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
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
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
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
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).