A day on Fear Mountain

On Gokurakuhama beach by Lake Usoriyama, elderly woman prays and makes offerings for the spirit of her dead husband
Photos by Mary King

Mary Kingmeets the mediums on the mount at Osorezan.

Arriving at Mutsu' Tanabu station, I half-expected to be bombarded with signs boasting all sorts of otherworldly experiences and miracles, and to find religious charms and trinkets on sale and part-time palmists plying their trade. Instead, I was surprised to discover that Mutsu is a very ordinary, small Japanese city. In spite of the hordes of pilgrims and tourists who flock here for the annual summer itako (medium) festival on nearby Osorezan (Fear Mountain), the locals were going about their daily business as usual and seemed oblivious to the flurry around them.

Having met a few "psychics" in my time - from an African witch doctor who predicted I would mother ten children (seems unlikely), to a Thai clairvoyant at Bangkok's Wat Po temple, who without an iota of personal information on me was able to say some very specific things about my past - I wasn't really sure whether Osorezan in Aomori Prefecture would turn out to be a fairground "soothsaying" experience or something that would enrich and deepen my awareness, or even prove unnerving.

It's possible to meet the itako all year round, but most people come for the July and October festivals when there are many itako. "During the rest of the year there's usually at least one itako on the mountain whom you can meet," the taxi driver explained to me as we crawled behind the long line of traffic leading to the 879m-high volcano in the Shimokita Peninsula Quasi-National Park.

A slight chill ran through me as the view from the car window gave way to bamboo forest shrouded in thick mist. Mizukojizo, small Buddha-like images dedicated to the souls of unborn babies, dotted the roadside. The rainwater dripping down their haunted stone faces appeared like tears as the cortege of cars drove through the billowing rain clouds and crossed into a world of intense sadness and mourning. The wind moaned as we crawled higher up the snaking road, passing couples, young and old, who were offering flowers and sweets to appease the tormented souls of those who had never had the chance to experience life in this world.

Speak of the Devil
The flowers and brightly colored pin-wheels left spinning in the wind added no gaiety to the area - they only seemed to intensify the atmosphere of grief and mourning in this place of spiritual limbo. The crowds had been gathering since 6am. Families had brought mats and enough refreshments to sit it out until their turn came. "How much does a session cost, and how long do you have to wait?" I asked one man near the front of one of the lines who was concentrating intensely on the utterings of an itako. "It's JY3000 for about a 20-minute session," he told me, "but I've been waiting four hours and there's at least another two-hour wait," he added.

In spite of coming armed with a tape recorder, I had doubts about how much would really make any sense to me. "The itako can't speak English so I doubt they can communicate with gaijin (foreign) spirits," the man told me in all earnestness. "In fact, it's almost impossible to understand their Japanese - they speak Tsugaruben (the local dialect)." I figured that language and dialect shouldn't present a problem in the spirit world - the African witch doctor and the Thai medium had had no problems with it - and as an avid believer in "money speaks all languages," I decided to see if I could find a shorter queue.

My luck wasn't in. The lines were constantly swelling as more and more tourist buses arrived. So I sneaked behind one of the tents and joined a group of eavesdroppers to see what I could glean from someone else's session. The itako, a plump middle-aged woman with spectacles, gently swayed as she fingered her prayer beads and chanted in a monotone voice. Suddenly, her posture and voice changed and she started to speak rapidly to the elderly couple sitting with her. Her voice was almost inaudible and I could only snatch something about taking care of their health and not worrying.

Pilgrims at Osorezan's itako festival ring ceremonial bells as they pray

Picnic for the dead
Leaving the itako tent behind, I walked over volcanic rock towards the shores of Gokurakuhama (Heavenly Beach) and Lake Usoriyama, which in the minds of many Japanese is a kind of River Styx - for beyond the shores of the lake, it is believed, lies the spiritual world of the dead. Huge black ravens swooped low, snatching packets of food that had been left as offerings. They tore at the packets, greedily gobbling up whatever took their fancy before taking flight. The smell of sulfur from the many fumaroles that line the lake filled the air. People milled around in family groups, couples, or all alone. The atmosphere was one of both sadness and gaiety. Some people merrily enjoyed picnics among the rhododendrons, the only plant life that grows along the lake's shores. Others, surrounded by flowers and children's toys they had brought, lit fires and burned incense while listening to tapes of religious chants, or prayed and wiped tears away as they stared out towards the lake and the thick mists beyond.

Visitors listening to the itako as she chants and fingers her beads to call the spirits of the dead

"Come back and pay your debts," one old lady playfully yelled out as she threw food into the lake. The 86-year-old woman lost her husband more than 20 years ago and has come to Osorezan on a number of occasions to commune with dead members of her family via itako. "I have my favorite itako, and I see her every time I come. I believe that she has power although I don't think all of the itako are able to communicate with the dead," she told me. "I believe she is genuine because when she speaks her demeanor and way of speaking reminds me of my husband, and of my parents, and of my sister. It makes me feel happy to come here and to be able to hear what they have to say, and I'm sure they are glad that I come too. I hope my children and grandchildren will come here to communicate with me after I have passed away. Hopefully, I won't leave any debts to pay," she laughed.

Although the powers of the itako appear to be recognized by many Japanese who visit Osorezan, they are not considered to be "true" shamans as they rarely experience the initial "visionary call" and emotional and physical initiation that male shamans usually undergo in Japan and other countries. The female itako, who are blind from birth, undergo their own particular rigorous training under a master before taking part in a symbolic marriage (kamizukeshiki) with a god. The itako then goes on to become the mouthpiece of kami (gods), or ancestral spirits, for pilgrims to Entsuji Temple. The temple was founded in the ninth century by Ennin, a monk who studied Buddhism in China. He had a prophetic dream that told him to return to his country and walk east for 30 days until he found a mountain. The dream instructed him to build a temple on the mountain from where he could spread Buddhism. Today, Osorezan is considered one of Japans most holy mountains and pilgrimage sites.

Modern-day tourists mix with the devout and those who want to communicate through itako. Whatever the motivation behind a visit, Osorezan remains a fascinating glimpse into the Japanese spirit world.

Pilgrims picnic among wooden grave markers

Getting there:
Flights from Tokyo's Haneda airport to Aomori airport take just over one hour. At Aomori stn take the Ominato line to Shimokita stn, changing to the Shimokita-Kotsu line for Tanabu stn. From there, take a bus or taxi to Osorezan.

Aomori Tourist Information, Tel: 0177-23-7211.
Osorezan Itako Festival is held twice a year, in July and Oct.

Where to stay:
Murai Ryokan in Mutu is situated near Tanabu Station. (Tel: 0175-22-4755).

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