shimane (prelude: sunset at shinjiko)

04Jul12

Shimane Prefecture, the second least-populous prefecture in Japan, is known as the home of the gods.  ‘Shimane’ (島根) — literally means “island root,” a name that attests to the prefecture’s mythical status as the Japanese nation’s site of origin.  According to the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”), Japan’s oldest collection of myths and legends, the Japanese archipelago was created by the gods Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto.  They were given a spear covered with jewels, and, floating in the space between the heavens and earth, began to stir the ocean until drops of salty water formed an island called Onogoro.  They lived on the island, fell in love, and Izanami eventually gave birth to the eight original islands of Japan: Awaji, Shikoku, Oki, Kyushu, Iki, Tsushima, Sado, and Yamato (now called Honshu).  (Hokkaido and Okinawa get no mention in the Kojiki.)  The Shimane region was once called Izumo, and in the Izumo tradition the story is often told a bit differently.  In the Izumo tradition, the god Okuninushi  and a dwarf god called Sukunabiko both contribute to, and end up putting the finishing touches on, the creation of the islands.  Okuninushi (大国主) — whose name translates as “Great Land Master” — is also credited with the invention of farming and several depictions show him tilling the land behind a white ox.

This early, mythical period of Japan is known as the Kamiyo, the “age of the gods,” and Shimane is considered to be the site where most of these ancient myths occurred.  One of my favorite myths involves Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess (in Japan the sun is female and the moon is male).  Here’s the version that appears in Wikipedia:

Amaterasu, the powerful sun goddess of Japan, is the most well known deity of Japanese mythology.  Her feuding with Susanoo, her uncontrollable brother, however, is equally infamous and appears in several tales.  One story tells about Susanoo’s wicked behavior toward Izanagi, who, tired of Susanoo’s repeated complaints, banishes him to Yomi.  Susanoo grudgingly acquiesces, but has first to attend some unfinished business. He goes to Takamagahara (“heaven”) to bid farewell to his sister, Amaterasu.  Amaterasu knows that her unpredictable brother does not have good intentions and is prepared for battle.  “For what purpose do you come here?” asks Amaterasu.  “To say farewell,” answers Susanoo.

But she does not believe him and requests a contest for proof of his good faith.  A challenge is set as to who can bring forth more noble and divine children.  Amaterasu creates three women from Susanoo’s sword, while Susanoo makes five men from Amaterasu’s ornament chain.  Amaterasu claims the title to the five are attributed to Susanoo.

Both gods declare themselves to be victorious.  Amaterasu’s insistence in her claim drives Susanoo to violent campaigns that reach their climax when he hurls a half-flayed pony (an animal sacred to Amaterasu) into Amaterasu’s weaving hall and causes the death of one of her attendants.  Amaterasu, angered by the display, hides in the cave called Iwayado.  As the sun goddess disappears into the cave, darkness covers the world.

All of the gods and goddesses strive to coax Amaterasu out of the cave, but she ignores them all. Finally, the kami of merriment, Ame-no-Uzume, hatches a plan. She places a large bronze mirror on a tree, facing Amaterasu’s cave.  Then, Uzume clothes herself in flowers and leaves, overturns a washtub and begins to dance upon it, drumming the tub with her feet.  Finally, Uzume sheds the leaves and flowers and dances naked.  All of the male gods roar with laughter, and Amaterasu becomes curious.  When she peeks outside, a ray of light called “dawn” escapes and Amaterasu is dazzled by the beautiful goddess that she sees, this being her own reflection in the mirror.  The god, Ameno-Tajikarawo, pulls her from the cave, which is sealed with a shimenawa.  Surrounded by merriment, Amaterasu’s depression disappears, and she agrees to return with her light.  Uzume is then known as the kami of dawn as well as of mirth.

This story is, of course, the origin of the Japanese tradition of eating kagami mochi, or “mirror mochi,” during the New Year holiday.

Ultimately, Amaterasu ends up granting Izumo-taisha, the Grand Shrine at Izumo, to Okuninushi for his good works.  There are thousands of shrines around Japan, but Izumo-taishi — where Okuninushi is enshrined — is often considered to be the most important, the putative headquarters for all of Japan’s eight million gods.

I visit Shimane just about every year with a group of friends (some of them originally from Shimane) who have made the annual visit into a kind of tradition.  The photograph at the top of this post — which looks out towards Izumo-taisha and the mountains of Izumo — is of the sun setting over lake Shinjiko, Japan’s seventh largest lake.  Directly on the other side of the mountains is the Sea of Japan, and a little further beyond are the Oki islands, the home of a very famous skinless rabbit who will make an appearance sometime in the next post or two.



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