Itako or ichiko

Itako or ichiko
   Blind women shamans or spirit-mediums traditionally found in the north-east of Japan (Aomori, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi), though in modern times they are found working in urban areas throughout Japan as independent religious specialists. The role of itako was for centuries one of the few occupations open to girls born blind. The itako's art is learned through apprenticeship to a practising itako and starts before the age of puberty. Training includes the memorisation of sacred texts and prayers, severe asceticism including suigyo (water-austerities) in the freezing winter (see Misogi) and fasting. Such extreme practices are intended to lead to the acquisition of spiritual power. In a dramatic initiation ceremony the young woman is possessed by and then 'married' to a kami who becomes her tutelary spirit (she may later marry a husband in the ordinary way). Once initiated she acquires the rosary, musical instrument etc. with which she will summon the spirits at will in the future. Her dual functions then are to summon kami (kami-oroshi, literally 'bringing down kami') and to summon ghosts or ancestral spirits (hotoke-oroshi), passing on their utterances (kuchiyose) as advice to the living. The dual skills of the itako therefore transcend institutional distinctions between 'Shinto' and 'Buddhism'. Although most itako have since the Meiji period operated independently of Shinto shrines, their function of calling down the kami is implicitly symbolised and sometimes performed in shrines e.g. in Miyagi prefecture at new year (shogatsu) to divine the fortunes of the local community as well as the coming year's harvest. The itako's role as mediator or bridge between the world of the kami or spirits and the community echo what may once have been a function of the shrine miko, whose role is now largely ceremonial. There is a celebrated ritual gathering (Osore-zan taisai) of itako each July (20-24) set against the the wild and desolate landscape of Mt. Osore, Aomori and linked to the Soto zen temple of Entsu ji. Here most of the requests put to the itako from the tens of thousands of visitors from all over Japan are for contact with hotoke, spirits of dead relatives.

A Popular Dictionary of Shinto. .

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