By Avi Landau
Long before Japan was exporting Toyotas and Sonys, its most important foreign exchange earner was silk. Until about fifty years ago most farmers in the Kanto area supplemented their incomes by raising silk worms. Ten years ago I was still able to find the huts where these plump caterpillars were grown and the sound of their loud munching on mulberry leaves still rings in my ears whenever I think about the times I came upon them. Now, even the mulberry groves which were a typical part of the Tsukuba landscape have all but disappeared.
Last year on March 28th, I braved thunder and lightning to negotiate the steps up to the Kokage-San Shrine and join the priests and 3 older, local gentlemen to give offerings for abundant rice crops and silk production and to think back nostalgically upon the heyday of Japan’s fling with the worms and their precious cocoons.
Kokage-San Shrine is yet another Tsukuba superlative. It is the oldest shrine in Japan dedicated exclusively to sericulture and once attracted thousands of worshipers, many from the textile towns of Nagano, Gunma and Yamanashi. Located in the beautifully rustic Kangori (神郡) district of Tsukuba, the shrine is reached by ascending ancient and uneven stone steps through an even more ancient sacred grove.
It is said that the sea once reached this site and according to local legend in days long past an Indian princess who had set sail in the long journey to Japan was dead upon arrival. Her ship was made of mulberry wood, and the locals imagined that she had come from a land of abundant silkworms. They built a casket for her and filled it with mulberry leaves. To the right of the shrines main hall, under an enclosure I found an undated E-ma painting, donated by someone from Nagano Prefecture, depicting this scene.
I had a chance to chat with the Kanshushis (Shinto priests) as they were setting up the offerings on the altar. They were actually sent by The Tsukuba-San Shrine, as the Kokage Shrine has nearly been forgotten with the pricipitous decline in sericulture in Japan over the past few decades. Now there are priests at the shrine only twice a year, March 28th for the spring offerings, and then November 23rd for the shrine’s festival.
They explained to me how special the silkworms (kaiko) were to the Japanese, as they were the only domestic animal actually raised in people’s homes. They are also the only animals which normally are referred to using an honorific – O Kaiko-Sama, though the local
people usual shorten this to O Ko-Sama.
As the time came to commence the ceremony only three old men had battled the stairs and settled inside the shrine for the ceremony.
This being a mere shadow of the crowds which would have been there in former days. First, a purification rite was carried out, and then offerings of cocoons, fruit, and sacred sakaki leaves were made. O-miki (sake) was then drunk, and commemorative towels given to the few of us present.
After the ceremony, we clambered down the steps as the local men reminisced about the shrines glory days. Now the wooden buildings which would have been used by numerous vendors on this day were virtually falling apart ( one has actually collapsed!). One man mentioned that a movie had been shot on this staircase, though he could not recall the title ( it was the unwatchable first directorial effort by actor Yakusho Koji- Gama no Abura). Another man mentioned how just the other day the Emperor and Emperess performed a similar ritual for silkworms, which he had seen broadcast on TV (the Imperial Couple raises rice and silkworms for ritual purposes).
We reached the bottom of the stairway huffing and puffing. We then entered the dilapidated old shop which once served the throngs of pilgrims who would flock here. They still sold a special souvenir — Kokage Yo-kan (beanpaste). As a breeze entered the shop it gently lifted the paper displaying the price of the yokan. I noticed that for that day they had raised the price by 100 yen, taking advantage of the ceremony. Unfortunately, only 3 locals and I had shown up. Times change, things change, and this ancient rite is certainly hanging on by a VERY thin thread.