by Yukio Sakaguchi
translated by Alexander Ewing
The following is a translation of an article by missing journalist Yukio Sakaguchi, who set off on holiday with his twin daughters four years ago and has not been seen since. It is the wish of his wife Yoko that his final article be published; she has resigned herself to the worst, and fearing that any unfinished work will tether her husband’s soul to this mortal coil, she has requested that it be translated and published. While this may seem a tad eccentric, I would like to add that Mrs Sakaguchi has become preoccupied with the occult in the wake of her family’s disappearance, consulting with mediums and psychics on a regular basis. I fear that she is clinging to a belief in the supernatural in order to cope with her loss, and would encourage the reader not to judge her too harshly, but rather show her some sympathy and enjoy her husband’s last article – a travel piece concerning the town of Kamikado, a small village in the northern provinces.
It should be noted that Kamikado when written in Japanese uses the Chinese characters for ‘God’ and ‘gate’, rendering it The Divine Gate, or The God Gate in English.
While Sakaguchi’s praise for Kamikado may verge on hyperbolic, I hope that this translation allows you to experience what is presumably one of the last joys of his life, and urge you to consider visiting Kamikado for yourselves.
The town of Kamikado, nestled in the sleepy forests of the northern province of Aomori, is the perfect place to holiday; boasting a sub-tropical climate, spectacular views and a rich cultural history, it is easy to see why more and more tourists are discovering the hidden gem that is Kamikado.
Despite its position at the northern tip of the main Japanese island of Honshu, where one can find the more conventional holiday destinations of Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, and the digital metropolis of Tokyo, Kamikado does not suffer from the same chilling temperatures as other towns in the region. In fact, Kamikado is famous for its uncannily warm climate, being regarded as an oasis of tropical weather in the otherwise frigid North; lush, verdant plants grow to twice the size they do anywhere else and inexplicably keep their leaves in the winter. When the sun sets, Kamikado is still brightly-lit, with a great abundance of fireflies populating the area. While many go to the river to watch the fireflies dance above the water, the best place for firefly viewing is the town’s temple, which glows brighter than all the tasteless lights of Las Vegas – wreathed in crawling, incandescent insects.
Some readers may be familiar with the town due to a small incident some years back where a conglomerate attempted to buy land in Kamikado in order to market its remarkably crisp, refreshing water, which is supplied by a spring known as Jūtōtaki (Translator’s note: Beast Head Falls). While normally a town as small as Kamikado, with a population of approximately one thousand, would be overjoyed at the monetary boon that such a venture would offer them, local folklore surrounding the waterfall appears to have been the reason for the fierce resistance of the residents, leading to a successful petition against the programme.
Indeed, as its name suggests, Kamikado is an extremely spiritual town devoted to its patron deity, a mysterious God known as Kamigoe (Translator’s note: The Divine Voice). According to legend, Kamikado was once beset by a terrible and ancient beast called the Mushokuchū (Translator’s note: Dream-Eating Insect). This terrible monster is said to have come to the town in the dead of night to feast on the souls of sleeping residents, turning them into mentally retarded vegetables. One night, Kamigoe descended and spoke to a hero, whose name is not recorded, and told him the secret of the Mushokuchū’s destruction. The hero cut off the Mushokuchū’s head, releasing the recently-devoured souls and restoring some of the citizens to normal. However, a great many souls had already been digested by the monster. Kamigoe in his great benevolence transformed the head of the Mushokuchū into a spring whose flow formed a river of pure, clean water in a matter of minutes. The permanently brain-dead citizens were then taken to the river and drowned. Out of pity, Kamigoe turned the particles of their souls, now part of the Mushokuchū’s body, into fireflies.
While this legend may serve primarily to explain the formation of the Jūtōtaki spring, whose flow has now formed a waterfall and small basin before the spread of the river, as well as the inordinate amount of fireflies to be found in Kamikado, the locals still conduct an ancient ritual in reverence of the God Kamigoe. This ritual is performed every four years – despite the fact that four is an ominous number for we Japanese (Translator’s note: 4 in Japanese has the same pronunciation as ‘death’, and is often regarded as equivalent to the Western concept of ‘unlucky 13’) – and is similar in nature to himatsuri fire festivals.
