Friday, December 26, 2008

Under the Light


A Korean looking woman with a heavily painted face describes some of the history of this shrine. She tells us that the worship here has been slightly corrupted by Christianity, and that to pray here is a means of alleviating guilt. She is enthusiastic as she prosteletizes, and then just as abruptly as she approached, she moves on. I see her later, leading a group of worshippers that can only belong to one of Japan's New Religions. They stand before Iwabune Jinja's main hall, bowing so deeply that they're nearly 90 degrees. Coming up again, they clapped 4 times, then began to chant a sutra, one hand held out waist high, palm down, as if indicating some kind of measure. Their leader chants on powerfully, and with her Korean features and heavy make-up, she looks shamanistic, ritualistically linking us with the older, wilder beliefs of the Asia mainland, back to a time when the supernatural was the natural. Iwabune gives just that impression, of a harkening back to a spiritual realm, in the days when Asian spirituality was beginning to extend its legs to these islands.


Our own group of five descended into the 'cave', though it was less a cave than a jumble of huge rocks which had come to rest atop one another. Near the entrance, candles burned from small altars and nooks in the stone. It felt like a tomb, all heavy stones and earth, and moving through required us to nimbly balance on wooden slats laid high above quick streams. We had now crossed over to the other realm. Ducking under a large opening, we entered the main chamber, bisected by fast-moving water. This was fed by a small waterfall, and above it was a small shelf, upon which was a stone wrapped in white cloth, representing the main deity. It was dim and hard to make out, but it reminded me of a lingam, which would be a surprise considering that this cave was considered to be the lair of the Sun Goddess, during her days as Japan's first hikikomori. We stayed in here awhile, admiring the quiet and the collection of massive stones perched above us at random and precarious angles. It was easy to get caught up into the magic of this place, with its rich fertility for the creation of folk beliefs. Here on the winter solstice, we too had entered the realm without light. It was just shy of noon, and despite the overcast day, the stone beside the deity was warm with light. Later, at this day's apex, she would fully bask.


To leave the chamber we had to slide legs first through a series of slippery stone openings, representing the onward trip through the birth canal. We joined a stream bed here, moving toward another series of stones upon which we'd have to climb in order to reach the series of altars tucked into the upper reaches barely visible by candle light. Upon these spiritual heights, we alternated sitting quietly and puzzling out some of the deities represented here. Serpents of white and gold were well represented, and someone had symbollically broken an egg on a rock nearby. We stayed until all the candles had burned down. And in the waning light, just an instant before being engulfed by full darkness, we found one last unlit candle, which accepted the flame in a profound rebirth of light. This light guided us toward an exit into the afternoon sun, itself to be reborn tomorrow, beginning the new cycle in the new harvest year.


A light rain was indiscriminately falling, reshaping the ancient stones while shuffling the leaves newly strewn atop them. A group of old men were near the shrine's office, pounding dried straw to later be twisted into next year's Shimenawa. As one of our group remarked, the true folklore lies not in these caves but in these men. We left then to make the short trip to a small hut popular with day-hikers. On the adjacent side of this narrow valley was a sheer rock face, and below it, someone had constructed a synthetic, artificial wall for climbers. (We'd definitely arrived back in modern Japan.) We had a quick bento lunch, surprised by another of our group turning up suddenly, then set to work. As this was an official Hailstones Haiku event, we spent some time putting words to impressions. Back in February and the symbolic end of winter, Moya had visited Ireland's sacred Newgrange with some poets who had composed a couple dozen poems on site. Our job was to answer these with two additional lines, turning haiku into tanka at this, the subsequent winter's birth. Three of us finished early to walk up the valley and across the suspension bridge 180 meters above. We continued on, back down the valley and along the river to the village proper. In the warmth of a cafe, we critiqued one another's work, until the sun actually did set, bringing about a definitive conclusion to the event, the day, the year.



On the turntable: "Victrola Favorites"

On the reel table: "Mystery Train" (Jarmusch, 1989)

2 comments:

John Dougill said...

Thanks for the Iwafune report. I like the intro with the Korean looking lady and the strange group she was leading... that was
quite bizarre but also a true indicator of the level of spirituality in Japan as you note... as for the lingam, it was very striking indeed but is it not a perfect example of a potent yin-yang combination with the male symbol being deeply rooted within the female... The ancients had a strong sense of the magic of creation without any of the self-consciousness that we moderns bring to matters of sex and the body...

I thought it would be a nice touch if you included a haiku or two at the end... or are you hiding your 'light' under a bushel??!!

Stephen Gill said...

Liked the way you recorded the rebirth of the light in the last second passing of flame to a new candle before emerging in the woods with rain beginning to fall. How lucky we were to have explored underground before the caves were closed off. Any precipitation, and the shrine staff locks them.