shimane — part I: at yaegaki-jinja


Yaegaki-jinja (八重垣神社) is a shrine dedicated to the the god Susanoo and his bride, the princess Kushinada, and it is said that the main shrine building is located on the site where Susanoo built the house that he and his bride lived in.  Yaegaki Shrine is an 縁結び (enmusubi) shrine, that is, a shrine dedicated to the tying of love knots, i.e., to love and to marriage.  The main shrine building itself is nothing spectacular as far as shrines go, but because so many couples and families visit this shrine in order obtain marriage blessings there are often ceremonies being performed and you can hear the sounds of drums, bells, and flutes being played while the kannushi (神主) — the ‘god master’ — performs ritualized purification and blessing ceremonies with the help of the miko (巫女), the shrine maidens.

On the shrine grounds is a plaque that commemorates two visits to the shrine made by the writer Lafcadio Hearn, who is known as Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲) in Japan.  Hearn lived in Shimane for 15 months beginning in 1890 and taught at the Shimane Prefectural Common Middle School and Normal School in Matsue.  There he married Koizumi Setsu, and in 1896 he became a naturalized Japanese citizen after moving to Tokyo.  It was while living in Shimane that he wrote many of the sketches that would later form a major part of his 1894 work, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.

Yaegaki-jinja was once known as Sakusa Shrine, which is the name of the village where the shrine was located.  Of course, the village has long been absorbed into the adjoining city of Matsue and a pilgrimage that once required a hike through fields and forests has been superseded by a parking lot full of taxis and tour buses.  Hearn’s account of the walk to the shrine shows up what has been lost in the name of convenience:

Sakusa, the hamlet where Yaegaki-jinja stands, is scarcely more than one ri south from Matsue.  But to go there one must follow tortuous paths too rough and steep for a kuruma [rickshaw]; and of the three ways, the longest and roughest happens to be the most interesting.  It slopes up and down through bamboo groves and primitive woods, and again serpentines through fields of rice and barley, and plantations of indigo and of ginseng, where the scenery is always beautiful or odd.  And there are many famed Shinto temples to be visited  on the road, such as Take-uchi-jinja, dedicated to the venerable minister of the Empress Jingo, Take-uchi, to whom men now pray for health and length of years; and Okusa-no-miya, or Rokusho-jinja, of the five greatest shrines in Izumo; and Manaijinja, sacred to Izanagi, the Mother of Gods, where strange pictures may be obtained of the Parents of the World; and Obano-miya, where Izanami is enshrined, also called Kamoshijinja, which means, ‘The Soul of the God.’

At the Temple of the Soul of the God, where the sacred fire-drill used to be delivered each year with solemn rites to the great Kokuzo of Kitzuki, there are curious things to be seen — a colossal grain of rice, more than an inch long, preserved from that period of the Kamiyo when the rice grew tall as the tallest tree and bore grains worthy of the gods; and a cauldron of iron in which the peasants say the first Kokuzo came down from heaven; and a cyclopean toro formed of rocks so huge that once cannot imagine how they were ever balanced upon each other; and the Musical Stones of Oba, which chime like bells when smitten.

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan includes a chapter about Yaegaki-jinja that reveals the meaning of the shrine’s name by way of the famous story about how Susanoo rescued Kushinada from the Yamato no Orochi, a giant snake with eight heads and eight tails.  “Yaegaki” can literally be translated as ‘eight-fold fence’ or ‘fences within fences,’ a name that references the device devised by Susanoo to defeat the Eight-Forked Serpent.  Hearn retells this story based on what has been written in the Kojiki, but here I’ll include the shorter version of this story that is found in the Nihon Shoki (as translated by William George Aston):

