Meeting an Itako – Spiritual Medium

Experiences

11  comments

Rob Dyer The Real Japan

I hope you enjoy reading this post.

If you want me to do your trip planning for you click here.

"Itako - also known as ichiko (市子) or ogamisama (男神様), are blind women who train to become spiritual mediums in Japan. Training involves severe ascetic practices, after which the woman is said to be able to communicate with Japanese Shinto spirits, kami (gods), and the spirits of the dead.

Itako perform rituals tied to communication with the dead and divination. The practice has been on the decline, with only 20 living itako in Japan, all more than 40 years old." - Wikipedia.org


Meeting An Itako - Spiritual Medium

by Marianna Zetta of Japan Soul Traveler

 

The Journey to Mutsu

After a week in Tokyo, the arrival in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture, can only be described as a dramatic. First of all visually. Mutsu is on the rustic northernmost tip of Japan's main island Honshu.

The trip entails three train changes, giving the feeling of slowly leaving modernity behind. Once we get off the shinkansen in Hachinohe (roughly three hours from Tokyo) we catch a local train, which is charmingly smaller and older.

Shimokita train Meeting an itako The Real Japan

The local train to Mutsu - Photo: macchi on Flickr

Lastly, we get on the tiny two-coach train that will finally lead us to Mutsu.


In A Lonely Place

In some ways, the view along the journey follows the same trajectory. As if it slowly strips out of all that is modern and contemporary, until you arrive in Mutsu. It's a city that can’t be qualified as small, but whose exact dimensions are quite hard to grasp, and whose outline seems spread on too much territory. Like to little butter on bread.

It has an air of desolation.

Here the silence is different. It is the silence of the faraway.

Desolation that translates to the feeling of being alone in a lonely place. A place that only partially discovered the lights of the blinding modernity of Tokyo, of the various 24/7 kombini, and the huge depato (department stores) that seem like strange oases in the nothingness.

The rest is silence. It should not surprise me. After all, Tokyo too can be quiet. But here the silence is different. It is the silence of the faraway.

Meeting an Itako - Nakamura-san

Itako: Nakamura-san, she cannot see, she is completely blind

First Meeting With An Itako

After resting our bones in one of the western-style hotels, we head for a place to eat.

We stumble upon a small alley that seems a location found in a Rumiko Takahashi’s manga. Small pubs, narrow passages between the houses, and curious cats waiting in front of the restaurants’ kitchens.

This is the night before my first meeting with an itako, Nakamura-san.

I have very mixed feelings. First of all, I am anxious. But I think this is normal given all my expectations of such an encounter across many years. I have loads of doubts about my ability to manage the situation, and the fear of emerging a fool.

I have my questions ready, but I have no idea what kind of person I will meet.

The Figure Of A Little Old Lady

The day after meeting my interpreter, we take a car and head for the itako‘s house.

The luxury vehicle leads us with its navigation system among the winding city streets. A city which seems huge judging by the time taken in reaching our destination. Slowly the city thins out, and we venture in the mountains. Finally, we reach our destination.

The house is small and clean. But I am too excited to notice the details immediately. Aya, my interpreter, steps forward and knocks at the door, while we stay back unloading our equipment, and maybe our courage.

She can not see, she is completely blind, her eyes are wide shut but her smile is immense.

As I walk to the door, I see the figure of a little old lady, small in height, with with short dyed hair carefully combed, and with a with perfectly clean robe. She cannot see, she is completely blind. Her eyes are wide shut but her smile is immense.

I can not believe this is her, and yet she really is the itako I searched so long for.

Meeting an Itako - Nakamura-san

The Itako's home - a sacred place

Entering A Sacred Place

Aya explains that Nakamura-san is inviting us in.

We enter her house with the deference accorded to a sacred place, while she and Aya keep talking. I don’t have enough time to take a deeper look around, but it clearly looks like a traditional Japanese home; with sliding doors following one another through the hallway.

Nakamura-san leads us to a particular room in front of the house, where a recess is filled with an altar. Around which several objects are scattered (trading tools among the others), while food and beverage offerings from clients create a striking contrast.

The tone changes slightly, giving space to the words of the deceased who speaks through the shaman’s voice.

Once we take our places on the tatami floor, Aya begins to explain to Nakamura-san the reason for our visit. The dialogue is sometimes interrupted by Nakamura’s amused laughter, and her undeniable hearing difficulties.

Nevertheless, we manage to explain our work and our objectives, and she accepts to perform a kuchiyose, a ritual for calling the dead, and to answer some brief questions.


VIDEO: Taki Kudo, Shamanic Medium of Tsugaru


I Can't Stop Looking at Nakamura-san

Throughout the dialogue between the two women, I can’t stop looking at Nakamura-san.

She sits in the typical Japanese way, and she is bent towards Aya, in order to better understand her words. She keeps one hand over the other, with a femininity that touches me (and which I didn’t expect), and she smiles like only someone with a different life can.

The Ritual Begins

While I collect my thoughts, Nakamura-san starts to get ready for the ritual, during which she will contact my interpreter’s grandfather. She takes the black rosary, puts on a white robe, and drinks a sip of orange juice to clear up her throat before the invocation.

Meeting an Itako - Nakamura-san

Nakamura-san - the ritual begins

She asks Aya for some specific information, and between various and amusing misunderstandings, she finally manages to gather everything she needs to get in touch with the correct deceased.

After a short, silent pause a gong is rung. The ritual begins.

