Unable to go directly to Minakami Village, we first stopped at a neighbouring village. As expected, the villagers' mouths were shut tight about Minakami Village.
"You want to go to that village? You shouldn't do that right now," warned an old lady at a residence where we had ended up taking tea. Right now? Did that mean it would have been fine at some other time? But the lady would speak no more of it. After giving thanks and leaving the house, I noticed the villagers looking at us as though we were something unpleasant. This was clearly different from how things had been immediately after entering the village. Feeling the curious stares surrounding us, we left the village. Soon afterwards, Munakata noticed a single child chasing after us. I crouched down and asked what was wrong, but was asked in return, "Are you going into the mountains?" I replied in the affirmative and, with a pale face, the child said to me, "You mustn't go into the mountains on the year of the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual. The demons will get you, mister."
I tried to ask what this meant, but the child fled back to the village. "'Crimson Sacrifice Ritual' is the name of a ceremony of Minakami Village, the place we're heading to," Munkata said. Once again, he told me what little of the ceremony he knew. The ceremony known as the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual is said to be held once every few decades (for reasons unknown, they are apparently also on occasion held a little early). Twins living in the village always participate as twin shrine maidens, and, if there are no female twins, sometimes males are used in their stead (in which case they are supposedly known as "altar twins). Though it is not directly related to the ritual, twins are born unusually often in this village. As I pondered over this, I was always drawn back to the "sacrifice" element. Does this indicate a human sacrifice? If the twins who are given the role of shrine maidens fulfil this duty, then their fate... Twins being crucial to the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual, and the constant birth of twins... Perhaps even life and death in Minakami Village are governed by some sort of "god" that is worshipped in the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual?
Now that I think about it, I have heard that twins are hereditary. If there are twins in a family, it seems as though the likelihood of more twins being born increases. In isolated mountain villages such as this one, when they do not associate with surrounding villages, it is common for repeated consanguineous marriages to take place amongst the villagers - perhaps this is why twins are so common?
A ceremony held once every few decades. A secret ritual, where all of those from surrounding villages asked about it turn away. That is where we are trying to get now.
After exiting a forest overgrown with dense foliage and following the mountain path, we came upon a beautiful stream. Proceeding further down the narrow game trail, the entrance to Minakami Village came into view. Passing by a dosojin in the image of twins and climbing a precipitous hill, we found ourselves in an open space. Munakata went on ahead.
"This place is called Misono Hill. See that pedestal in the centre? I believe that this is where the villagers gather at the time of the ceremony."
Yes, this would be just the right size for an assembly of villagers. The pedestal-like place was surrounded by stone columns and covered with shimenawa. Could this truly be the Gate to Hell? No - surely it wouldn't be so conspicuous. I looked around the area carefully. From the place called Misono Hill, we had an unbroken view of the village. There were four or five large houses, surrounded by smaller ones. The village was swathed in a thick fog, and I suspect that without a guide we should never have even made it there. Munakata left the hill and came to a stop in front of the large building that was immediately before us. I hurried after him. The building bore a nameplate reading "Osaka". Munakata stood before the entrance and called to its residents.
"Excuse me. I am Ryozo Munakata, a friend of Itsuki Tachibana. This is my teacher and researcher of folklore, Mr. Seijiro Makabe. We came here today to visit Itsuki..."
An old man came out of the house. The man, his face hidden behind a white beard, scrutinized us carefully.
"I will go and ask for the Kurosawa master's permission. Please wait a moment," the old man said, before slowly vanishing into the village.
"When you come to the village, you must go through the Osaka house or you won't be allowed in," Munakata said, setting down his luggage by his feet. The Osaka House was built so as to allow one to keep watch over the outside through the side of the entrance, which served as a latticed window. It felt as though they were constantly watching over those who tried to enter the village. Could it be that if you were unable to get permission, even after coming all this way you wouldn't be allowed in? Munakata and I sat around idly for a time while we waited for the old man to return, but the one who came to greet us was not the old man from earlier, but a man who introduced himself as a messenger of the Kurosawa family. It seemed as though we had been granted permission to enter the village after all. Following the man, we were guided to the largest house in the middle of the village.