"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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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 exchange a few minutes of pleasantries 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.
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 cafe 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
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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.
Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan - Scholar-led Kyoto Walking Tour:
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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...