Tuesday, 27 May 2008

御神火祭 Nasu Fire Mountain Festival

殺生石 The Murder Stone

picture from Wikipedia

This weekend one of my friends stationed in 宇都宮 Utsunomiya had heard of an obscure festival in some very northern part of 栃木県 Tochigi Prefecutre called 那須 Nasu (which curiously enough also means eggplant in Japanese).

Welcome to 那須 Nasu

But it gets weirder. On this mountain is a stone called "the murder stone" which is said to have killed countless critters over the time. It is usually not strong enough to kill humans yet... And to keep it that way the locals of 那須 Nasu make an annual festival where they dress like mystical fox creatures do ecstatic dancing and drumming on 太鼓 Taiko (a big Japanese drum), while holding torches and burning big piles of wood.

So let's see where this strange but surely fascinating custom comes from:

狐 Kitsune, The Legendary Foxes

picture from Wikipedia

To be able to understand the myth this festival is based on, we first have to learn about foxes. As in Europe foxes are said to be very cunning creatures in Asia, yet unlike in Europe in Asia there are mystical foxes that can develop in power growing more tails (up to 9) which eventually reach the level where they can shape shift and imitate humans. Foxes are said to be tricksters and like to play with humans, which is while there were usually feared.

If you track back legends about foxes you will also find really old ones in India and China. For a time people thought Japan's tales about mystical foxes were therefore just an Indian or Chinese adaptation, but some stories have survived were foxes have benevolent attributes and fight with and for rather than against humans. So it can be believed that Japan had its own legendary foxes when and wherefore it openly accepted additional tales from Asia.

That is probably why in Japan foxes are also seen as servants of the Goddess Inari (a Japanese Kami depicted as a fox herself) and therefore benevolent messengers. These are called the celestial 命婦 Myoobu foxes. The wild 野狐 Nogitsune (field foxes) on the other hand are wild and mischievous. There are some more types, from which the Ninko is the most well known. Ninko are like European demons taking possession of humans, which can only be expelled with exorcism. Kitsunetsuki 狐つき is the term of someone being possessed by a fox, in earlier times it was a frequent diagnosis for certain psychological sicknesses. What is a bit scary is that the attributes and symptoms of Kitsunetsuki strongly resemble European demon possessions. For example it is said that during the possession the fox' wisdom and knowledge enters the mind of the possessed enabling him/her temporarily to write and read (even if the person was illiterate before) and even to speak in unknown or ancient languages. This similarity is striking and leads me to ask myself, if there is not something true about possessions...

from University Of California

exorcising a fox

These Ninko were very fond of taking possession of beautiful women, which is why those women were sometimes feared. In the Mid Ages it was believed that if you encounter a woman alone on the street at night, she is just bound to be a fox (either possessed by or a shape shifting fox itself).

Finally there is something every precious to all these foxes called 星の玉 hoshi no tama (star balls). They are said to hold a part of the fox' power and cause great damage to the fox if lost or destroyed. If you can find one of those well hidden treasures you might be able to gain a legendary fox as a companion, if you return it:
"Confound you!" snapped the fox. "Give me back my ball!" The man ignored its pleas till finally it said tearfully, "All right, you've got the ball, but you don't know how to keep it. It won't be any good to you. For me, it's a terrible loss. I tell you, if you don't give it back, I'll be your enemy forever. If you do give it back though, I'll stick to you like a protector god."
from an 12th century Japanese tale

玉藻前 The Legend Of Tamamo-No-Mae

picture from Wikipedia

Now that you know about Kizune, I can tell you the legend, the festival in Nasu is based on. Once in Japan there was said to have lived an extraordinary beautiful woman, whose looks were only surpassed by her incredible wisdom and intelligence. She was the most beautiful and clever woman in the whole country, and as such it is not surprising that emperor Konoe heard of her. After he met with her only once he fell into deep love with her and decided to make her his empress.

After some time Emperor Konoe fell deeply ill and no doctor could tell him what was wrong with him. So he took counsel from his astrologer Abe no Yasuchika, who found the source of the sickness in his wife Tamamo no Mae, who he uncovered as a shape shifting fox with the devilish plot to make the emperor ill and take the throne for herself.

After hearing that the emperor was outraged and called for the best warriors and hunters of Japan to hunt down the fox. But Tamamo no Mae was able to elude their hunters for quite some time, until eventually she got cornered. At this time she revealed herself in the dream of one of the hunters Miura no Suke and begged for her life. Mirua no Suke refused and the next day he struck the fox with one arrow in the plain of Nasu.

When Tamamo no Mae's body was struck she transformed her body into a stone using her last magical powers. The stone was henceforth called the killing stone (殺生石 Sesshoseki) and killed everything that came into contact with it. While her body became the stone, her spirit haunted the stone henceforth.

picture from Wikipedia

the legend of 殺生石 Sesshoseki the murder stone

Up to one day, when a Buddhist priest choose the stone by chance for a rest and was attacked by her spirit. He performed certain spiritual rituals and eventually succeeded in convincing the spirit to search for salvation and to never haunt the stone again.

the Buddhist priest who rested near the stone

Even the mighty 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Basho visited the stone once

御神火祭 Nasu Fire Mountain Festival

from otonano-kakurega.com

So the villagers meet once a year at this very stone to repeat rituals similar to that of the monk, to keep Tomamo no Mae's spirit away from the murderous stone. This rituals include building a huge pillar of wood, which will be inflamed at night. A lot of 太鼓 Taki drumming and wild dancing carrying torches in the hands. Also participants (anyone can participate) wear fox masks and costumes while performing the rituals.

