Back to Japanese traditions and religions fact! After the first meeting with Nakamura-san, I knew I had to meet more itako in order to have a better understanding of their activity, their life and their world. Since today there are very few itako (probably not even ten) I had to patiently call the phone numbers I had, hoping some of these ladies would agree to meet with me. After a long search and some rejections, I could convince two of them to have an interview with me; one of them is Aoyama-san, an eighty-year-old lady living with her husband in Tsugaru.
Another itako shaman
I try to get in touch with Aoyama for the first time in the early spring 2013; we had a brief phone call through one of my informants, in which she told me she was very busy at the time, and she couldn’t meet with me in that moment. I thanked her for her kindness, and told her I would have tried again in another moment. In summer 2014, while planning my last month in Tohoku, I called her again, and omitting the request for a proper interview, I asked her if she was available for a kuchiyose ritual (the invocation of the dead); she agreed to perform the ritual for me, on the condition that I went there with an interpreter to translate the strict dialect. Finally we scheduled the meeting, in the end of July after the Osorezan Taisai.
First encounter at Osorezan in Northern Japan
I already attendend the Taisai in 2012, but I decided to come back to the mountain again, in order to have an idea of the itako participation to the matsuri, together with professor Hara from Iwate Daigaku; I could witness an intense participation of visitors to the area, while the attending itako were only three, one of which was Aoyama. While trying to get closer to her tent, I was stopped by a men who prevented me to go near the itako and her clients. As Hara-sensei explained to me, this was Aoyama’s husbands: we could have a little talk with him, despite his extreme caution with us, and we got to know that that every year he attend the taisai together with the itako in order to help his wife and to keep away the more annoying visitors. We resolved to leave Aoyama and the other itako, since the queue in front of the tent was extending, and we decided to continue with the survey at the Osorezan.
The actual meeting with Aoyama took place few days later, as arranged. Followed by my interpreter Sachiko-san, we drove from Misawa to Nakadori, in the Tsugaru region of Aomori, three, four hours west; while driving, Sachiko and I discussed a few questions about the meeting, since we were granted a kuchiyose, but we were not sure about Aoyama’s willingness to an interview. Once we arrived in the surroundings of the home, we called Aoyama, as planned, in order to get picked up and accompanied to the house; as we expected, it’s the husband that showed up, and he recognized us immediately.
The itako and the kuchiyose
We reached the house after a few minutes driving: it’s a small traditional home, like a few others in the neighborhood, very silent; we were greeted in a small tatami room, with the television talking in the background, and we vere invited to seat in front of the itako and her husband. After the opening greeting and appreciation, Sachiko started to introduce us, and the reason of our visit, while the old couple nodded in front of us; she tried and ask if we could record our conversation, given the difficult Tsugaru dialect and her impossibility to properly translate everything at the time, but Aoyama refused, nicely but firmly. We then moved in a separate room for the kuchiyose, while the husband remained in the living room watching television. The small room in which we sat is dominated by an altar, similarly as in Nakamura’s house, in front of which we saw different offering (food, drinks, gifts, ecc.), and the specific itako’s tools, such as the rosary, and the tubo.
While we sat quietly, Aoyama prepared for the kuchiyose, clapping twice the hands for four times, wearing the white robe, lighting up the incense and starting rubbing the rosary. After a few moments of silence, she started asking me some specific questions concerning the spirit I am about to call, my paternal grandmother.
Aoyama: Who do you wish to invoke?
Me: My granma
A: When did she die?
M: July 21st, 2011
A: Was she italian? From where?
A: Do you have any siblings?
A: What about your grandmother?
M: She had two sisters
She then asked me about my mother (if she was an only child, and her age), and I realized that she misunderstood the relationships between my parents and my grandmother; we straightened this up quickly, and the itako continued with the preliminary questions. In particular, she asked me if I am an only child, and if my parents are divorced; I explaned her that they both had a previous marriage that ended in divorce, but they have been married for the past 30 years.
