In Japan, many consider birds messengers of the gods. They fly between the world of the living and the heavens, carrying our prayers and dreams on their wings. The entrance to a Shinto shrine is marked by a large gate known as a torii, which literally translates “bird exists” and is more smoothly translated “bird perch.” The torii demarks the entrance to a sacred space, separating the profane from the pure. Torii are typically simple structures with two large upright pillars connected by one or two horizontal planks. They are made of rough wood, smooth wood, painted wood, and these days often concrete.
Other iconography, images, and architectural structures also focus on the vertical pillar or hashira extending from the foundations upon which we stand into the realm beyond our reach. In traditional (“vernacular”) Japanese houses, the central pillar is known as the Daikoku-bashira and believed to house the god Daikoku. One of the seven gods of good fortune, Daikoku is associated with the kitchen or hearth of a home. The Daikoku-bashira separates the public-facing part of the house from the private, inner regions. The pillar takes on more than a structural function and is believed to represent the heart of the family and the pride of the patriarch.
In the myths of Japanese origins there is a pillar that extends between the heavens and the lands that the god Izanagi creates when the brine from the tip of his spear coagulates and forms islands. He and the female deity, Izanami, shimmy down this pillar to walk about the lands below. And they circle the pillar in courtship before they launch into their production of the natural world.
Pillars are also an important feature of the noh stage. Because noh was once performed outdoors on stages set up at Shinto shrines, modern day theaters recreate the look. Hovering over the noh stage, now completely contained in an elegant indoor space, is a thatched roof supported by three free-standing pillars. The pillars are structural but also serve as important markers in stage directions. The masked actor, for whom visibility is limited, depends on the pillars as critical measures of placement and space. Equally significant in demarking space is the painting of the Yōgō Pine that invariably adorns the back of the stage. The pine, like the torii, suggests the conduit between the world of the spirits and the everyday world before the stage. In fact, a performance of noh is offered, not for the audience of mortals but for the gods.
In an earlier post I described the way my memories of birds, and more particularly pigeons, brought me back to Kyoto. Not my favorites among birds, even so, those neighborhood pigeons opened the door that would lead me into the novel I was then writing, the novel that would become The Kimono Tattoo. I like thinking of birds as representing this passage to other worlds.
Sitting in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, watching birds soaring overhead and butterflies flitting over my laundry, I was transported through time and space until I returned to Kyoto, to a place where I was able to visualize the entrance to my story. Not only did the birds, and the memories of earlier birds, carry me across borders, they also transported me into an imaginary realm where a translator I had yet to name began to emerge from the clouds of dream and past experiences and take charge of her story.
Featured photo (top) by Kouji Tsuru on Unsplash
Fascinating essay on torii and more broadly, pillars in Japan. Now I understand the importance of the pillars on the Noh stage. The references to birds flying between worlds reminds me of Kimono Tattoo and the way your protagonist Ruth finds herself pulled into different worlds. Jan