According to myth, Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and her brother, Tsukiyomi, the Moon God, once soared across the sky together. After her brother killed another goddess in a fit of rage, Amaterasu, so disgusted by the act, chose never to be seen again with her sibling. Thus day and night were born.
Perhaps this myth was born during an eclipse much like the one we saw on May 21. Perhaps the sun goddess and her brother put aside their differences once every so often. Amaterasu was also sister to Susanowa, the god of storms, who was prone to fits of violence and anger.
Amaterasu, on the other hand, was renowned for her compassion and wisdom. She was an accomplished weaver, and it is from her that all of Japan’s fine textiles were born. Susanowa, jealous of his sister, flew into a rage. He slew a young horse that was sacred to her, and hurled the carcass into her weaving room, destroying looms and killing one of Amaterasu’s attendants.
Furious by this thoughtless act, Amaterasu hid in a cave, refusing to come out. The earth plunged into darkness, crops failed, and things generally fell apart.
Our heroine’s hiding place was found in southern Japan near Takachiho Town in Miyazaki Prefecture. The landscape in this part of Kyushu features lush greens, low peaked mountains, and a stunning gorge filled with waterfalls and some of the country’s most scenic shrines. The town is steeped in history. Takachiho Shrine was built more than 1,200 years ago. The giant surrounding cedars dwarf the pavilion, and it almost disappears in the shadows of the tall trees.
It is also a place of religious importance, with a number of stories related in one of Japan’s oldest books, “Nihongi” (Nihon-Shoki) set here.
Takachiho is the birthplace of one of Japan’s intangible cultural assets, yokagura or the “night dance.” These ancient Shinto dances are held nightly from the end of November through the beginning of February. Thirty-three dances are performed each evening in selected local homes.
Twenty-four yokagura preservation groups include about 480 dancers in total, called hoshadan, all members of the local community. Each of the 33 dances depicts a myth or legend, and four (the most popular) are played nightly at a playhouse in Takachiho Shrine.
One dance tells the story of the god, Tajikarao, listening outside the cave believing Amaterasu to be hiding inside. A second dance depicts the goddess Uzume, the goddess of mirth, performing a rather bawdy piece to lure the sun goddess out of the cave. Evidently it had the gods laughing so loudly, Amaterasu could not help but peek out at the merriment.
A third dance describes Tajikarao, renowned for his strength, seizing the goddess by the hand and pulling her out, before hurling the stone blocking the door all the way to Nagano.
An interesting aside: the stone was called togakushi, which literally means concealed or hidden door. The town of Togakushi lies just outside Nagano City where the stone is rumored to have landed.
The final dance, and possibly the funniest, tells the story of Izanagi and Izanami, the father and mother, not only of Amaterasu, but also of Japan. It depicts the creation of Japan, which seems to have occurred after or during a bout of drinking and lovemaking.
Around 10 kilometers outside of town, we find Ama-no-Iwato Shrine. Here we can view the cave in which Amaterasu remained hidden. Priests lead viewing parties at regular intervals from the western pavilion. After a quick blessing, we are taken on a short walk to view the cave on the other side of the small river. No photos allowed here.
From the western pavilion, we head east along a small path that follows the river. This leads to Ama-no-Yasugawara, a shrine housed in a small cavern. The gods gathered here to consult on how to get the sun goddess to emerge from her cave.
Here, people seeking good fortune have built small piles of stones. Rumor has it, if you knock down one pile, you need to replace it with two. It is a very scenic place and considered to be a place of great power.
Buses run regularly from Takachiho bus terminal to Iwato. Take the Miyako bus for 20 minutes, get off at Iwato, and from there it is a 15-minute walk to the shrine.
No power spot is complete without negative ions to soak up, and the waterfalls in the gorge do their part.
Takachiho-kyo (Gorge), near Takachiho Shrine, is lined with black lava walls that wrap themselves around the Gokase River. In summer the surrounding green flora offsets the black walls, and the almost aqua blue waters of the slow-moving river are picturesque. Here you can join the hordes and dip an oar in the water.
While Takachiho can be visited all year around, it especially makes a refreshing retreat in summer amidst the lush green and refreshing coolness of the nature-filled shrines.
While you are there, take the time to track down some Chicken Nan-Ban, a local fried chicken dish with a sweet-and-sour-like sauce. It is delicious.
So what of our heroine? Fortunately for us, the sun shines (somewhere) daily, so as you can guess, the goddess was finally lured out of the cave.
It was Uzume, the goddess of mirth, who finally coaxed her out. As depicted in the dance, Uzume danced a jig that left little to the imagination. This had the gods in hysterics, and Amaterasu succumbed to her curiosity and peaked outside of the cave. Unbeknownst to her, Uzume had hung a mirror outside the cave, and the unsuspecting sun goddess thought she was eyeballing her replacement. She stepped out further to confirm her suspicions, when Tajikarao seized her hand and pulled her out of the cave completely. He then hurled the stone as far away as Nagano (1,200 kilometers east), so Amaterasu could not hide herself again.
The story carries significant importance in Japan, as the sun goddess is considered a direct ancestor of the emperor’s family. It also serves as a reminder not to take anything for granted, because you just never know when the siblings may quarrel again.
To make the most of the town and enjoy it fully, it is best to plan for at least an over-night trip. The night dance at the Takachiho Shrine is a must and, during the summer (July/August), the gorge is lit up. At the very least, it is a great place to relax and walk where the gods have walked.
Getting There: While Takachiho is in Miyazaki Prefecture, the quickest access is from Kumamoto (Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Prefecture). The Shinkansen now runs regularly from Osaka (¥18,020). Buses run from Kumamoto Station. Take the bus bound for Nobeoka and get off around three hours later in Takachiho. It costs about ¥2,300 one way, and you pay when you exit the bus. You can save a few hundred yen by catching the bus from Kumamoto central bus terminal and buying a return ticket (¥4,000) from one of the dispensers there.
Yokagura: Yokagura dances are performed nightly from 8-9 p.m. at Takachiho Shrine. Tickets can be purchased at the door for ¥500. Tel: (0982) 72-2413.
Places to Stay: Kaminoya is a Ryokan in the center of town. It has good reviews and also serves local beef at dinner, which is very tasty.
Activities: Aside from rowing in the gorge, Takachiho offers Japan’s southern-most ski grounds. Skiing is offered all year around, thanks to special “plasti snow.” Gokase Highland Ski Grounds, call: (0982) 83-2141.
Camping is available from April to November: Call (0982) 73-1212 for details.
Amaiwado Spa offers a nice place to take a soak at a reasonable price of ¥400. It is a 15-minute bus ride and a 10-15 minute walk. Take the Miyako bus for Amaiwado and get off at Amaiwado Onsen. Call (0982) 74-8288. Closed every third Thursday of the month, or the following day should a national holiday fall on the Thursday.