Monthly Archives: August 2012

Changing Epistemologies: From Historical to Modern Views of Togakushi’s Natural Environment

This post takes a look at geological and historical understandings of Togakushi’s natural environment and then considers the shift from one epistemology to another.

Geological:

The Togakushi mountains are located north-northwest of Nagano City.  Consisting mainly of igneous rock, they began forming between 40 million and 27 million years ago through submarine volcanic activity.  Gradually, magma protruded upward as layers of mud and sand settled and hardened.  Shifts in the earth’s crust eventually pushed the entire region above sea level and through subsequent uplift and erosion, the peaks of Togakushi (1904m) and the neighboring Amakazari (1963m) took form.

The surrounding peaks of Iizuna (1917m), Kurohime (2053m) and Myoko (2454m) emerged later (approximately 17 million years ago) through violent eruptions. Shaped as typical cone volcanoes, their cores consist of an igneous rock known as porphyrite, with layers of sandstone and sediment extending outward.

Below the range, high plains are dotted with hot springs–evidence of magma rolling just below the surface.  While the sea now lies just northwest of the region, shells and the fossilized bones of crabs, seal and whale dating back to the early formation of the peaks can still been found.

. . .

The description above of course, reflects a geological understanding of the region.  This body of knowledge has been vital in informing policies related to water management,  natural disaster response, commercial development and so forth.  Before this scientific approach was applied to the Togakushi region however, a preexisting body of knowledge that was also shaped from the mountains guided understandings of the region. Because rice production has long been central to people’s lives, this earlier epistemology concerned agriculture.

Historical:

Water flowing down from the Togakushi mountains has always been key to the productivity of the agricultural basin below.  The immense snow pack that accumulates over the winter in these high peaks melts off in the spring, feeding the area’s streams, rivers, and aquifers.

One stream source in fact, emerges beside the craggy abode of Kuzuryū 九頭龍, the nine-headed dragon who allegedly appeared when the first ascetic reached the range long ago. Indicative of beliefs across Asia, the dragon at Togakushi has long been understood to control the supply of water—from both the clouds and the mountains.  Kuzuryū was likewise appealed to for crop water as well as prevention of water-related disasters (flooding, landslides, etc.).

Just as important to agriculture is the sun’s energy.  Incidentally, recent scholarship reveals a strong connection between solar worship and the historical layout of the temples and pathways. In his recent book, Gentō no Togakushi (Togakushi’s Winter, 2011), Miyazawa Kazuho argues that some of the oldest religious sites on the mountain align precisely with the direction of the sun’s rays on the summer and winter solstices. The early morning rays of the winter solstice for example, penetrate directly through the torii at Okusha 奥社.  Archeological studies have found similar connections at other numinous mountains throughout the country. Moreover, the winter solstice has long been a date in Japan for rituals intended to store up energy to overcome the increasingly cold days of winter.

These are some of the concepts that guided understandings of Mt. Togakushi prior to the modern period.  It goes without saying that modern science in general has greatly improved living conditions since then. What is less discernible though is the extent to which these sciences have displaced preexisting epistemologies like the ones mentioned above. In discussing some of the pioneering geologists in Japan during the 1870s, Stefan Tanaka remarks,

“The geological research of men like Milne and Naumann was instrumental in demystifying this amalgamation of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds by bringing in the abstract arena of science… The accounts of Milne’s and Naumann’s expeditions clearly juxtapose the ideas of the locales as superstitious in comparison to their science. In other words, geology turns inherited forms of knowledge into textual forms; practices to ward off disaster became superstitions, a time-concept that relegated ghosts and wonder to a ‘scriptural tomb.'” (New Times in Modern Japan, 2004, 61).

As Tanaka concludes, scientific study brought not only innovation but also value-laden judgments to an entire structure of practices and concepts.  Geologic surveys, which were commissioned by the new Meiji government, might additionally be seen as a form of cultural subjugation by the rapidly expanding imperial state over regional populations. And at the same time that belief in the local gods was being swiftly displaced by the “abstract arena of science,” a new powerful deity was being deployed throughout the country. This one, heavily propagandized by the Meiji state, was the emperor himself, as both father to the nation and a living god descended from Amaterasu.

