Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ippon Houju Dai GonGen: One god you can't ignore in Yakushima

Shrine at Hana no Ego
In the island sometimes called the "Alps of the Ocean," it would be odd if religion didn't play a large part in shaping the local culture. Indeed, mountain pilgrimages, folklore, traditional dances, and stone monuments attest to the influence of the gods. Even to an uninitiated foreigner like me, there are two Japanese gods whose influence is especially visible in daily life in Yakushima: Ebisu, and Houju. Shrines to the god of fishermen, Ebisu, are scattered around the parameter of the island so that the statue inside gazes out over the sea, while there are at least 26 mountain tops crowned with a stone shrine enscribed with the characters for Ippon Houju Dai GonGen (Ippon translates to something like "The Revered" or "On High", while Dai GonGen is a Buddhist title used for gods. I'm just going to paraphrase this name as Houju.) and many more stone shrines around the island bearing this name.
One of Yakushima's many shrines
to Ebisu. This one is in Mugyo.

Ebisu is one of Japan's Seven Gods of Fortune. You can find a series of seven large statues erected at seven points around the island in 2011, each statue portraying one of the gods. In fact, let me save that for another blog post.

Today, I'll focus on Houju, the god of fortune of the mountains. Most Japanese may know him by one of his other names: Hoori or Yama no Sachi Hiko.

To understand his place in both religion and culture, let's trace the first Shinto gods and their descendants down to the first emperor of Japan, and stop along the way when we get to Hoori. I'm a newbie when it comes to the Shinto religion, so I'm going to pull out my books (i.e. the picture book versions of the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki) and charts now:

Abbreviated lineage of Shinto gods and goddesses, as I understand it.
We'll start with the forefather of the gods, named Izanagi, and his wife, Izanami. (In some, but not all traditions, their first child is associated with Ebisu. Yakushima also a mountain with a shrine to this couple, but that's for a future post!) As I understand it, they had a plethora of children before she died giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi visited her in the land of the dead and upon returning underwent a purification ritual during which many more gods were born. Of these, three were considered as forming a sacred pillar: The sun goddess, the moon god, and the wild god of sea and storms. The sun goddess, Ameterasu became the grandmother of Ninigi. Ninigi is known for leaving the gods' celestial realm to live and sow rice on the earth. There's quite a bit of debate, but we'll say that Ninigi had sons including Hoderi and Hoori. It was Hoori that would become the grandfather of Jinmu, Japan's legendary first emperor.

Okay, stop there. Do you know the story of Urashima Taro and the underwater kingdom? It's a Japanese fairy tale (one of the three most famous Japanese fairy tales) about a boy (Urashima Taro) who rescues a turtle, and in return the turtle takes him to the undersea kingdom of the dragon god and turns into a princess. When Taro decides to go home after three days, she gives him a box and tells him not to open it. (Can you tell where this is going?) When he gets home everything has changed. He recklessly opens the box and instantly turns into an old man.

Participants in Yakushima's
Goshinsan Festival stage a
kind of tug-of-war between
the sea and the mountains.
Alright, back to the gods and goddesses. Hoderi was a fisherman (sometimes Umi no Sachi Hiko, meaning Prince of Fortune of the Sea) and Hoori was a hunter (similary called Yama no Sachi Hiko, meaning Prince of Fortune of the Mountains). Hmm. . . the perfect stage for sibling rivalry? The struggle between the mountains and the sea? One day Hoori traded his hunting bow for Hoderi's fishing hook and the siblings attempted to trade professions, but the results were disappointing and Hoori lost his brother's hook in the sea. Hoori went to look for it but instead found the underwater kingdom of Ryujin, the dragon god, and fell in love with his daughter, the princess Toyotama-hime (also called Otohime). When Hoori decided to return home, the princess -- now his wife -- went with him, and the dragon god found Hoderi's fishing hook and also presented Hoori with two jewels to control the tides. So things work out well for Hoori.

Yakushima is a favorite
breeding ground of sea
turtles.
Well, that's all fine, and you've probably drawn the conclusion that the tale of Urashima Taro grew out of the tale of Hoori, but in Yakushima, this  is more than some fairy tale imported from the mainland. For example, do you know how lots and lots of sea turtles visit Yakushima to lay their eggs in summer? Depending who you ask, that's because sea turtles are the messengers of the dragon king, and his palace is just off the coast of Yakushima's community of Anbo! And there are many, many local tales of Hoori's travels around Yakushima, in which he is referred to by another name, Hikohohodemi no Mikoto.

But Hikohohodemi no Mikoto also has a Buddhist name, Hikohohodemi no Mikoto. In the mid-15th century, the ruler of the Tanegashima clan was introducing Nichiren Buddhism to the islands of Tanegashima, Yakushima, and Kuchinoerabu, but in Yakushima it wasn't a simple switch. You see, while things may have gone smoothly on the geographically flat island of Tanegashima, on the neighboring mountainous island of Yakushima, Shinto worship of mountain gods continued to be popular and the Ritsu school of Buddhism had also been established. In the mid-15th century, there were also a lot of earth quakes and un-fortuitous occurrences in Yakushima, which the islanders contributed to the deity’s resistance to the new religion. So when a monk named Shounin Nichizou from Kyoto came to spread the Nichiren school, it's not surprising that the islanders were reluctant to convert. It is said that, after the customary rituals failed to placate the gods, Nichizou resorted to hiking up Mt. Miyanoura where he stayed for several days and chanted a million times. Then a white deer appeared and knelt before him, and the earthquakes stopped. The islanders were deeply impressed and embraced the Nichiren school.
A stone shrine erected in
honor of Ippon Houju atop
Myoujou Dake
And so stone shrines with the inscription "Ippon Houju no Dai GonGen" (This is written both 一品法寿ノ大権現 and 一品宝珠ノ大権現, and -- as I learned in a recent lecture -- it is not known whether the name Houju refers to the jewels (宝珠) received from the dragon god, or to the sutras (妙法) chanted by Nichizou) came to be erected on mountaintops all around Yakushima.

Since that time Buddhism has fallen in and out of favor and temples and shrines in the towns of Yakushima have flourished and waned with the tides, but the stone monuments to Houju persist.



*Disclaimer: I don't know squat about Shinto traditions, except that Shinto stories make for great manga adventures. Especially in this land where Shinto and Shigendo and Buddhist schools have melded and flourished and fallen into decline and favor again, there are bound to be many details that have been cloaked in ambiguity. Everyone has their own opinions. For this blog, I've leaned heavily on the snippets written in books by Toshimi Shimano (下野敏見氏) as well as things I've picked up from friend, lectures, and hearsay, but if I've stated something odd, please let me know!

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