Rainbows In Japanese Culture- their connection to bridges – and Mt. Tsukuba
By Avi Landau
The first thing I usually do when I manage to get up in the morning is have a look out of the small window which faces north out of my bedroom. Doing so actually gives me the illusion that there is nothing but NATURE between my house and Mt Tsukuba, as still undeveloped wildlands and woods stretch out for a kilometer or two (obscuring any signs of civilization which lay behind them) with the familiar, semi-crushed M figure of the mountain looming large over the tree-tops. In this way, I can observe and enjoy the subtle changes which unfold EVERY DAY, as certain plants fade away and others take their place.
Yesterday, after a night of heavy rain, I pulled back the curtain expecting to have a further (and dampened) look at Tsukuba’s descent into the dried out browns and straw yellows of December. Instead, what I saw had me calling out “Come quick, and look!” At the same moment, the phone rang. It was a friend saying, “Look towards the mountain! It’s a rainbow!” After saying thanks (for telling me what I had already known), the phone rang again, with the same news! Surely, few natural phenomena can bring such a thrill!
We savoured the spectacle for the few minutes that it lasted, and I then set out for work with the feeling that this would be a special day. I also couldn’t stop thinking about rainbows, or as they are called in Japanese NIJI (虹）, and how until modern science came along to finally (and de-mystifyingly) explain their occurrence, they were the true stuff of myth, with the various cultures and religions of the world each offering their own unique answer to the question: Why are there rainbows?
The Japanese traditionally associate rainbows with bridges (now you know why the famous Rainbow Bridge is named as it is ). In the KOJIKI, Japan’s oldest (8th century) surviving text which recounts its creation myths in an archaic Sino-Japanese, we are told of how the Gods brought into existence a divine couple (Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto) who were called upon to create the LAND. For this they used a special rod called a HOKO (this is what the long poles featured on the floats of the famous festival in Kyoto are called) with which they stirred the sea while standing on a heavenly bridge called AME NO UKI HASHI, thus creating Terra-Firma. The Japanese have traditionally believed that rainbows were this celestial bridge.
Thus the scene of a rainbow over Mt. Tsukuba has a special significance, as it is Izanagi and Izanami who are enshrined on its twin peaks.
Interestingly, a sacred bridge of rare design ( though arc-shaped of course) can be seen within the precincts of the Mt Tsukuba Shrine. This bridge is opened two times a year ( and can be crossed by the general public) during the Onzagawari Festival, which is held in spring and autumn. It is believed that the present festival is a remnant of the ancient KAGAI Festival which was also held in those seasons and is believed to have been an important fertility rite, perhaps involving sexual activity engaged in by anyone who attended ( all we know about the KAGAI, or UTAGAKI, as it is also known, is what can be put together from references to it in the Manyoshu, and the Hitachi no Fu-doki- the ancient chronicles of this part of Japan).
It seems perfectly natural then that an arced bridge, representing the AME NO UKI HASHI (and thus the creation of the word) should play an important role in the descendant of this ancient KAGAI fertility rite.
I have not found any evidence for this yet, but think about all the old bridges you’ve seen at shrines around Japan. In fact have a look at any of the bridges shown in old wood-block prints. They are arc shaped, like rainbows.
Rainbows can be seen any time of year, but in Japan are most likely to appear in the summer rainy season.
As you can imagine, there are numerous poems (dating back to the MANYOSHU) which try to capture the WONDER that one senses when seeing these tantalizingly ephemeral colored arches.
And……Cherry Blossoms Gone Crazy!
We usually depend on nature to give us a sense of order- snow in winter, colorful foliage in autumn, and cherry blossoms in spring.
The other day, however(December 4th, 2010 to be exact), I happened to be in the part of Tsukuba City once known as Yatabe Town. I spotted a shrine that I had never visited before and negotiated the steep stone staircase up to its precints. It was an Atago Jinja shrine ( the type which is prayed to to prevent fires from breaking out), and it was surrounded by grand old trees which drew my attention. When I got back onto the main worshipper`s path which leads to the Shrines Main Hall something caught my eye. At first I though that maybe there were feathers stuck onto the cherry trees which lined the path. My mind was just not prepared to accept what was really adorning the branches- cherry blossoms in full moon!