Japan from the inside out

Filthiness is next to godliness

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 3, 2012

KODANSHA’S Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan comes straight to the point:

“The concepts of clean and unclean, pure and impure, have been of cultural and social significance in Japan from ancient times to the present.”

These concepts are an integral part of the proto-religion of Shinto, as writings dating from as early as the 10th century reveal. Purification rituals are an essential and frequent activity in Shinto, so the shrines must also be clean and pure.

Most of them, anyway.

The Kabushima shrine in Hachinohe, Aomori, gets downright filthy from February to August. That’s because it’s located on the top of a hill which is one of the primary breeding grounds in Japan for the black-tailed gull. It looks nice and clean when seen from a distance, as in the above photo. But a clearer picture emerges when it’s viewed up close.

Gulls are good at spotting fish schools, and that makes it easier for the community fisherfolk to practice peaceful coexistence. That still requires some patience, however, because an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 gulls wing it this way every year. Notice the umbrella stand at the base of the torii in the photo. They’re provided for human visitors to use, and that’s not because it rains frequently. Reports say that the walkway and stairs can get so slippery, it’s difficult to maintain your footing.

Did the people who built the shrine not know of the potential problems with the local fauna? According to legend, it was established in 1269. The tutelary deities are Tagorihime, Ichikishimahime, and Tagitsuhime, three female kami created by the sun goddess Amaterasu. They were sea goddesses who protected ocean-going traffic. Did the gulls start coming sometime after the 13th century, or did the shrine’s founders not care?

Then again, birdwatchers who like to watch gulls like to visit for that reason. Nowhere else in Japan can these birds be observed at such close range. They’re very accustomed to people — they probably think they’re being magnanimous with the human interlopers — and supposedly have a taste for Kappa Ebisen. That’s a shrimp-flavored snack shaped like a French fry with the consistency of a solid potato chip.

The name Kabushima comes from the combination of kabu, the name for the rapeseed plant in the local dialect, and shima, or island. During the season, the hills are alive with gulls and rapeseed blossoms. It was originally an island, too, until the Navy connected it to the mainland by landfill in 1942.

Here’s a Youtube. Give Hitchcock credit for keeping his lens clean.

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