our ascent left no trace, and I wondered if that was how it was when you died. I’d worn too many clothes and began sweating. “People walk to heaven,” Sakuraba-san said, pausing to look at the sky, then passing me again. I wondered what Shinto heaven looked like, if it differed from Buddhist heaven. I wondered if the dead do walk, what they walk on, and if, like Dante, they have a guide.
Osorezan’s Ainu name means “Dreadful Mountain.” It is an eye in the head of the ax, staring into the dosed eyes of humans cut down by death; once a fiery volcano, it too is dead. I slogged up its slopes, its rivers falling away from my feet. Every two hundred yards or so, we passed a statue of Kannon, the deity of mercy and compassion. “I pray to Kannon every morning,” the itako Mrs. Nakamura had said, and I wondered how many prayers it took to get up this mountain blind.
As the road steepened, Sakuraba-san upped the pace. Finally, we stopped at a spring and drank thirstily from a bamboo dipper left on a rock for pilgrims. The snow was now up to my shins. We crossed one animal track all day—that of a serow, a wild sheep protected in Japan. That was all. The sky, like an iron plate, lowered on my head.
Near the top the road wound down to the caldera before flattening out into a wide plain. Wind gusted, carrying the smell of sulfur. Pools of hot water, orange and green, bubbled out of the ground. We passed a ramshackle, seedy onsen, boarded up for the winter. A child’s pink bike lay on its side in the ooze. I walked on. When the steam and the cold mist lifted, I could see across a broad lake, whose ice-dappled emerald waters filled the volcano’s crater.
Osorezan has its own cosmology. The beaches are called gokuraku-gahama, which means “Beach of Paradise.” The tumbled, sulfur-stained rocks are the site of one of Osorezan’s hells. Beyond is the “Pond of Blood”—now white with snow—where the journeyers must drink, another one of the hundred and thirty-six hells where relatives of the dead pray.
Ahead was a narrow red bridge, the one the itako had told me about. It connects higan and shigan—this shore and the other shore—and the dead spirits must cross it before taking up residence on the water.
I walked over the Taiko Bridge and continued on. Ahead, in the mist, I could make out the temple, Bodai-ji. As we approached its high gates, four ravens appeared out of the forest, cawing. Greetings! I cawed back. Leila and I rested on the steps, because the gates to the temple were locked. Twelve hundred years ago a priest, Jokaku Daishi, studying Buddhism in China, had a dream that he must return home. From Mount Hiei near Kyoto, he began to walk. He had been directed to a mountain in the northeast corner of Honshu. Thirty days later he reached Osorezan and fasted. Finally, the “thin spot” revealed itself, “opening” so the holiness could come through; on that spot he built this temple.
Inside there is a carving, left by the priest, of Jizo, the savior of those lost in the bardos. Every night Jizo walks these grounds, gathering up the ghosts of dead children. Believers say the edge of his robe is wet from the children’s tears and that the walking stick carried in his right hand is hot to the touch. Sai no Kawara is the beach in front of the temple, where children, chased by demons, are saved by him.
After eating an orange, we walked to a building where smoke was coming from a chimney. Two leathery-faced old caretakers came out, shocked to see they had visitors, and Americans at that. Timidly, they invited us in. Two caged doves cooed as I unlaced my boots. Inside, a television was showing a Mickey Mouse cartoon dubbed in Japanese. We sat on red cushions around a wood stove and drank tea from big, handleless mugs.
The caretakers, both in their late seventies, looked more Chinese than Japanese, with their dark skin, high cheekbones, and easy smiles. They had been on the mountain since September. It was now January, and we were their first visitors. Both had been born in Mutsu, the town where we’d had lunch, and, as bachelors, had traveled in labor camps to Tokyo and Yokohama as construction workers. Now they were too old to work and had taken this job. “We come up when the people are leaving and go down when they come up,” the older of the two said.
Through a doorway I could see a large table heaped with cabbages, onions, and carrots, fifty-pound sacks of rice, and stacks of eggs. “We don’t like each other’s cooking, so we cook for ourselves,” one of them said, as if the results could be that different, given the ingredients.
After tea, they refilled our cups with instant coffee. We offered them a crumpled American candy bar, which they refused. I asked them if they were afraid to live here. The older one shrugged, no. But the younger of the two said he heard dead people crying at night and saw them moving around, legless, on the shore of the lake. “They glide on air like birds. I don’t know why they don’t have legs,” he said.
I noticed Sakuraba-san checking his watch. It was after four when we rose to leave. “You better stay the night; it will be dark in half an hour,” the younger one said. “No, no, we must go,” Sakuraba-san protested, stepping into his galoshes. The caretakers followed, showing us where on the temple grounds the itako do their work. “Sometimes we come back up in July, just to see the itako,” they said. “The caretaker who was here before us died here. His spirit didn’t have to go anywhere. It was already home.”
More than a foot of snow had fallen since we had started up, and the walk back, which I had expected to be easy, was just as laborious. A little way from the temple, I stopped and turned. The two old men, who looked as if they belonged in the Tang dynasty, smiled sweetly and waved goodbye. Around the lake, over the Taiko Bridge, up the lip of the crater, then down in steep snow and dark. “Oku… oku… oku…” The word came with the rhythm of each step. This was my narrow road to the deep north, my walk to a distant shrine, my inward journey, my penetration of darkness.
The day before, I had asked Sakuraba-san if he believed in itako, if he believed Osorezan was a place of spirits, and he had said, “No, not really.” But now because it was dark, he passed me with a frightened look and began running down the mountain. I did not try to keep up.
Singing to myself, I shook my shoulders every now and then to see if there were any spirits clinging to my back. Nothing. I felt light and heavy at the same time. I wondered if the itako we visited had really talked to my dead friend, if they actually talk to anyone, or were they simply meting out consolation at two thousand yen a shot? I didn’t care. We are always looking for difficult truths in easy contexts and demanding simple answers within complicated wholes. Perhaps the gesture is enough. Like an ax coming down into a log, a gesture dents consciousness, wedging it wider. It pleased me to have found a place where disbelief could be suspended, where the mind was open, permissive, accepting, and could see worlds behind masks and sacred dances, hear voices inside the wild conch shell and the rasping rosary.
At the spring I drank deeply and bowed to the goddess Kannon, who inspires compassion. To go with suffering, to go with passion…that is what the word “compassion” really means. Trudging, glissading, my heels sinking deep in fresh snow, I saw that the New Year’s new moon had come almost full and the road to and from Osorezan glistened white.
From Islands, The Universe, Home by Gretel Ehrlich. © 1991 by Gretel Ehrlich. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.