In the old myths, Japan is often called 神国 shinkoku – land of the gods. Most non-Japanese may know this term from James Clavell’s 1975 novel (and 1980 mini-series), Shōgun.
“Isn’t man but a blossom taken by wind,
and only the mountains and the sea and the stars and this land of the gods everlasting?”
― James Clavell, Shōgun
Other than the term being bandied about by Clavell’s publisher, the term “land of the gods” is relatively unknown outside of Japan. But to the Japanese, the term “shinkoku” evokes the primeval and mythical origins of the Japanese people – a time when powerful and often petty 神 kami (gods) toyed with each other and eventually intermingled with the native population.
The earliest Japanese “historical records,” the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, are hodgepodge collections of myths and legends about the land of the gods, the gods themselves, and the early days of the imperial family and its deeds. Historians and archaeologists tend to see these stories as allegories describing 2 powerful kingdoms in Yamato and Izumo and their interactions with and eventual subjugation of the native hunter-gatherer population. Steeped in an emergent syncretic religious faith, these books sought to unify the people under a common culture and legitimize the rule of the imperial family, which still occupies the Chrysanthemum Throne today.
Welcome to Kirishima
霧島 Kirishima – literally “mist island” – is located in the south of Kyushu and it’s quite literally the land of the gods. The name “mist island” probably derives from the elevation which shrouds the area in low lying clouds, frequent volcanic activity spewing plumes of smoke into the sky, and the steam of the hundreds of natural hot springs in the area. The mountains, lakes, plains, rivers, and valleys made Kirishima the perfect setting for some of the most important legends to ever take place in the land of the gods. The name is both literal and mythological, and in many ways this area, the peak of Mt. Takachiho in particular, is often considered the birthplace of Japan.
In the beginning of time, the sun goddess Amaterasu, had an argument with her brother, the god of storm and sea, Susano’o. To escape his teasing and violent behavior, she came down from the heavens to the nearest spot which was the peak of Mt. Takachiho. She hid in a cave thus plunging the universe into darkness. This was no good for neither humans nor gods, as you can imagine everyone was probably just bumping into one another all the time. The other deities gathered together to devise a plan to get the sun goddess to come out of the cave.
They met in front of the cave and sang funny songs and performed lewd dances causing a lot of laughter. Amaterasu was curious about the commotion and wanted to see what everyone was laughing about. When she stepped out of the cave, the other gods sealed up the cave so she couldn’t go back inside. Thus light was returned to the universe and humans and gods stopped bumping into things (presumably).
Welcome to Kirishima
Later, Amaterasu would give a sword, a mirror, and some jewels to her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, and ordered him to rule over the land and make it prosperous by planting rice. This event, called 天孫降臨 tenson korin (heavenly descent) in Japanese, is usually depicted with Ninigi leading his retinue down a road of mist descending from the heavenly plane to the misty peak of Mt. Takachiho. Upon arriving at the mountaintop, he stuck his 3-pronged spear (called 天逆鉾 Ama no Sakahoko) into the ground symbolizing his hope that he wouldn’t have to use it again – I guess this was his ways of saying he was bringing peace to the land.
The spear in the ground was a nice gesture, but anyone familiar with Japanese history will know things didn’t quite play out that way. Ninigi’s grandson, Jinmu, would become the first of the imperial line and subjugate the native inhabitants and other tribes to the north and to the east. In fact his name means something like “divine martial valor.” At any rate, to confirm Jinmu’s rule over the land, she also give him a sword, a mirror, and some jewels. These became the sacred imperial regalia. This is also the origin of the imperial family’s claim of descent from the sun goddess and the divinity of the emperor.
The places associated with these events have been enshrined for posterity and some of the most sacred spots in Japan. Today, you can see the cave where Amaterasu hid. The gathering spot where the other gods came up with the plan to trick her to come out is also preserved. Even the spear Ninigi thrust into the rocks can still be seen. Shrines commemorate these events with kagura performances – traditional Shinto dancing and singing. When you visit Kirishima and take in the breathtaking beauty of its pristine forests, active volcanoes, and misty mountaintops it’s easy to see why Japan truly is the land of the gods.
Welcome to Kirishima
Posts by Marky Star