All this would look like this:

However this year Tomamo no Mae found a way to avoid this festival/ritual and return back to the stone: Heavy Rain. Since the festival's foundation is fire, it cannot take place when there is heavy rain outside. As misfortune or Tomamo no Mae's magical powers wanted it, heavy rain started just when we arrived at the site of the 殺生石 murder stone.

A Teenage Horror Story

So there we are, facing the murder stone. Behind us festival people putting all the festival stuff into cars and leaving the site. We are far away from home and the trains and buses will stop driving very soon, we have no way of getting home. We will have to spend the night right here, under heave rain, next to the murder stone...

We had but one token of light, which was a kind of wooden hut next to the stone, it had huge openings in all four directions, yet it would at least shield us from the heavy rain.
But when the last light of the day started to fade the horror began...

Since we could not return anymore, we decided to make the best out of it and at least visit the legendary stone. And as it is in Horror stories we decided to challenge the legend and touch the stone. Remember the legend says, whatever touches the stone will die. So we made a pledge that whoever of us would die first would be given a funeral by the others, who then would try and challenge the curse. So ignoring all warnings from the legend, we touched the stone.

the signs are full of warnings

it says the remainder of the murder stone

and there it is

We felt a little awkward but nothing happened, so we returned to our shelter and prepared for the night. Using a rope (always carry a rope with you!) and a flashlight, I built ourselves a twilight lamp, filling the room with just enough light to eat the stuff we brought, drink some wine and tell each other horror stories.

our lamp

Meanwhile the rain was getting heavier and louder and because of that a really tight mist clad the whole area. When I left the shelter for some human necessities carrying an umbrella I could see no more far then a couple of feet, the rest being hidden in mist. I challenged myself in trying to find the murder stone in this mist and slowly step by step approached where I thought it to be. At first I got really scared, because I could not find it anymore, but then it appeared and seemed to mock me "So there are no rituals today, because of a bit of rain. You know what that means, especially after you touched me!".

mystical scary stones at night

I hurried back into our shelter and hid myself in my sleeping bag. Now apart from the heavy rain a really strong wind was coming up blowing the rain partly into our shelter. This was when we stood up and screamed "That's it! The Stone is trying to get us. We need to fortify out position and build palisades!". We looked around and found a huge pile of folding chairs prepared for the canceled festival. We stopped seeing chairs and saw palisade material and started putting the chairs on top of each other slowly erecting palisades around our shelter.

palisades at night with heavy reflecting mist

and how the festival people found them and us the next morning

our palisades

Having found the chairs we looked what else was stored in this hut and found two more tables and a red carpet. We used the additional tables to create a five person bed in the center of the room and used duct tape to a fix the carpet on the table. Like this we would be able to sleep close together and give the stone less possibilities to take one of us alone.

our bed

Outside of the hut, we could see the dark grey shapes of two Buddha statues. Whenever someone looked at them, however, they seemed to face into a different position. Usually Buddha statues are meant to protect people, but since they are made of stone, and the murder stone was so close nearby, Tamamo No Mae was probably able to control them.

the view from the hut

those guys wouldn't stop rotating

and they had a lot of minions

Still as long as they only turned, but did not move we were save. Also how could they penetrate our fortifications? So we managed to get some sleep, often waking up and checking the environment.

And thus we barely managed to survive. In the morning the people from yesterday came back, surprised to see us still alive (maybe their surprise was due to the palisades we erected, I cannot tell). They told us, they will perform another ritual this day without fire, yet trying to calm Tamamo no Mae's spirit. We removed our palisades and cleaned our fortress.

The red carpet was later used as their ceremonial carpet, where they put sacrifices to the fox goddess Inari on. I hope we did not defile them by sleeping on it.

To wake up and get rid of the fear, we decided to walk the nice hiking path nearby the stone, encircling it by climbing up and down the mountain.

description of the hiking path nearby

the path was extraordinary beautiful

it peaks in an observatory,

where you are supposed to see this landscape,

but because of the mist, we couldn't see anything

Then we refreshed ourselves with some Soba and started the long journey back to our homes.

If you have any information about Tamamo No Mae's curse or about how you can survive the touching of the murder stone, please forward them to me.



Florence Forrest said...

Hi Mika,

what a great adventure! please fell free to link to my Crackle Mountain blog and the story etc. It will be in good company here :)


festival guys for maybe a minute or so, without even being manned! vaxr said...

Nice pictures!

You forgot to mention though how we heroically tried to kill ourselves climbing up to the peak just after touching the stone.

Also, how our palisades held off the festival guys for maybe a minute or so, without even being manned!


Vilwarin said...

thx Florence for letting me share your version of the legend here :)
and yes spending a night next to the black murder stone was quite exhilarating ^_^

thx Viktor for your additions. Yes our folding chair palisades were almost impenetrable!