immortal wishes:
labor and transcendence
on a Japanese sacred mountain

Ellen Schattschneider

Duke University Press (2003)


Teaching Resources

Itako spirit mediums

(see Immortal Wishes, pp. 30-32)

Itako, usually referred to as blind female shamans, are the best known spirit mediums of northern Tohoku. Itako in Aomori prefecture belong to an overarching association. They are renown for their capacity to speak for the dead, through a ritual process known as "kuchiyose." Many itako deploy the ritual figurines known as oshirasama in this process, and at times recite the mythic chant, the oshirasaimon.

The best known annual gatherings of itako are at Osorezan on the Shimokita pensinsula and at Kawakura Sainokawara in Nakasato-Kanagi. During these annual festivals, thousands of visitors hold brief consultation sessions with itako. Some itako have formal affiliations with other Buddhist temples and establishments in the region.

In the Tsugaru region, itako are often contrasted with "kamisama" spirit mediums, who do not belong to an overarching association. Most itako undergo spiritual training from an early age, while many kamisama are not called to mediumship until middle-age, often through a serious illness or crisis. Unlike kamisama, itako tend not to engage in healing rituals (although there are significant exceptions). In practice, there is a good deal of overlap between "itako" and "kamisama" mediumship, and at times individual practioners have moved from one status to another.

Some itako do honor the divinities of Akakura, and under ascetic discipline and ritual practice on the mountain slopes. However, there are no itako directly involved with Akakura Mountain shrine, where spirit mediums identify themselves as "kamisama."



Internet Resources on Itako


The Itako--a Spiritual Occupation for Blind Japanese Girls (C. Edwin Vaughan, The Braille Monitor, May 2002)

A brief summary of Carmen Blacker's discussion of itako in her, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, 2nd, London: Allen and Unwin, 1986. (or read the book's eighth chapter, "The Blind Medium")

Aomori Prefecture: National Intangible Culture Treasure: Itako

Itako no Kuchiyose


Website developed by Ellen Schattschneider (Brandeis University)