Caving in to the gods


If a foreigner happens to know just one Japanese myth, it’s usually the one about Amaterasu and the cave. Amaterasu had long been tormented by her brother, Susanoo. But Susanoo, who believed there was no such thing as too elaborate a brotherly prank, went too far when he flung a flayed piebald colt into her weaving hall. Amaterasu went off to sulk in a cave, thereby — being the sun goddess — plunging the world into darkness. And long it remained dark until Uzume, who was a game girl for a goddess, did a saucy little dance for all the other gods assembled outside the cave. When they whooped with delight at the dance, Amaterasu, wondering what all the racket could be, was lured out of her cave — a cave that is located in present-day Takachiho.

This town in northern Miyazaki Prefecture is situated in one of the wilder, more rugged parts of Kyushu. The famous caldera of Mount Aso is not far away, and the bus from Kumamoto skirts past the volcano and across the lush green Kyushu landscape of small rice paddies contoured into steep hillsides.

As you might expect, the little mountain town of Takachiho is rather proud of its role in Japanese mythology. Along the length of the town’s main street, small tableaux of figures have been set up in see-through cases, depicting the story of the cave and associated legends.

Another major legend linked to this place and presented in the tableaux concerns Ninigi, grandson of Amaterasu, who descended from heaven to Mount Takachiho so that he could conquer and rule over Japan. Set in a grove of ancient cryptomeria trees at the bottom of that main street is Takachiho Shrine.

This shrine possesses a calm dignity and, in the best manner of Shinto shrines, is completely at one with its natural surroundings. Even on a wet, thoroughly miserable day, it was moodily impressive. Fingers of mist trailed down the thickly wooded slopes and, after I mentally painted out the odd pylon or two, the scene was hauntingly splendid.

For those who decide to stay the night in Takachiho, an additional attraction at the shrine is the yokagura dances. Every evening, a shortened, one-hour version of this repertoire of 33 ancient dances can be enjoyed at Takachiho Shrine. The full cycle of dances, lasting from early evening until noon the next day, is performed at various locations in Takachiho from mid-November to mid-February.

The biggest tourist draw in the area, though, is of a different nature. Proceeding further down the hill from the shrine brings the visitor to Takachiho Gorge. Carved out by the swift, turquoise Gokase River, this narrow 5-km-long chasm is spectacular and this sight alone makes a trip to Kyushu worthwhile. The rock here is basalt lava spewed out eons ago by Mount Aso. And from the path running through the gorge, the visitor has superb views of the columns of lava topped by dense green foliage and cascades dropping 100 meters vertically into the river below.

At its narrowest spot, the defile is just 3 meters across, and from many a vantage point there is a foot-tingling precipitous drop into the gorge.

For the visitor seeking a little light relief from all this grand nature, a local is on hand wearing one of the demon masks and costumes from the yokagura, and he takes it in turns to have his photo taken with tourists and scare the wits out of 5-year-olds.

To reach the part of Takachiho where its famous cave legend played itself out demands a bus ride of about 8 km to Amano Iwato Shrine. The shrine itself is divided in two by the Iwato River, with Nishi Hongu, the main shrine building, on one side and Higashi Hongu, at the actual cave into which Amaterasu disappeared, on the other. Visitors are allowed only to Nishi Hongu, which is not an especially old building, though it carries the delicious smell of the Japanese cypress from which it is made.

Miko shrine maidens keep the place spotless, and for all who care to listen, a priest relates the tale about the cave in a voice that suggests he’s told the story a few too many times for his own liking.

From a special wooden platform within Nishi Hongu, it is possible to look across the valley toward the famous cave, though there is little to be seen of it other than a bit of a gap in the trees.

As with many sacred Shinto spots, photographs in the direction of Higashi Hongu are not permitted. And that was exactly what one apparently self-appointed leader of a group of elderly tourists was telling the group. He had to severely admonish one couple who were trying to take a sly photo of the spot. It wasn’t until the other members left and there was no one on the platform but him and me that he proceeded to take his own set of pictures.

Further along the boulder-strewn Iwato River from Amano Iwato Shrine stands another cave, Amano Yasugawara, this being the place where all the gods met to debate how they were going to deal with the problem of Amaterasu having shut herself away. Amano Yasugawara is not in itself so very remarkable, possessing a little shrine and torii and being covered inside with neat piles of stones, placed by pilgrims by way of prayer, and having a roof that constantly dribbles water.

The skeptical visitor, though, at this point might wonder what exactly this cave, like Amaterasu’s at Higashi Hongu, is actually doing here.

These caves are in Miyazaki Prefecture and yet the events concerning Amaterasu are supposed to have taken place in Takamagahara — the High Plain of Heaven. But then, some things in life, like the ways of gods and what your ward actually does with all that ward tax you pay, remain forever mysteries.