Culture Corner – Kami and Kannasuki

Shinto Tori

Shinto Tori Icon - by Washiucho

In the Shinto tradition, it is believed that kami inhabit natural phenomena, and are present in such objects as trees, stones, water, mountains, and the heavenly bodies. Kami is a word which is difficult to translate, but roughly means ‘gods’, ‘spirits’ or ‘spiritual force’. These kami have divine power and can assist or thwart human fortunes. Some places, too, have spiritual energy and are worshiped like kami. People, when they die, also become kami of varying power.

In the old calendar of Japan, the tenth month of the year was called Kannazuki, or Kaminatsuki; “the month of no gods.” In that month, the sacred trees, encircled with rice-straw ropes and girded with fluttering white paper, sat hollow for a time, their spirits flown. The sea-bound islands, marked by lonely torii, were abandoned by their keepers. The humble, moss-wrapped stone monuments deep in the forests were left empty, and prayers would be made in vain to empty boxes. Every shrine in Japan, whether it was the grand red-striped passages of Itsukushima or the broad cobbled walkways of holy Ise, could offer no consolation or aid to the pilgrims who came there.

Every shrine but one.

Shimane, which long ago was Izumo Province, is home to many of the oldest myths of Japan, including the creation myths. Izumo Taisha, over a thousand years old and considered one of the three most important shrines in Japan, is the mythic centre of Shimane, and home to Okuninushi, the god of marriage. (According to local superstition, it is bad luck for a couple to go to Izumo Taisha together before they are married.)

Izumo Taisha Shrine

Izumo Taisha Shrine - Photo credit

The eight million gods of Japan, in the Shinto tradition, meet in council in this month, ‘the month of no gods’, which in Shimane prefecture is called Kamiaritsuki, or ‘the month when gods are present’. The gods convene at Izumo Taisha Shrine to discuss the fortunes of mortals in the coming year, particularly marriages, births and deaths. The priests at Izumo Taisha welcome the gods and perform rites over seven days during the council of the gods before finally seeing them off with great ceremony. During that time, Izumo Taisha is believed to have great spiritual energy.

There are, in fact, at least two gods who do not attend the council at Izumo Taisha. One of these gods is Ebisu, the mirthful god of fishermen, luck and labourers. Legends conflict as to why he does not attend the council. Some legends say he doesn’t hear or ignores the summons, choosing to attend his own festival. Others say he acts as a self-appointed guardian, protecting Japan while the other gods are absent.

The other notable god not in attendance is Namazu, the god of earthquakes. In the shape of a giant catfish, he thrashes through the earth, causing it to shake. He is unable to attend the meeting because the other gods have pinned his head in place to prevent his destructive movements.

If you are thinking of visiting a shrine soon, I’d advise you to wait until November. Unless, that is, you live in Shimane, in which case your wishes are sure to be heard!