After this initial questions, she started a prayer, quite shorter than Nakamura-san, in order to invoke the deceased; the difference between the two styles appeared quite immediately, since while Nakamura talked in first person, as if the deceased was directly speaking, Aoyama interpreted the role of a messenger, reporting in third person what the deceased wanted to communicate.
She started with some details about my grandmother’s youth
When you weren’t born yet, when she was young, she had a difficult life
Going on with the chat, she reported to me my grandmother’s anxieties about the future of my marriage, since I travel a lot, and since both my parents already had that experience.
Your father’s mother was worried about her son, when he divorce, so after that she hoped he could get married again and have a daughter; her only hope is that you and your parent and son will be happy, she tried to do everything to make you live happily. […] Your grandmother really cared for you, she wants you to be happy […] you are married so she is worried about how you will live from now on, if you will get along with your husband, she always hoped you will be happy.
Aoyama insisted on this topic for a long part of the kuchiyose; aside from some brief comment about my grandmother’s hardships in her youth, she focused mainly on this relational issue, reporting what were my grandmother’s worries about my family future. She also reminded us to visit my grandmother’s grave a little more often, since even if for western people there are different tradition, I should nonetheless remermber my ancestors several times during the year. Aoyama had a very different approach to the kuchiyose with rispects with the other itako I met, in that is more conversational, resembling more a counseling session than a actual ritual. When the ritual brought to the end, the itako rubbed again the rosary and chanted a final prayer, then bowed in front of the altar, and clapping the hands together completed the kuchiyose.
A different itako shamanism
Aoyama-san was definitely a more private and introverted woman, who was not particular eager to share her experience, probably for some previous unpleasant experience with researcher (as I could guess from few sentence she said about it), so Sachiko and I were really careful about the interview and the questions we posed her after the kuchiyose: Sachiko in particular was very attentive and sensitive and managed to open up a conversation with Aoyama, that allowed us to gather some more informations.
Aoyama is born in 1938 (Showa 13), in the Tsugaru region; unlike the typical image of the itako, she is not blind, and she wear glasses only due to the age. This is certainly one first difference from the canonical representation, but as I could discover from my observation and from previous field reports, she is not the only exception (I’ll talk about it in later posts). Another thing that separates Aoyama from the classical path of the itako is her apprenticeship; while generally the young blind girl would go to a master to start the training, living with her and helping her in the everyday life (as happened to Nakamura), Aoyama was trained by her mother, Takezan Sayo 武山サヨan itako herself. This is a very unique type of master-disciple lineage, since it’s almost never a hereditary vocation; since her mother was blind, she help her out in her job, following her in festivals, and to the client’s houses, thus learning by heart the prayers, chants and rituals she used to perform. She didn’t specify when she actually started the profession, but she hinted to a 60 years long professional activity, which allows us to infer she started her own activity when she was around 18 years old.
She was also very private about her family, letting us understand that she has been married for a long time, and she is a mother. Given this private attitude, we move the conversation to other topics, more directly connected to her profession: she told us that the profession is changing rapidly in the last years, and the there is a deep difference between the older and the younger itako: when she was in training with her mother, she would go and practice for a long time in the mountain, in particular at the Iwaki-san 岩木山, pointing out the extreme harshness of such experience as a means to sharpen spirit and body, and as a way to access to the real power of the kamisama. The younger itako, she laments, never go in the mountains and this is a problem for their profession and their activity. Moreover, she showed us a license she received from the local temple, which recognized her as an itako, allowing thus her practicing around at the different Taisai and local matsuri as well as in the different neighborhood of the area; again, she stressed out the difference with the present situation, where no such licenses are given anymore and there is a lower recognition of the practice. She is very hard against people who use the name “itako” as a means to gain popularity and money without actually having any power at all
This is a complaint that I repeatedly heard from different persons, aside from Aoyama, among which the kamisama Kimura-san (you will read about her soon); the implied consideration is that their job is now widely popular, in particular in the pop culture (television, magazines and manga among the others), and people is starting again to discover curiosity about this religious practitioners, so much so that there is an urge for legitimateness and recognition, and a need to protect and secure their field of action against the newcomers and who they deems as impostors.