Then Sosa no wo no Mikoto [that would be Susanoo] descended from Heaven and proceeded to the head-waters of the River Hi, in the province of Izumo. At this time he heard a sound of weeping at the head-waters of the river, and he went in search of the sound. He found there an old man and an old woman. Between them was set a young girl, whom they were caressing and lamenting over. Sosa no wo no Mikoto asked them, saying: “Who are ye and why do ye lament thus?” The answer was: “I am an Earthly Deity, and my name is Ashi-nadzuchi. My wife’s name is Te-nadzuchi. This girl is our daughter, and her name is Kushinada-hime. The reason of our weeping is that formerly we had eight children, daughters. But they have been devoured year after year by an eight-forked serpent and now the time approaches for this girl to be devoured. There is no means of escape for her, and therefore do we grieve.” His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness said: “If that is so, wilt thou give me thy daughter?” He replied, and said: “I will comply with thy behest and give her to thee.” Therefore His Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness on the spot changed Kushinada-hime into a many-toothed close-comb which he stuck in the august knot of his hair. Then he made Ashi-nadzuchi and Te-nadzuchi to brew eight-fold sake, to make eight cupboards, in each of them to set a tub filled with sake, and so to await its coming. When the time came, the serpent actually appeared. It had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail; its eyes were red, like the winter-cherry; and on its back firs and cypresses were growing. As it crawled it extended over a space of eight hills and eight valleys. Now when it came and found the sake, each head drank up one tub, and it became drunk and fell asleep. Then Sosa no wo no Mikoto drew the ten-span sword which he wore and chopped the serpent into small pieces. When he came to the tail, the edge of his sword was slightly notched, and he therefore split open the tail and examined it. In the inside there was a sword. This is the sword which is called Kusa-nagi no tsurugi.

Though this account of the legend is more concise, it does leave out the all-important fence.  According to the Kojiki,  the sake tubs were placed inside a fence that had eight gates.  After the serpent drank the sake it fell asleep with a head in each gate, clearly making for easier decapitation.

The Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sword which Susanoo discovered in the serpent’s tail, is said to be enshrined at Nagoya’s Atsuta-jingu, though since it is one the three sacred imperial treasures no one is allowed to see it except for the emperor and a few select Shinto priests.

One of Yaegaki-jinja’s most popular features is the Mirror Pond, which is located in a dense forest grove located behind the main shrine building.  Even though it’s a short walk through the forest to the pond, it’s easy to feel the thickness of the place, the green sense of weight that accompanies a steadfast and ancient forest.  Here’s Hearn’s description of what the grove was like a hundred years ago:

This ancient grove — so dense that when you first pass into its shadows out of the sun all seems black — is composed of colossal ceders and pines, mingled with bamboo, tsubaki (Camelia Japonica), and sakaki, the sacred and mystic tree of Shinto.  The dimness is chiefly made by the huge bamboos.  In nearly all sacred groves bamboos are thickly set between the trees, and their feathery foliage, filling every lofty opening between the heavier crests, entirely cuts off the sun.  Even in a bamboo grove where no other trees are, there is always a deep twilight.

As the eyes become accustomed to this green gloaming, a pathway outlines itself between the trees — a pathway wholly covered with moss, velvety, soft, and beautifully verdant.  In former years, when all pilgrims were required to remove their footgear before entering the sacred grove, this natural carpet was a boon to the weary.

At the Mirror Pond you can discover your fortune in love and marriage by floating the fortune on the water and placing a coin in the center.  The fortunes, bought at the shrine for 100 yen, are written on in such a way that the writing is difficult to read until the paper becomes saturated with water, a bit like homemade invisible ink.  The weight of the coin eventually causes the paper to sink below the surface of the water and it’s the time it takes for the paper to sink that indicates your fortune.  The faster the paper sinks, the luckier in love you’re destined to be.  Mostly this is seen as a kind of game these days, though like most games involving fortune nobody wants to get the short end of the stick and you can often see people bending over the floating papers, exhorting them to “Hurry!  Hurry!  Hurry up!,” which they inevitably never do.

The practice was a bit different in Hearn’s day when the pond was clearer, cleaner, and full of newts:

The water is very clear; and there are many of these newts to be seen.  And it is the custom for lovers to make a little boat of paper, and put into it one rin, and set it afloat and watch it.  So soon as the paper becomes wet through, and allows the water to enter it, the weight of the copper coin soon sends it to the bottom, where, owing to the purity of the water, it can still be seen as distinctly as before.  If the newts then approach and touch it, the lovers believe their happiness assured by the will of the gods; but if the newts do not come near it, the omen is evil.

I’ve been to Yaegaki-jinja quite a few times now, but I’ve never seen any newts in the pond.  However, we did run across a very cute orange-bellied newt relaxing near a small stream as we were leaving the grove.  The newt eventually slipped into the water and swam away, oblivious to the practice described by Hearn that may have claimed the hides of many of its ancestors:

It is believed that the flesh of the newts in the sacred pond of Yaegaki possesses aphrodisiac qualities; and the body of the creature, reduced to ashes, by burning, was formerly converted into love powders.

