People in the village of Monobe, Kochi Prefecture, nestled deep in the mountains, have passed down from generation to generation a mysterious folk religion that worships paper gods.

Izanagi-ryu, an eclectic sect mixing elements of Shinto and Buddhism, does not use permanent statues for worship. Instead, villagers create traditional images of the gods out of paper whenever they hold rituals: divination, prayers for the sick, worship of local deities, ancestors and mountain gods. Their 200 kinds of paper gods and spirits, each cut out of a single sheet of washi paper, bring a new dimension to religious art. Many take the form of gohei, the paper streamers attached to a wand familiar from more conventional Shinto ritual.

The art has been handed down by tayu, ritual experts, to their disciples. Each pattern has a name and is associated with a particular occasion. A number of spells and myths are chanted during the rituals.

The origin of the sect’s name is obscure. Izanagi is the name of a shaman who appears in the sect’s mythology; it coincides with the name of the Shinto male creator deity Izanagi no Mikoto in the “Kojiki,” but the Monobe villagers know of no connection.

The ritual was designated as a National Intangible Cultural Asset in 1980. The enigmatic spells have attracted folklorists and even mystery writers such as Natsuhiko Kyogoku.

Still, the icons’ aesthetic values have remained unknown to the general public. Between March 3-May 20, “Shape of the Gods” at Inax Gallery in Nagoya will offer a rare opportunity to experience this sacred beauty. The exhibition also toured Tokyo and Osaka last fall.

“It’s the first time Izanagi-ryu has been exhibited outside of Shikoku island,” says Teru Kakehi, an event organizer. “And it may be the last time, since the ritual is on the verge of dying out.”

The tayu are getting old and, due to rural depopulation, having trouble finding apprentices. Occasions for the rituals have also decreased as villagers lose their traditional lifestyles. Some say the Nichigetsu-sai (Sun and Moon Festival) held for four days last March may have been the sect’s last grand festival.

About 40 kinds of gohei created by four tayu will be displayed at the exhibition. Slit-eyed mountain gods, flower cutouts elegantly decorated with streamers, gentle-faced water gods (who are believed to be married to the mountain gods) are among the many esoteric paper works to be shown in the exhibition.

The site of worship will also be re-created with ritual articles such as colorful woven hats used in kagura (Shinto liturgical) dances and paper decorated bows for prayer.

Two researchers on the Izanagi-ryu sect, Kazuhiko Komatsu, professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, and Hideki Saito, associate professor at Sugiyama Jogakuen Junior College will talk about the tradition 6:30-8 p.m., April 21.

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