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Islanders ward off cholera the rite way

by Amy Chavez

Out the window, I caught a glimpse of the yellow silk tails of a Shinto priest’s robes. He was walking up the stone staircase behind my house, followed by men in black suits. I grabbed my camera and ran after them.

The stairway leads up the mountain to a bamboo grove where a small shrine sits. By the time I reached the clearing, the priest was mumbling chants in front of the shrine and the suited men were looking on behind him. I hung back at a distance.

As I watched, I realized those weren’t just men in black suits, they were my neighbors! A school of eight or nine fishermen, the carpenter, the builder and the man with the long gray-streaked ponytail — they were all there.

Soon enough, someone noticed me. There was a murmur, and I could hear whispers of “Amy-san” while faces, one by one, glanced over in my direction. They motioned for me to come over and join them but I resisted, not wanting to intrude. But then the gray ponytail man shouted, “Omeeki!” and held up a bottle of sake. I walked over and received a drink of the purifying sake. “Please, take pictures!” they insisted. I felt like the little kid being asked to join the big kids at the dinner table.

It turns out that they had gathered to ward off cholera and to honor Myoken-sama, the god who overlooks the island’s port. Over 300 years ago, when the port was built, the local squire’s daughter was sacrificed and placed inside the structure of the retaining wall in a custom called “hitobashira.” Women were used because it was believed their hair was very strong and could ward off bad luck. Later, when a cholera epidemic hit the island in the Meiji era, they also used this ceremony to pray for the disappearance of the disease.

In front of the shrine were offerings of sake and fruit to the gods. To the right stood a bamboo pole with fronds and “hei” (white purification papers in the shape of lightening bolts). This pole serves as “an antenna to the god,” I was told, helping guide him to the shrine. This makes sense. Since the gods live in high places such as the heavens, these days they probably are accustomed to space travel and arrive in spacecraft equipped with landing gear.

After the ceremony, the men said, “Please accompany us to the next shrine,” and we walked down the stairs past my house, past the port and into the interior of the island. The Shinto priest, along with the offerings, was carried by car. “We used to march in a line, carrying the offerings to the next shrine,” the ponytail man explained. “But not now,” he said, gesturing to the men, who had trailed off into groups smoking cigarettes as they sauntered along the path.

These men were clearly enjoying this tradition they had been keeping their whole lives. They used to wear kimono, but nowadays they wear the same black suits as for funerals. With the number of funerals on our island, they are probably more comfortable in these suits anyway. They probably go weeks without wearing anything else. Their dry-cleaning bills must be horrendous.

We walked up the hill to Shisha Shrine for the next ceremony, which would be held inside a building. The men left their shoes outside and sat sock-footed on the tatami. As I looked at their shoes lined up in a row, I noticed many had written their names on the inner soles for easy retrieval. After all, you would hate to wear someone else’s shoes home by mistake.

At the end of this ceremony, we drank “omeeki” with dried fish, then went to one of the neighbor’s houses, where we were each given a can of beer to take home. As the group broke up, they said to me, “Please come to the next ceremony on July 7! It’s called ‘mushi okuri.’ We take all the bad insects from the island and put them on a boat and send them off to sea.”

“Wouldn’t miss it!” I said. I was a big kid now.