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Student's Corner


The month without gods


IF you walk through natural places in Japan, like a forest, mountain or cliffs by the sea, you will probably see a piece of rope tied around an especially large tree, or find zigzagged paper streamers attached to an impressive boulder. These plain-looking bits of paper and string show the presence of kami, or gods, and they can be found everywhere.

Kami are found in nature scenes and sometimes in animals. They live in rivers, mountains, trees, rain, wind, lightning, and so on. They are often represented by creatures such as kappa (water sprites, for the god of water), kitsune (foxes, for Inari, god of rice and fertility), oni, a kind of horned ogre representing the gods of wind and thunder, kodama (tree spirits) and many more. There are said to be yaoyorozu (as many as eight million) in all.

The spirits are powerful, but they can also be mischievous. For example, kitsune are known for shape shifting and can change to human form. They are especially fond of changing into beautiful women in order to play tricks on humans. However, the kitsune have trouble changing their tails, so you can identify them by the telltale fur sticking out of the bottom of a kimono! You can also tell a fox in disguise when they eat a large amount of aburaage (fried tofu), their favorite food. Kappa live in ponds and rivers, and like to bother swimmers. To avoid harassment, it's said that if you should throw their favorite food, cucumbers, in the water, they will let you swim by without bothering you.

In Japan, the stories of spirits like kappa and kitsune are such a part of everyday life that there are two kinds of sushi named after them: kappa-maki is a cucumber sushi roll and inari-zushi is a piece of sweet fried tofu wrapped around sushi rice.

As such, there are many unique spirits that live in Japan. In the month of October, however, there is a special story about the spirits that live in shrines.

Usually, gods take care of the forces of nature and address the prayers of people for things like a safe birth, success in school, or luck in business. They help with health, safety in travel or a happy marriage. Yet, if you want to ask for a little help in October, the tenth month, you may find that your local god is busy.

In the tenth month, all these gods leave their mountaintops and places by the sea to meet at Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane prefecture on the Japan Sea coast. It's sure to be a lively meeting after such a long time by themselves in the seaside cave or on top of a mountain. Now it's time to discuss the year. What a sight! Many gods, all the forces of nature, all together in the same place.

So October in most of Japan has come to be known as Kannazuki, or month without gods. However, in Shimane prefecture only, this month is known as Kamiarizuki, or month of gods. Izumo is going to be crowded!

Do not worry, as even if you pay your visit to the shrine during kannazuki, your wish will still be fulfilled.

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