When we move into Underworld time, mythically the first thing to go is often the lights. This is a shadowed or even pitch-black zone of encounter. Nothing is how it seems on the surface of things. We have to get good with our ears. Our eyes alert us to the wider situation, but it’s our ears that alert us to the personal, the particular, the micro in the macro. This tends to be when the heart is alerted. Listening is the thing.
Martin Shaw, Courting the Wild Twin
At dusk, on foot, I arrive at a tiny village deep in the mountains. The place stands on a flooded wooden stage, submerged by the overflowing waters of a dammed river. At a corner, sitting cross-legged on a raised platform, a man dressed in an elaborate Kabuki costume makes the sound of waves by tilting a woven bamboo sieve filled with adzuki beans, back and forth, back and forth. I wade across to get closer, only to realise as I approach that it’s a ragged mountain crone who is holding the sieve above the water and stirring the beans with a pestle.
The crone had been in my thoughts a lot in recent months, especially after I turned 50 this winter. From Clarissa Pinkola Estés to Robert Bly and Marion Woodman, I had read nearly all there is to read about Baba Yaga and other fairy-tale crones.
But the beans, what could those beans be telling me?
Martin Shaw talks about ‘the depth intelligence that dreams offer, the great plunge into the soul’s magical disorientations – that’s how the earth tends to talk to us.’ What follows is that quest to listen, to track the imagination of wounded places by weaving together fragments of stories at dusk, back and forth in deep time.
Where did it first appear? The oldest archaeological evidence for the domesticated use of the tiny red-brownish adzuki bean (Vigna angularis) points to Jōmon Japan, sometime around 3000 BCE. But it’s only much later that adzuki will extend its vines to the realm of myth and become entwined with the crone. Folklorists trace the connection to some of the female food deities in the nation’s origin myths, such as Ōgetsuhime in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, compiled in 712 CE) and Ukemochinokami in Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720). From different parts of their bodies, both deities produce what came to be Japan’s staple crops: rice, millet, wheat, soybeans. Strikingly, adzuki grows from Ōgetsuhime’s nose and from Ukemochinokami’s genitals.
For most of Japan’s national history, adzuki beans remained a staple food, but only for the upper classes. This was likely due to the introduction of Buddhist doctrine, in the 7th century, and its ban on the consumption of four-legged animals. Even today, the bean remains ensconced in the refinements of the overculture. Anko, sweet bean paste, is an ingredient taken for granted in traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi). Boiled to a pulp and sweetened with sugar, it makes up an elegant little sweet to accompany a cup of grassy-flavoured green tea.
Things become more interesting with seki-han, glutinous rice steamed with adzuki, which gives it a reddish tint. In East Asia red is a colour believed to ward off evil spirits and usher in good luck. Hence seki-han has an apotropaic value and is cooked on special occasions throughout the year, such as births, birthdays, graduations, weddings and New Year celebrations.
To taste something wilder though, we have to leave behind the apotropaic and, with wolves and crones, enter the den of myth and folktale.
I once read that long ago when wolves still roamed Japan’s deep mountain forests (the yama), villagers would make an offering of seki-han every time wolf cubs were found. In the Japanese folk imagination, when wolves and humans met they would become girigitai, duty-bound to reciprocate any display of kindness received. If a wolf, in the guise of okuri-ōkami (escort wolf), followed you home along a dark mountain pass, when you arrived safely you should bow and call out ‘thanks for seeing me off!’. Once inside, you should wash your feet and leave out a morsel for the beast as a token of gratitude. A bowl of coarse adzuki porridge (azuki-gayu) would have been an auspicious choice. The wolf would bow repeatedly, in gratitude, before disappearing into the mountains. But should you breach the kinship, the beast would pounce with supernatural speed and gobble you up.
In the Japanese folk imagination, when wolves and humans met they would becomegirigitai, duty-bound to reciprocate any display of kindness received
Such is the fluid world of yōkai, the eerie, supernatural creatures and phenomena of Japanese folklore. Odd though this may sound to those we were raised listening to animal tales in the European tradition, Japan’s folktale animals – be they wolves, foxes, monkeys, racoons, snakes or spiders – are not animals per se. They’re shape-shifters and, in the mind of the mountain village, most of all they are fallen deities.
It was Kunio Yanagita, the doyen of Japanese folklore studies, who first suggested this fascinating theory about the origins of yōkai. He believed that mountain people were the descendants of the indigenous people who once thrived on the islands of Japan. Subjugated by the rice cultivators who arrived later, they escaped to the mountains. Their old gods, in hiding and under the pressure of new beliefs, fragmented and degraded into yōkai, unauthorised, unworshipped deities.
The mountain crone, yamauba, belongs to this danger-laden pantheon. In mediaeval Japan, she becomes associated with the spider, a yōkai believed to be the temporary manifestation of a water deity; in many folktales, a spider pulls humans to the depths of ponds and rivers with the robust webs she spins. As yamauba takes up the place of a water deity in her own right, she is pictured weaving on a loom by the water’s edge. She comes down from the mountain and moistens the fields; and yet, she also scoops up and eats the naive and the uninitiated. Especially prone to fall prey are those who get caught in the web of illusion of the physical world, incapable of seeing beyond the horizon into other dimensions of deep time.
The artist who first captured the enigmatic, non-dualistic essence of the mountain crone was the Noh playwright Zeami (1363-1443). In his play Yamanba (an alternative spelling for yamauba), she appears as a goddess, a demon, a mother and an entertainer; she’s enlightened, tormented, helpful and harmful all at once.
