Chapter Eight. Kitzuki: The Most Ancient Shrine of Japan

SHINKOKU is the sacred name of Japan - Shinkoku, 'The Country of the Gods'; and of all Shinkoku the most holy ground is the land of Izumo. Hither from the blue Plain of High Heaven first came to dwell awhile the Earth-makers, Izanagi and Izanami, the parents of gods and of men; somewhere upon the border of this land was Izanami buried; and out of this land into the black realm of the dead did Izanagi follow after her, and seek in vain to bring her back again. And the tale of his descent into that strange nether world, and of what there befell him, is it not written in the Kojiki? [1] And of all legends primeval concerning the Underworld this story is one of the weirdest - more weird than even the Assyrian legend of the Descent of Ishtar.

Even as Izumo is especially the province of the gods, and the place of the childhood of the race by whom Izanagi and Izanami are yet worshiped, so is Kitzuki of Izumo especially the city of the gods, and its immemorial temple the earliest home of the ancient faith, the great religion of Shinto.

Now to visit Kitzuki has been my most earnest ambition since I learned the legends of the Kojiki concerning it; and this ambition has been stimulated by the discovery that very few Europeans have visited Kitzuki, and that none have been admitted into the great temple itself. Some, indeed, were not allowed even to approach the temple court. But I trust that I shall be somewhat more fortunate; for I have a letter of introduction from my dear friend Nishida Sentaro, who is also a personal friend of the high pontiff of Kitzuki. I am thus assured that even should I not be permitted to enter the temple - a privilege accorded to but few among the Japanese themselves - I shall at least have the honour of an interview with the Guji, or Spiritual Governor of Kitzuki, Senke Takanori, whose princely family trace back their descent to the Goddess of the Sun. [2]

1

I leave Matsue for Kitzuki early in the afternoon of a beautiful September day; taking passage upon a tiny steamer in which everything, from engines to awnings, is Lilliputian. In the cabin one must kneel. Under the awnings one cannot possibly stand upright. But the miniature craft is neat and pretty as a toy model, and moves with surprising swiftness and steadiness. A handsome naked boy is busy serving the passengers with cups of tea and with cakes, and setting little charcoal furnaces before those who desire to smoke: for all of which a payment of about three-quarters of a cent is expected.

I escape from the awnings to climb upon the cabin roof for a view; and the view is indescribably lovely. Over the lucent level of the lake we are steaming toward a far-away heaping of beautiful shapes, coloured with that strangely delicate blue which tints all distances in the Japanese atmosphere - shapes of peaks and headlands looming up from the lake verge against a porcelain-white horizon. They show no details, whatever. Silhouettes only they are - masses of absolutely pure colour. To left and right, framing in the Shinjiko, are superb green surgings of wooded hills. Great Yakuno-San is the loftiest mountain before us, north-west. South-east, behind us, the city has vanished; but proudly towering beyond looms Daisen - enormous, ghostly blue and ghostly white, lifting the cusps of its dead crater into the region of eternal snow. Over all arches a sky of colour faint as a dream.

There seems to be a sense of divine magic in the very atmosphere, through all the luminous day, brooding over the vapoury land, over the ghostly blue of the flood - a sense of Shinto. With my fancy full of the legends of the Kojiki, the rhythmic chant of the engines comes to my ears as the rhythm of a Shinto ritual mingled with the names of gods:

Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami, Oho-kuni-nushi-no-Kami.

2

The great range on the right grows loftier as we steam on; and its hills, always slowly advancing toward us, begin to reveal all the rich details of their foliage. And lo! on the tip of one grand wood-clad peak is visible against the pure sky the many-angled roof of a great Buddhist temple. That is the temple of Ichibata, upon the mountain Ichibata-yama, the temple of Yakushi-Nyorai, the Physician of Souls. But at Ichibata he reveals himself more specially as the healer of bodies, the Buddha who giveth sight unto the blind. It is believed that whosoever has an affection of the eyes will be made well by praying earnestly at that great shrine; and thither from many distant provinces do afflicted thousands make pilgrimage, ascending the long weary mountain path and the six hundred and forty steps of stone leading to the windy temple court upon the summit, whence may be seen one of the loveliest landscapes in Japan. There the pilgrims wash their eyes with the water of the sacred spring, and kneel before the shrine and murmur the holy formula of Ichibata: 'On-koro-koro-sendai-matoki-sowaka' - words of which the meaning has long been forgotten, like that of many a Buddhist invocation; Sanscrit words transliterated into Chinese, and thence into Japanese, which are understood by learned priests alone, yet are known by heart throughout the land, and uttered with the utmost fervour of devotion.

I descend from the cabin roof, and squat upon the deck, under the awnings, to have a smoke with Akira. And I ask:

'How many Buddhas are there, O Akira? Is the number of the Enlightened known?'

'Countless the Buddhas are,' makes answer Akira; 'yet there is truly but one Buddha; the many are forms only. Each of us contains a future Buddha. Alike we all are except in that we are more or less unconscious of the truth. But the vulgar may not understand these things, and so seek refuge in symbols and in forms.'

'And the Kami, - the deities of Shinto?'