Long before the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 20th century to explain the mechanism behind earthquakes, Japanese folklore had attributed the terrifying phenomenon to the thrashings of the o-namazu — a giant catfish that inhabited the bowels of the Earth.
And the sole power that prevents this fish from bucking the country to pieces is, according to ancient lore, Takemikazuchi — a Shinto deity living in Kashima, in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture — who balances rodeolike atop the o-namazu and holds down a massive “pivot stone” on the fish’s head.
“As long as Kashima’s deity is with us,” says a verse from the eighth-century book of Japanese poems, the “Manyoshu,” “the pivot stone may wobble but it will not break.”
While the Shinto gods are invisible to mere mortals like us, the stone is thoroughly temporal — and is located in the grounds of Kashima Jingu, one of Japan’s largest shrines.
With the devastation of March 11’s megaquake and tsunami having tested the faith of many, I decided to pay a visit to the stone to see how it had weathered the past few weeks since catastrophe hit the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu.
As the bus approached the outskirts of Kashima, things did not look hopeful. Here, six weeks after the event, damaged residential rooftops were still draped with tarpaulin sheets and large shipping containers sat askew in fields where they’d been carried by the two-meter tsunami.
Situated on higher ground, Kashima Jingu had escaped the wave, but two mounds of sand were now piled where once the pillars of its 10-meter-high torii gate had stood.
“The first quake (on March 11) cracked the granite torii,” explained 71-year-old Masayoshi Tsuda. “Then a few minutes later, a large aftershock brought it down. Luckily nobody was injured.”
Ibaraki-native Tsuda, a volunteer guide at Kashima Jingu for almost a decade, said that he was accustomed to showing dozens of tour groups around the shrine. “But now nobody comes. Everybody is too afraid of the aftershocks — not to mention the fear of radiation.”
As his fellow guides despondently packed away their maps and flags for the day, Tsuda seemed happy to be able to show somebody around.
Walking me beneath the towering cedars and Japanese cypresses in the shrine’s grounds, he explained that Takemikazuchi, in addition to subduing the ill-tempered catfish, was also the guardian deity of thunder, swords and warfare. Over the centuries, he said, countless warriors have called upon the god to help them to win battles.
“It’s believed that Jimmu Tennou (the first Emperor of Japan) asked for Takemikazuchi’s help when he attempted to seize power in Yamato (present-day Nara Prefecture),” explained Tsuda. “The god sent a magical sword which enabled Jimmu to defeat his enemies and establish his rule. In appreciation, Jimmu ordered Kashima Jingu to be built — which would make this shrine more than 2,600 years old.”
Although Tsuda is the first to question the historical accuracy of the account, the donations of other grateful followers of Takemikazuchi are irrefutable.
Among the shrine’s seven buildings currently listed as important cultural assets is Oku Miya — a small wooden, worship hall. Dating back to 1605, the building was bestowed by the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu (1543-1616), to thank Takemikazuchi for his help in defeating Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces at the epic Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, so enabling him to become the first ruler of a unified Japan. Indeed, so grateful was the new shogun that over the next 85 years, his Tokugawa clan donated many other buildings to the shrine.
Such powerful patronage hints at devotees’ deep-seated respect for Takemikazuchi, and as I approached the Oku Miya hall, jovial Tsuda turned momentarily serious. “Be careful. Takemikazuchi is at his most savage here,” he cautioned. “When you clap, do so quietly. And lay your coin gently in the offertory box so as not to incur his wrath.”
Following Tsuda’s advice, I said my prayers as docilely as possible and then I was led by the guide to a statue of this fearsome god. Based on a 19th-century woodblock print, the statue presented Takemikazuchi dressed in samurai armor, drilling a sword into the head of the ill-tempered catfish.
Images such as this became much sought-after in the immediate aftermath of a November 1855 earthquake that partially leveled Edo (present-day Tokyo). In the ruins of the city, dozens of artists churned out talismans depicting Takemikazuchi’s struggles with the o-namazu. These prints quickly went viral among the traumatized Edoites, who were desperate for some comfort during the subsequent months of teeth-rattling aftershocks.
However, it was beyond the statue of Takemikazuchi that the goal of my pilgrimage was to be found — the so-called pivot stone itself.
My first impression was disappointing. Rather than the linchpin that stopped Japan from splitting, the stone emerged from the ground like a dimpled bowling ball. Despite its underwhelming appearance, though, a steady stream of visitors lined up at the stone — making it by far the busiest spot on the deserted shrine grounds.
One young man explained that he’d driven nonstop from Saitama City just north of Tokyo as soon as he’d read about the stone on the Internet. “I wanted to reassure myself that it was still here — and that it hadn’t cracked,” he earnestly declared. Then, leaning over the fence, he squinted at the rock for a long moment before, seemingly satisfied that it was intact, he smiled with relief.
Many of the other visitors were local residents who, when asked whether the recent tremors had led them to doubt Takemikazuchi’s powers, unanimously declared that the past six weeks had only served to validate their faith. “It’s true that this area was badly shaken by the quake,” said one housewife. “But compared to other places, Kashima escaped very lightly.”
As though to emphasize her point, just then early-warning earthquake alarms sounded on some of the visitors’ mobile phones.
Pavlov-conditioned, I dropped to the ground and clasped my notebook over my head — but nearby, the worshippers continued their prayers regardless. When the tremor struck a second later it barely swayed the branches of the tall cedar trees.
Embarrassed, I brushed the dirt from my knees and asked Tsuda the question that had been on the tip of my tongue all morning: Whether he really believed in the tales of Takemikazuchi and the catfish.
The guide gestured to the shrine’s wooden buildings. “Most of these structures are over 400 years old, but none of them were seriously damaged in the (March 11) quake. Credit the gods if you want, but what’s certain is that Kashima Jingu has a great deal of natural power.”
Tsuda must have noticed the skeptical expression on my face, because he invited me to walk with him back to the main entrance of the shrine. There, he paused outside Suzusho — a restaurant that has been in business since 1897. For a moment I wondered why Tsuda had stopped, but then he showed me the menu in its window boasting hotpots, grills and tempura — all made from freshly caught catfish.
“I recommend the namazu sashimi,” said Tsuda. “Washed down with plenty of local sake, it’s guaranteed to calm your nerves.”
Takemikazuchi’s formidable power aside, it seems that the residents of Kashima have developed more than one way to deal with troublesome catfish.
Getting there: Highway buses leave Tokyo Station approximately every 20 minutes from 6:30 a.m. to 10:50 p.m. on the 2-hour trip to Kashima. Disembark at the Kashima Jingu bus stop, and the main gate of the shrine is a 5-minute walk away. Volunteer tour guides (including Masayoshi Tsuda) are available from the main gate between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. For more information (in Japanese) visit the shrine’s website at: www.bokuden.or.jp/~kashimaj/