At four in the morning at the beginning of April, the locals gather at the shrine to Kamigoe, lit as always by multitudes of fireflies. There ceremonial fires are lit to the drone of the priests chanting an unintelligible sutra, presumably drawn from the Shingon tradition of Buddhism. The shrine itself, however, is most ancient, and as such its traditions are largely Shinto, including the use of masks and ritual dance. The locals don masks not unlike those used in the Noh; smooth, glossy wood lacking in any but the most subtle expressions, informed by slight inclinations of the head. They then take up blazing torches and begin the ritual dance – an animal affair, a primal example of the art of nihonbuyo. The young men perform a separate function, performing naked an unimaginably brutal dance involving swords: blades swirl like ribbons, catching the ruddy light of the fires as well as the sharper sparks of the fireflies; the men dance in circles, muscles taught, skin slick with sweat from the heat of the night. The priests continue their locust-drone. The fires rise.
When visiting Kamikado, one should endeavour to plan so as to witness this most auspicious of sights. Truly, at this festival one can see prime examples of Japanese culture in the raw. That is not to say, of course, that there is no refinement to this ritual. On the contrary, the bloody dance of the muscular young men is merely a precursor, an aperitif; through the throng of blurring bodies and spiralling flames, the mothers of the town lead a pair of twins. For this, only monozygotic twins will do. They must be like mirrors; indistinguishable from each other in their white ritual robes. The twins take their positions in the middle of the throng and are anointed with a special salve made of deer blood and fireflies. At this point, the head priest will stand forward and shout the peculiar mantra of the shrine, as essential to Kamikado as the nianfo is to Pure Land Buddhists – namu kamigoe sowataya.
The effect is instantaneous. Silence. Stasis. Not a hair rises, not a wing shifts on the fireflies. There is only hush. The men stop mid-dance, the fires do not crackle, do not stir. Then it comes, like thunder but through the ground as well as the sky, through bone and sinew, resounding in the depths of marrow. The effect is indescribable. To try and put it into words would be to offend Kamigoe. For it is indeed the voice of the God that has been summoned. To be present at the ritual is to be at one with the divine, with the eternal Kamigoe. How long this lasts is impossible to say. From the outside, perhaps a fraction of a second. To those in the thrall of divine communion, maybe decades, centuries. And when the ritual is complete, an echo of the sound will exist forever within the listener – a hum, a soft voice whispering: namu kamigoe sowataya namu kamigoe sowataya namu kamigoe sowataya…
(Translator’s note: At this point, Sakaguchi merely writes this phrase for several pages, until he presumably ran out of paper.)
We have enclosed a note sent to us by Mr Ewing some years after his translation of Yukio Sakaguchi’s article. The postmark indicates that it was sent from Aomori prefecture in mid-May. Police conducting the investigation into Mr Ewing’s disappearance discovered that it was not sent to us by Mr Ewing himself, but by a woman who has as yet remained undiscovered. She was last seen in a post-office in the city of Hirakawa with young twin girls. If you have any information regarding this letter, or if you know the woman who sent it to us, please contact the authorities immediately.
Editor in Chief
Intrigued by Sakaguchi’s description of the esoteric ritual, I travelled to Kamikado in order to witness it for myself. I write this the morning after, having not slept, too afraid to sleep. I can still hear the monstrous roar of Kamigoe, still feel the heat of the flames, the sting of sweat in my eyes.
Sakaguchi left out some vital information. There is a second ritual performed after the first ecstatic communion with Kamigoe. The priests move like robots, like zombies, their mouths open, drool dribbling down, the horrible, rapturous voice of Kamigoe emitting from their static vocal cords. It does not speak in words, but rather in a droning buzz, and he instructs them in their second task, known as The Making of Fireflies.
Sakaguchi was not lying when he said that Kamigoe’s voice lingers, commanding one with his mantra, the meaning of which was unclear to me before, but now after the ritual is beginning to take on meaning.
The voice of Kamigoe is in my head, rolling and thundering, growing louder by the second. But there is another sound there; one that Sakaguchi did not include in his missive – the screams of the twins as the fireflies are made.
namu kamigoe sowataya namu kamigoe sowataya
Paul McQuade was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but now lives in Tokyo where he reads, writes and teaches. Occasionally he survives earthquakes. His work has most recently been featured in Fractured West, Phantom Kangaroo, and Goblin Fruit, and is forthcoming on Specter Magazine. He has a tattoo of a keyhole on right wrist and a penchant for Hendrick’s gin. http://paulmcquade.com/ & https://twitter.com/#!/pgmcq