Once upon a time, deep in the heart of Japan, was a village hidden in a mighty forest. Everywhere, tiny houses were surrounded by huge ferns and tall cedars reaching for the sky.
People there lived a quiet life, mostly hunting small game and gathering mushrooms and wild plants.
The forest was both their blessing and their curse. It was so rich they could find everything they needed to survive. But it was also such a wide and unfathomable land that travelers seldom dared cross it.
Yet, not far from the village, lived a shaman. She was an ageless woman who had settled there seasons ago. Nobody knew exactly who she was and why she had chosen such a remote place.
Many times, villagers had caught her wandering aimlessly in the woods, muttering to herself while patting trunks. They had found trees encircled with braided ropes and pebbles neatly piled on the river banks.
After a few years, the forest people had all agreed: she was a strange woman sure but had never try to hurt or curse them. And none could deny she had a pious soul linked to the gods. Slowly, all had gotten into the habit of visiting her for small blessings and simple charms.
On day, a hunter did not come back home. His wife had lived her whole life in those woods and knew those things could happen. But the knowledge did not dull her worries. And when the following day, the man did not reappeared, a searching party was swiftly organised.
Fellow villagers quickly found his body, laying on the mossy ground, bright blood clashing against lively green.
The poor man had been torn to shreds
Hunting accidents were not uncommon in such a wild place, haunted by boars, wolves and bears. But all could see that this time, the beast was not like anything they knew.
The forest people decided to arm themselves, never leaving the village alone, staying alert and keeping watches near blazing fires. But the mysterious animal kept eluding them.
Despite all their precautions, a couple of hunter disappeared into the night, never again to be seen. And a few days later, a boy vanished from its home. His mother only found four drops of blood on a ragged kimono.
Villagers were getting more and more distraught:
– How can we fight something we can’t track? I tell you this is no simple beast but a demon from Hell itself!
– A demon it is, and human weapons will do it no harm.
The shaman sat at the edge of their circle. It was probably the longest sentence they had ever heard in her mouth. Before anyone could utter a word, she stood up and added:
– I’ll go try to bring peace back to those lands. Don’t follow me. If I am not back at sunset tomorrow, you’ll know I am dead.
The shaman dressed herself in a white kimono and cut a sakaki twig. Then, without looking back to the astonished villagers, she went on her way, seeming unafraid of nightfall.
A thick mist was spreading through the woods, draping the world in blues. The forest was as lively as ever, deers fleeing in the bushes, flying squirrels drifting from cedar to cedar. She had strolled those lands again and again. She knew where slippery rocks were and when to step over sprawling roots. Soon, she reached the river.
Under the rising moon, rushing water boldly sang. And above, loud as a hundred drums, was the waterfall, an astounding and powerful sight.
The shaman took of her shoes, clapped her hands twice and, taking a deep breath, dipped into the cold water. Holding her sakaki sprig tight, she fought against treacherous whirlpools until she could stood tall and straight. And then she closed her eyes and started to chant.
How many hours did she stay there? She could not say. Time meant nothing here, where sun heat could not pierce the cold shell of water. Yet, suddenly, a loud growl rumbled, covering the white noise of the waterfall.
The shaman opened her eyes. Towering above her was a terrifying four-headed beast, all fangs and drooling muzzles, wild eyes burning. An enormous paw, claws out, tried to seize her.
In vain. Thanks to her prayers, the waterfall was now a true barrier. She could feel the energy of the river gathering around her like a shield.
Never ceasing her chanting though her voice was now cracked and rough, she endured the pain. She chanted and chanted, despite the foul smell of the demon’s breath, water running down her body like an icy armour.
The raging beast kept trying to find a flaw in her defense. But the shaman’s soul, purified by her long meditation, was strong and sharp. As a the demon was charging in one last desperate attempt to catch its prey, she chanted one last time and suddenly raised her sakaki twig.
Two days passed before the villagers gathered the courage to go searching for the shaman. They had not seen her returned, each passing hours increasing their fears. When they finally came to the waterfall, they all fell to their knees, bowing and praying.
Gone were the beast and the shaman. But on the watery battleground, now stood under the waterfall a tall human-shaped rock… with four head-like stones at its feet which seemed to still bare teeth snarling.
Japan has a long tradition of shamans – probably sharing the same roots as Siberian shamanism. You can find women shamans as far as prehistoric Jomon era. The most famous example is probably Queen Himiko, a woman who hold temporal and spiritual powers – something which was not uncommon in early Japanese History.
In time, shamanistic and animistic beliefs have come to be included in later Shintoist and Buddhist traditions. The same things happened to their practitioners, with women shaman slowly becoming miko (shrine maiden). It’s more than likely that having shaman serving as miko was for the ruling class a way of controlling their political, social and religious power.
Not all all shamans where miko and not all miko were shamans, but links between the two were (and still are) not unusual.
Sacred stones, trees etc are very common in Japan. Sakaki leaves are for example still used today for shinto rituals. Other sacred objects (yorishiro) are marked using flax/straw and paper ropes called shimenawa.
Meditation under a waterfall (takigyo) or in rivers (mizugyo) is quite common in Asia. In Japan, it is now mostly associated with shugendo (mountain asceticism) which mixes buddhist, shintoist and animist rituals (as often in Japanese syncretic religion, there are no clear limits and traditions intertwine).
Running water is, in Japan as in many other countries, a way of purifying oneself (in shinto, it’s part of misogi–harae rituals): basically, if you’re clean, your soul is clean. For buddhists, such ascetic meditation is supposed to help you reach Enlightenment by fighting and raise yourself… above your inner beasts.