This small shrine building sits in the forest above the pond and, presumably, houses the god that watches over the pond — perhaps Kushinada herself, who was supposed to have been fond of gazing into the reflective water.  This shrine — like many in Shimane — has been built in the taisha-zukuri style in imitation of Izumo-taisha, one of Japan’s oldest and most important Shinto shrines.  After visiting the pond, couples often walk up to this building to give a prayer.

This is a view of one of the ceders growing in the sacred grove at Yaegaki-jinja.  The rope that surrounds the tree marks it as a shinboku (神木), a sacred tree that embodies divinity.  Sacred trees are common sights in Japan, but at least two of the trees in the grove at Yaegaki were fenced off so they couldn’t be approached too closely.  I was curious about these fences because I haven’t seen them elsewhere, but a clue about their purpose can be found in Hearn’s essay:

[T]he trunks of many of the great trees have been covered with thick rush matting to a height of seven or eight feet, and [ . . . ] holes have been torn through some of the mats.  All the giants of the grove are sacred; and the matting was bound about them to prevent pilgrims from stripping off their bark, which is believed to possess miraculous virtues.  But many, more zealous than honest, do not hesitate to tear away the matting in order to get at the bark.  And the third curious fact which you notice is that the trunks of the great bamboos are covered with ideographs — with the wishes of lovers and the names of girls.

While many of the traditions that Hearn describes are no longer practiced at Yaegaki-jinja — including the beautiful practice of bringing seawater and seaweed from the ocean as offerings — it seems that ripping bark off of the sacred trees might still hold a bit of fascination for some.  More likely the fences are there to keep people from carving their names into the big trees; though the bamboo grove full of name carvings that Hearn describes is no longer in evidence, there is — unfortunately — still some graffiti to be found that has been cut into the trunks of the smaller trees around the grove.

One thing Hearn doesn’t touch on in his essay, but which I’m almost certain must have been there when he visited, are the numerous phallic totems scattered around the shrine grounds.  These phallic totems are not unique to Yaegaki, but are relatively common around Japan.  Shinto, like many animist religions, places an emphasis on fertility.  While fertility rituals involving the planting of rice are probably the most well-known of these, fertility and sexual potency in relation to procreation (and sometimes just sexual pleasure) still figure large at many shrines and in many festivals, including Kawasaki’s famous Kanamara Matsuri, the Festival of the Steel Phallus.  Not only are giant sacred phallic mikoshi (portable shrines) paraded through the street, but you can also buy penis-shaped lollipops to increase your potency.  These are also available at Yaekagi-jinja, at the souvenir shop located next to the sacred camellia tree that’s just outside of the shrine’s main gate.

Though it’s now separated from the main shrine by a major road, and though the area in front of the stone wall that protects it is often used as an impromptu taxi stand these days, the sacred camellia at Yaegaki is worth seeing:

There is one more famous thing to be seen before visiting the holy grove behind the temple, and that is the Sacred Tama-tsubaki, or Precious-Camellia of Yaegaki.  It stands upon a little knoll, fortified by a projection-wall, in a rice-field near the house of the priest; a fence has been built around it, and votive lamps of stone placed before it.  It is of vast age, and has two heads and two feet; but the twin trunks grow together at the middle.  Its unique shape, and the good quality of longevity it is believed to possess in common with all of its species, cause it to be revered as a symbol of undying wedded love, and as tenanted by the Kami who hearken to lovers’ prayers — enmusubi-no-kami.

There is, however, a strange superstition, about tsubaki-trees; and this sacred tree of Yaegaki, in the opinion of some folk, is a rare exception to the general ghastliness of its species.  For tsubaki-trees are goblin trees, they say, and walk about at night; and there was one in the garden of a Matsue samurai which did this so much that it had to be cut down.  Then it writhed its arms and groaned, and blood spurted at every stroke of the axe.

Hearn seems to find it strange that the camellia tree, a “goblin tree,” should be venerated as a symbol of everlasting marriage, but it’s really not too difficult to figure out the connection.  While it’s always to be hoped that a lengthy marriage is one that is full of love, we’ve all known some of the other kind — lengthy marriages that are also ghastly marriages, ‘undying’ only in the sense that’s commonly used when talking about zombies.  If you’ve found yourself in a relationship like this, it might be time for a phalli-pop or some powdered newt.


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