Speaking With The Dead

Nakamura-san gives out a long, monotonous tone, through which she summons various deities to help her contacting the ancestor. Prayers are used to make the deceased agree to speak with the granddaughter. Then, the tone changes slightly, giving more space to the words of the deceased who speaks through the shaman’s voice. A combination of prayers, gratitude, memories and remembrance.

The ceremony lasts for half an hour. It is longer than I expected, considering it was the deceased that spoke for the most part in a long monologue to his descendant.

At the end, we exchnage a few minutes of pleasentries and thanksgiving, then, since Nakamura-san seems still in the mood to continue with the interview, I give Aya some questions, and we begin.


Talking With The Shaman

The interview is pleasant. Nakamura-san gives the impression of craving to tell her story. She gives us an in-depth account of her childhood and her initiatory experience. We try to push our questions on a more philosophical level, but the feeling is that this is not her favourite ground, and her answers are more vague.

Who knows if this is an effect of her personal feeling, a general indifference for the subject, or simply ignorance of the topics.

Meeting an Itako - Nakamura-san

Itako: Nakamura-san, the old lady who has been so friendly

She focuses on her private experiences, making it through a very funny phone call from an enquirer requesting an appointment, a prospective client that she dismisses with polite speed.

The next clients are already at the front door, and by the way they move, they don’t seem too happy to see her shaman chatting with us; yet it is difficult for us to stop her. But, in the end, we manage to and thank the old lady who has been so friendly with us. We take our leave, letting her go back to her work.

We take the car and find a cafè in which to relax and talk about the meeting.

I am happy and peaceful and, like Nakamura-san, I can’t stop smiling.

All Photos: Edmondo Perrone

You might also like: The Ainu – Japan’s Forgotten People

Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan

Scholar-led Kyoto Walking Tour

Take a deep dive into the history, culture and practices behind Japan’s two primary religions, Shinto and Buddhism, on this small-group tour of Kyoto led by a local scholar.

Gain new insight into how these two twin pillars of Japanese spirituality first started in Japan as you explore the most important religious monuments of Kyoto and hear how these two practices have evolved over time.

Scholar-led Kyoto Walking Tour: Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan Rob Dyer The Real Japan

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

  • 3-hour Kyoto walking tour with a religious scholar
  • Stroll through the Gion district with your local guide to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples
  • Learn the meaning of the gates and halls at the Shinto Yasaka Shrine
  • Visit the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera
  • See the Dharma Hall and Abott’s Quarters at Kennin-ji
  • Discover daily rituals of Buddhist monks and spiritual seekers
  • Small-group tour with a maximum of 6 people ensures a personalized experience

Resources

BONUS: FREE eBook: ITAKO: Spiritual Mediums in Japan


Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan - Scholar-led Kyoto Walking Tour:
Learn More about the Scholar-led Kyoto Walking Tour: Religion in Japan

Marianna


About the Author

Marianna Zanetta runs Japan Soul Traveler - a niche travel blog, dedicated to Japan curiouses and enthusiasts who wish to discover different aspects of this amazing culture, focusing on Spiritual and Folklore Travels around Japan.

What are your views on the subject of spirituality, shaman and contacting the dead? Have you had any similar experiences?
If so I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below...

Planning A Trip To Japan?

You may also like

Japanese Knives: 600 Years of Craftmanship

Is It Rude To Wear Kimono?

Top 10 Most Popular Activities in Japan (2021 Edition)

Leave A Comment

  • This article is fascinating! :-) I have so many questions! Is she blind from birth? Who trained her? How was she chosen? Where are nowadays itakos trained? Did Aya-san feel she really was in contact with her grandfather? It must have been an incredible experience!! Thanks for sharing! :-)

    • Glad you enjoyed the article so much Josiane. I did too! That’s why I asked Marianna if I could publish it. I will ask Marianna to respond to your questions. :-)

    • Marianna Zanetta says:

      Hi Josiane, thank you for all the questions to this article! Itako now are really decreasing, and the practice is changing a lot. Nakamura-san became blind at three, due to a untreated disease. Therefore, their parents decided to have her trained as an itako to ensure her a future. Nowadays, there are no new itako, the younger being a sighted woman who chose to become itako after being cured in her childhood; therefore it is hard to tell how the practice and the training will change. Traditionally they were trained at their teacher’s house. Regarding Aya-san, she said “I know I was not talking with my grandfather, but it was a very comforting experience!”. Hope to have given you all the answer (!), let me know if you want some more informations!

      • Thank you Marianna for all these great answers! :-) What a rare experience to actually meet one of the last living itako!

        • Marianna Zanetta says:

          Yes, it was an amazing experience! Nakamura and the other itako I met were extraordinary people :)

  • Did Nakamura-san answer specific questions, or merely talked about the spiritual realm…. was she able to say Names of deceased Friends or Families…any specific message was given to You…Thank You in advance ! many Blessings, Professor Rianelli

    • Thanks for your questions Professor. I have asked the author to reply.

    • Marianna Zanetta says:

      Thank you for your comment, I am not sure I understand properly your question; Nakamura-san and the other itako don’t talk about the spiritual realm. They invoke a single deceased and allow the living to interact briefly with him o her. The spirit is invoked upon a specific request from the living client, so the name is given at the beginning, and the dialogue is fairly simple…. Hope I understood what you meant! Thank you again!

  • If she was talking about her childhood and the process in which she became an Itako why not put it in this article. I’m kind of disappointed.

    • Hi Fatima, thanks for your feedback and question. I’ll ask the author to reply.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    >