Zeami also understood well that yōkai like yamanba are first and foremost aural presences. Along much that unfolds in the Underworld, they are not to be seen but heard. I shall never forget a mesmerising performance of the play, a couple of years ago in Kyoto, in which the feel of the deep mountain valleys the crone yamanba roamed was entirely expressed in the dramaturgy of sound. And, interestingly, in Kabuki theatre stylised nature sounds signal the boundaries of liminal time and the seasons as well as the appearance of the supernatural yōkai. Before the advent of microphones and sound systems, whistles were used for birdsong, the backs of shells for frogs and horse hoofs, bead-encrusted fans for rain, drums for snow – and, yes, adzuki beans for waves and floods.
In landlocked Yamanashi where I now live, there’s a local yamauba tale called azuki-sogi baba, the adzuki-washing crone. I’ve often heard her from my sit spot at the edge of the village. Especially in late autumn, at dusk, the Shōrakujisōgo river running across pebbles and fallen leaves makes the incantatory sound of adzuki beans being washed. The story goes that, as the day darkens, the crone sits by a stream and, when an unwary traveller passes by, she rasps, ‘Shall I wash my beans, or shall I gobble you up?.’
The adzuki-washing crone appears not only at a liminal time and season but also in a liminal space. Where I live, this is the boundary that marks the end of the village and the entrance into the yama, the mountain forest flatland villagers fear the most and stay away from at all costs. Only in late autumn, when the overgrown brambles of summer are gone, does a small passage open up. I have to crouch down to pass though, because a huge, brightly coloured female Jorō spider is weaving her golden orb-shaped web across the entrance.
Meanwhile, curiosity and wonder spur me on to continue reading about yamauba and her cryptic beans. One day, I find this essay by a Japanese historian, Azumi Yamanouchi, advancing an intriguing hypothesis. Adzuki beans were once a staple food in the remote villages where swidden or shifting cultivation – yakihata – was practised, deep in the mountains where rice farming wasn’t possible. In olden times, a strange old woman washing adzuki by a stream was the aural shape that flatland villagers, awed by the shadowy yama, gave to their fear of wild watery mountain spirits.
Three days later, well before dawn, I’m on my way to a tiny village deep in the mountains of southwestern Yamanashi. Narada is known as the last place where yakihata cultivation was practised in the region. Although people are pitifully thin on the ground, a heart-warming collaborative effort between villagers, newcomers and artists has preserved local stories and dishes as well as given birth to a small resource centre housing an array of yakihata implements and workwear. I’m going to learn so much from them.
I start the day by immersing myself in the sulphurous waters of the village hot spring. As the winter sun rises, through the large misty windows of the bath I glimpse what appears to be the contours of a fairy-tale valley below, with a large river running through to form a luminescent green lake in the distance. To make sure, I wipe the glass, strain my eyes, sharpen my ears — and what reveals itself instead is a miniature Mordor of crawler excavators sprawling across the valley. Some are mining the nearly dry riverbed for gravel to feed Japan’s voracious construction industry; most, however, are now paving the way for the Maglev line, the bullet train that will levitate above the ground and connect Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 surreal minutes, its vast tunnels ripping through the mountains and rivers of the Southern Alps.
Straining further, I notice that the luminescent lake is actually an abyss surrounded by the concrete walls of a dam. Sixty years ago, I’ll learn, it was this very dam that put an end to the villagers’ livelihoods, so that Japan’s mammoth electric power companies could steal the fire to feed the insatiable hunger of its ever-expanding megalopolises.
And fire was indeed at the heart of village life, I’ll also learn. On the deep, steep mountains, villagers cleared and burned small plots of forest, and for several years rotated crops of millet, soybeans and adzuki beans, corn, and millet again. A long fallow period allowed the soil to recover, and then it was forest replanting once again. Sixteen years were required to complete a full cycle.
On the deep, steep mountains, villagers cleared and burned small plots of forest, and for several years rotated crops of millet, soybeans and adzuki beans, corn, and millet again.
This was a tightly-woven, cyclic world of gruelling labour, but also one of daily kinship with the land and its humble fruits, with other sentient beings and fallen deities – with time itself.
A sudden undertow brings me back to the bath. At the bottom of the pool, for a moment I see eerily outlined in a reflection a ragged old woman. Her smiling face dissolves into a flight of stairs leading to a door that shimmers as the flaming sunlight filters through the water. The scene reminds me of the Dragon Palace in Japan’s famed folktale. Urashima Tarō, a poor fisherman, is rewarded for rescuing a turtle and carried to a wondrous underwater castle. There, he’s wildly entertained by a yōkai Turtle Princess and her maids. But after three days, concerned by his ailing mother in the upper world, Urashima asks to return. When he finds himself lost, old, alone, unrecognisable amidst the ruins of his village above, the catch dawns on him. Down below, time flows differently and one day is a hundred years.
As night falls, I drive back to my rice-farming village and its own share of wounds and troubles, staggering community collapse and environmental degradation. But in lieu of the usual despondency, I find myself longing for a shared bowl of adzuki porridge around a welcoming village fire where local yōkai stories are told.
Who knows, all this may become possible again in a deeper time, when the folks dreaming us down below awaken from the sleep in which one day is a hundred years.
Meanwhile, listening is the thing.
In the past when yakihata cultivation was practised deep in the mountains of Japan’s Southern Alps in Yamanashi prefecture, a steaming bowl of adzuki porridge (azuki-gayu) embodied both the toil and the joy of community work in the fields. Here is a recipe from the region, with many thanks to Mr. Yūki Uehara, from Narada Village, for kindly sharing it with me.