Takachiho: Gods and gorges in divine Miyazaki

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

The already cloudy sky darkens perceptibly as our car descends into Takachiho Gorge. This area of extreme scenic beauty — carved out of the earth by lava flow from Kyushu’s volatile Mount Aso and further eroded by local rivers such as the Gokase — is already fairly hidden, in an untrampled corner of northern Miyazaki Prefecture. Yet the lower we go in elevation, the more it seems as if the rest of the world has disappeared completely. I feel like we’re trapped in a geological time capsule, locked between ancient rock walls.

The forces of nature are powerful things and they’ve done some of their best work in Takachiho Gorge. Sheer rock cliffs reach heavenward, flat as glass in some areas and ribbed like a folding fan in others. Laid helter-skelter across the top are stacks of stony layers, calling to mind a geological sandwich.

Trapped between the cliffs, the teal-colored water of the Gokase River lends an ethereal air to the scene. Aside from the tourist shops selling ice cream and trinkets, the setting feels torn from some picture book on prehistoric eras. Each drip of water down the well-weathered walls seems to echo the refrain, “old, old, old.”

The only other noise to reverberate through the gorge is the sound of oarlocks being abused by untrained rowers. We watch for a few minutes as small boats transit through the narrowest part of the river, past the Manai Waterfall. Considered to be one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls, it plunges a good 20 meters from the mossy cliff before splashing into the depths of the Gokase River.

Impressed by the panorama but not entirely willing to join the traffic jam of rowboats on the waterway below, we stick to the paved path along the cliff’s edge. If we were ambitious, it could lead us all the way back up to the civilization of Takachiho Village and even beyond. But we’re content to merely wander the banks slowly, pausing to point out tiny eddies and waterfalls and ponder the age of this hidden vale.

Takachiho is no stranger to history. It’s here that the Shinto gods of ancient Japanese myths allegedly cavorted and their stories are woven into the fabric of the craggy landscape. Tales of Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess and progenitor of the Japanese Imperial line), her brother Susano’o (the Storm God) and many other deities mentioned in the famous eighth-century chronicle Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) play out in Takachiho’s shadowy forests and glens. While many modern Japanese rarely give a passing thought to the divine beings that comprise the backbone of the islands’ native religion of Shinto, in Takachiho, the reverence is alive and well.

From the gorge, we follow the road through Takachiho Village and into the hills to the Amano Iwato Shrine. This site is perhaps the most famous in Japanese lore, boasting the cave where Amaterasu hid for a time from her fellow divinities. Heavy rain is threatening, and the few light showers that have already passed have left the cement trail down to the cave slick and dangerous. We pick our way carefully along the rocks, following the curve of the Iwato River. The ravine here is not as deep as Takachiho Gorge but the sense of antiquity is just as palpable.

The trail corkscrews and then dead-ends at a deep crevice cut into the cliff. A torii gate stands at the edge of the gloom, marking this as a sacred spot. With the overcast weather, one can almost imagine that a pouty Amaterasu is still dwelling inside in self-imposed exile, withholding her light from the world. Her anger at the destructive actions of her brother Susano’o — burning rice fields and laying waste to the land — led her to lock herself away in here, plunging the Earth into perpetual darkness. No manner of coaxing could convince her to emerge, until goddess Amenouzume (the patron of performing arts) danced rather provocatively outside the cave entrance. Amaterasu’s curiosity at the ruckus got the better of her, and when she dared to peek out, the rest of the deities dragged her from her hiding place.

Today, there is no front to the cave, the boulder having supposedly been heaved away. Instead, a miniature shrine pays homage to the goddess — judging from the offerings, Amaterasu is a fan of cigarettes and yogurt.

For a more visual retelling of the myths surrounding Amaterasu and her heavenly cohorts, we head through the village’s deserted streets that evening to the hillside Takachiho Shrine. Here, in a small wooden building to the right of the main hall, we join other inquisitive visitors for the nightly yokagura dances. To combat the cold and lonely winters in this mountainous corner of Miyazaki, local residents — often warmed by shōchū, a potent liquor made from potato, wheat or rice — have come together since time unknown to act out the stories of Japan’s gods. True dusk to dawn yokagura dances are held several times a year between November and February, as a combination harvest celebration and spring planting festival. However, these events, held at varying local farmhouses, are more difficult to attend and exhausting for the average visitor. For those with either shorter attention spans or just a passing interest in this unique folk art, hourly performances are held every night of the year on the grounds of the Takachiho Shrine.

It isn’t too long after we settle onto the tatami-covered floor of the cozy theater that the drumbeats begin in earnest. With a haunting shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown bamboo flute) for accompaniment, the drum calls forth a parade of costume-clad performers. We watch, fairly spellbound, as deity Tajikarao (a god representing the strength of the heavens) tracks down Amaterasu in her riverside hideout. The antics of Amenouzume in the second act recall the catalyst that made Amaterasu peek out of her cave. Though we see no Sun Goddess on stage, Tajikarao returns to flex his muscles and heave away the cave’s stone doors, thus returning Amaterasu’s light to the world.

While the first three dances relate a rather serious tale, the final number is anything but staid. Izanagi and Izanami, the purported divine creators of the Japanese islands, come together to make (and obviously drink) a substantial amount of sake. Their subsequent actions — with hilarious audience participation — relate a rather raunchy tale of how Japan came to be. It’s an upbeat end to an hour-long performance and we leave the hall with smiles on our faces.

Outside, the night is cold and cloudy, but a few stars are peeking through the gloom. In this place of mystery, it doesn’t take much to cast them as the gods of ancient times, shining down on this corner of the mortal world they once called home.

Getting there: Takachiho is best reached via bus from either Kumamoto or Nobeoka. The gorge (free) and Takachiho Shrine (¥500 to view the yokagura dances) are located within easy walking distance at the southern end of town. The Amano Iwato Shrine (free), where Amaterasu hid, can be reached by bus or taxi from the center of town.