Amano Iwato: hideaway cave of a goddess

Many of Japan’s origin legends are set in Kyushu and can be explored at Shinto shrines and other sites across the island commemorating the events of the legend.  They are often tales of interactions among a pantheon of gods that are every bit as intriguing as the Roman or Greek mythology doubtless more familiar to Western readers.

Let’s look at one such tale and the place where it is said to have occurred.

Most people are aware that Japan’s emperors are descended from Amaterasu-Omikami, the sun goddess, who sent her grandson, Ninigi, to Japan to introduce rice cultivation during what Japanese history refers to as “The Age of Gods” (The Age of Men began when Ninigi’s great-grandson became Japan’s first emperor in 660BCE.)

In the Age of Gods, Amaterasu frequently had difficulties with her brother, Susano-o, who was mischievous and prone to stirring up trouble (think Loki, of Norse folk tradition). One day, bored with his heavenly life, Susanoo vandalized Amaterasu’s rice fields, threw a flayed horse into her loom, and brutally killed one of her maidens after a quarrel. Amaterasu were so upset by this that she hid herself inside a Kyushu cave known as Amano Iwato, pulling a boulder across the entrance to seal herself inside.  Of course, if the goddess of the sun goes into a cave, the light of the sun goes with her.  The world was plunged into darkness.

At first, none of the other gods knew what had happened.  They understood only that Amaterasu had disappeared and the sun with her.

After searching and searching, eventually the gods determined that Amaterasu had hidden herself in Amano Iwato.  But she refused to come out.  Different gods tried different tactics to entice her out, but she continued to demur.  Eventually Ame-no-Uzume, the goddess of dawn, performed a bawdy little bump-and-grind, dancing atop an upturned wooden tub in front of the cave.

The other gods found her performance so funny that they all began to laugh loudly.  Hearing this, Amaterasu  peaked out of her cave to see what was going on.  At this point, Ame-no-takijarao, a deity known for his strength, pulled back the boulder blocking the cave entrance and grabbed Amaterasu out of the cave, restoring light to the world.

IMG_1500Amano Iwato Shrine, just outside the town of Takachiho in northern Miyazaki Prefecture, stands guard over Amano Iwato cave and this legend.

Near the shrine’s entrance stands a statue of Ame-no-takijarao holding a massive boulder over his head, presumably having just opened the cave.

The main shrine is located across a deep gorge from the Amano Iwato cave, which mere mortals are not permitted to enter or to photograph, even from a distance.  The most visitors can do–upon purification by a priest–is to pass through an otherwise-locked door and walk around to the back of the shrine to view the cave from across the gorge, a small dark aperture in the dense foliage.

The shrine courtyard contains a very old Ogatama (Michelia compressa) tree, moss covering its trunk.  This tree’s name means “to invite the gods” and it is popular as a sacred tree in areas where the sacred Sakaki tree doesn’t grow well.  Twenty-fourth generation priest, Eishu Sato, my host when I visited, pointed out to me how the berries of the tree resemble the handbells used by priests in performing Shinto rituals.  (You can just make them out in Ame-no-Uzume’s hand in the photo of her statue shown above.)

Also in the courtyard is the Kagura-den, a dance stage where Yokagura dance is performed. Kagura is an ancient story-telling dance developed as an offering to the gods. Yokagura is the night-time version, popular because of the mystical atmosphere of shrines at night. Kagura dances are said to date back nearly 2,000 years and they are thought to be the fore-runner of Noh. Dancers wear masks portraying their character, nearly always a god. The dancers undertake a ritual before performing that allows them to become their character, a god, while they are dancing. The dances are accompanied by drum, flute and chanting.

A full Yokagura performance of the legend relating to Amaterasu and the Amano Iwato cave comprises 33 dances and takes six to eight hours, lasting through the night.  It is performed at Amano Iwato Shrine every year in November.  (Read on for information on nightly performances of limited dances.)

After our visit to the main shrine, I am surprised when Priest Sato leads me out of the shrine ground to a walkway down into the gorge, where a small stream is bubbling along.  We walk a well-trod path. I notice what looks like it would be great swimming hole in summer and share my opinion with Priest Sato.  He says, “Yes, it is a good swimming hole.  Sometimes I get calls from locals that there are boys swimming in it.  I don’t have the heart to tell them that I did the same thing when I was a boy.” I couldn’t help but wonder if all 24 generations of Sato priests, born and raise here, had enjoyed that swimming hole.

After a short walk, we came to a cave in the gorge wall. There is a torii shrine gate at the entrance, and a small shrine, perhaps to give it standing as a surrogate for the cave to which entry is forbidden.  It’s clearly a popular spot.  Many visitors have made small stone cairns to accompany their prayers offered here.  Priest Sato explains that in the spring, the stream swells and the floodwaters often rise so high that all the stones are washed away.  But, he goes on, more towers are soon erected as visitors come with their prayers.  Does Amaterasu answer these prayers, I wonder?

A 50 minute version of Yokagura, telling the tale of Amaterasu being located and enticed out of her cave, is performed nightly from 20:00 at Takachiho Shrine in nearby Takachiho town. Four dances are performed in a dance “hall” on the shrine’s grounds.   Yokagura is always performed by amateurs who have rehearsed diligently to learn their role.  Apparently locals often perform in homes for each other; perhaps this is part of their rehearsal.  Undoubtedly all of these performances ensure that the legends and the tradition of the dance continue from generation to generation.

Takachiho is probably best known for its spectacular gorge, with its sheer walls of volcanic basalt, another reason to visit when you can.

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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