As Japan's Mediums Die, Ancient Tradition Fades

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Its name means the Mountain of Horror, which seems an apt description for this sacred Buddhist site inside the crater of a dormant volcano. The weather-beaten temple here is surrounded by a lifeless lake and a wasteland of naked rock reeking of sulfur that conjures images of Buddhist hell.

But during the mountain’s twice annual religious festivals, visitors come by the busload to line up before a row of small tents in a corner of the temple. Within are the “itako” — elderly, often blind women who hold séance-like ceremonies that customers hope will allow them to commune with spirits of the dead.

These spiritual mediums seem out of place in a hyper-modern nation better known for bullet trains and hybrid cars. Found only in peripheral areas like this volcano on the far northern tip of Japan’s main island, and only dimly known to most Japanese, the itako are among the last remaining adherents to ancient shamanistic beliefs that predate Buddhism and modern forms of Shintoism, Japan’s two main religions, historians say.

They have survived government efforts to stamp them out, as well as the continuing disdain of many Japanese, who look down on them as charlatans who trade in superstition. Even the deputy abbot at Bodai-ji, Mount Osore’s temple, said the itako were not connected to the temple, which he said only tolerates their presence.

Now, however, even these last remaining itako are vanishing. Only four graying itako appeared at Mt. Osore’s weeklong summer festival this year, three having died of old age in the last year. Worse, the only practicing medium younger than retirement age — 40-year-old Keiko Himukai, known among believers as the last itako — stopped coming this year for health reasons...

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