Whether this national project of replacing local beliefs with a centralized belief structure was ever fully realized is of course, a matter of debate.  Looking at modern day Togakushi, one can still see priests offering rice to Kuzuryū every morning, alongside a steady supply of coins from visitors visiting the dragon’s shrine.  Even the nearby ski lift makes its annual requests for a healthy snow pack.


Shugendo and Reiki

I was recently asked by a Reiki specialist to write something on Shugendo for his blog.  After looking into hagiographical elements of the founder of Reiki, Usui Mikao 臼井甕男 (1865–1926), I wrote up this short essay on similarities between the two:

Echoes in the Mountains:  Locating Usui’s Experience in the History of Japanese Mountain Asceticism

It was fun to find that, like many of the “new religions” in Japan’s last few centuries, Reiki (while not considered a religion) takes much from the rich history of mountain asceticism in Japan.

Image

[A gongen shrine on Mt. Kurama 鞍馬山, where Usui is said to have received his Reiki energy.]


The Dance of Princely Divinities: Scenes from the Ōji Shrine Dengaku Festival

To members of my dissertation committee, the recent influx of matsuri entries on my blog might raise eyebrows (i.e., that I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked from my main research).  Nevertheless, here’s another.

The shots below are taken from the Ōji Jinja Dengaku Mai 王子神社田楽舞, an annual festival in a northern section of Tokyo that centers on the dengaku dance.   Dengaku is a performance with roots in Kyoto.  As a form of kagura, it was historically intended to engage the deities, who descended into the bodies of the dancers through kamigakari 神懸かり (literally, “divine possession”).  The performance thus encompassed the movements of the deities, whose presence brought blessings to both dancers and spectators. (For an excellent, in-depth study, see Irit Averbuch’s book, The Gods Come Dancing.)

Ōji literally means “prince,” and accordingly, the performers of the Ōji dengaku are boys and girls around the ages of 8-10.  Children often occupied a liminal role in East Asian ritual (examples include Song period Daoism and Shugendo in Japan), in which they provided an interface between the spirit world and the human world.  As a comparative, children in North American/European cultures have also often been imagined to dwell close to the spirit realm (just think of The Shining, The Exorcist, or The Sixth Sense).

In Shugendo especially, young gods known as dōji 童子 acted as divine messengers, attendants of powerful deities like Fudō myōō 不動明王, occupants of mandalized mountains, and protectors of practitioners during their time in the mountains.  Ōji are in fact, a class of dōji originally from Kumano, thus suggesting a historical link between Kumano and the Ōji Shrine as well as the implied, divine nature of the dancers.

Dengaku and kagura 神楽 in general, nowadays, are no longer equated with acts of possession.  However, the specific step sequences of the dances still reflect the original choreography.  Moreover, the performances demonstrate how children continue to occupy a central role in many festivals throughout Japan.

(Click photos to enlarge.)


Reviving a festival

The Hashiramatsu 柱松 (literally, ‘pine trunks’) is an event in which three columns of tied bamboo or pine branches are stood upright and lit on fire.  The first to ignite determines the success (agricultural, economic, etc.) of the coming year.  Traditionally coinciding with the first day of Obon, it may have also been believed to invite down the local deities and ancestral spirits residing in the mountains.   The festival is held every three years at Togakushi and dates back to the late thirteenth century.  Well okay, that chronology is a bit misleading.

In the wake of major alterations to religious institutions by the government in the early Meiji period, the Hashiramatsu ended in the 1870s.  During this time, the three major temples on the mountain and their cloisters transformed from combinatory sites of Buddhism, Shinto and Shugendo into state-supported Shinto shrines.  Shugendo itself was proscribed from mountain sites around the country, which helps to explain the disappearance of this shugen-influenced ritual from Togakushi.

But after a thorough investigation by local scholars of extant sources related to the Hashiramatsu at Togakushi as well as other mountains (where it has continued uninterrupted), the festival has been recently revived.  Seeing the Togakushi Hashiramatsu offers a glimpse into the rich symbiosis of religious influences that were historically characteristic of practice at Togakushi and other sites around the country.  It may also suggest the future direction of the culture at Togakushi Jinja, given the community’s increasing re-engagement with its vibrant past.

(Click on photos to open gallery mode.)

The ceremony ends with the head priest seeing off the mountain deities and spirits as they return to the mountain.

Again, the event is held only once every three years, so if you get the chance, be sure to check it out in 2015!