Back when I found out I was going to live in Matsue, I read eight of Lafcadio Hearn‘s books in the span of a month to know about the city as he observed it back in the Meiji period. Eight books was a bit excessive. However, this passage from “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (available for free here on the Gutenberg Project) stuck out and stuck with me:
But of all places, Kaka-ura! Assuredly I must go to Kaka. Few pilgrims go thither by sea, and boatmen are forbidden to go there if there be even wind enough ‘to move three hairs.’ So that whosoever wishes to visit Kaka must either wait for a period of dead calm—very rare upon the coast of the Japanese Sea—or journey thereunto by land; and by land the way is difficult and wearisome. But I must see Kaka. For at Kaka, in a great cavern by the sea, there is a famous Jizo of stone; and each night, it is said, the ghosts of little children climb to the high cavern and pile up before the statue small heaps of pebbles; and every morning, in the soft sand, there may be seen the fresh prints of tiny naked feet, the feet of the infant ghosts. It is also said that in the cavern there is a rock out of which comes a stream of milk, as from a woman’s breast; and the white stream flows for ever, and the phantom children drink of it. Pilgrims bring with them gifts of small straw sandals—the zori that children wear—and leave them before the cavern, that the feet of the little ghosts may not be wounded by the sharp rocks. And the pilgrim treads with caution, lest he should overturn any of the many heaps of stones; for if this be done the children cry.
(Lafcadio Hearn, 1894)
There are two famous caves in Kaka-no-Kukedo, the caves of Kaka. The more broadly advertised one is the “Shin-Kukedo” (“new cave,” or a pun on “cave of the god”), which is where the legend of Sada-no-Okami’s birth took place. The less advertised but nonetheless very well know cave is the “Kyu-Kudedo” (“old cave”), as Hearn described. Today, it is still almost exactly as Hearn described. He is one of many writers who have been attracted to these caves.
This description left such an impression on me that as soon as I heard it still existed, I made it my goal to take the boat tour out to see it. The 50-minute tour runs eight times a day March through November, however, just as in Hearn’s day, it can easily be cancelled if it’s too windy. Going far out to sea, or trying to navigate through the cave, is difficult in rough waters.
I had to try a lot longer than Hearn did to finally make this trip.
Every time I’d make plans with my friends, something would fall through. Either we didn’t plan in time to make it before the end of the season, or there was suddenly pouring rain the day we decided to go, or someone would suddenly fall ill. A few friends who had originally volunteered to go later admitted that they were afraid to go because they might see a ghost there. With so many things out of my control keeping me from getting there, it was tempting to think that maybe it really was haunted.
At last, towards the end of last year’s season, the tour finally (barely) worked out! Sort of… the waves were too high to do the full tour, so we had a slight discount. I was not going to let that chance slip me by, though, so I did the partial tour.
It departs from Marine Plaza in northern Matsue, near an active fishing port and a popular camping island called Katsurajima.
The first stop is the old cave, where the spirits of departed children are said to be hard at work. The boat stops a little ways away, and those who wish to see it can go down a long tunnel with alcoves filled with Jizo statues (at which, the tour operators leave incense while passengers are look around), and then walk around the cave. Jizo is a Buddha of mercy often thought of as a patron of children.
The waves only reach so far inside, and the cave goes fairly deep, beyond where the light can reach. As far as my eyes could make out, the countless little towers of rocks and Jizo statues and offerings went as far back as there was space to put them. A bat flapped around towards the interior parts of cave, and all was quiet.
For as many tries as it had taken me to observe this place, there were many, many grieving parents from who knows how far who had come here to leave a gift for their child, and perhaps construct a tower of rocks to spare them a bit of labor. Among the Jizo statues, there were recent, old, and likely many decades worth of perserved silk flowers, origami cranes, juice boxes and bottles of tea and cans of soda, shoes, toys, and other personal belongings. Although I can see why others would see it that way, I did not find this place creepy. However, there was a weight of sadness and sympathy coupled with a curious wonder at how far these parents had come out of their way to give their children whatever comfort they could.
After that, we went back through the tunnel and to the boat to continue on to a place of new life. Recorded in the 8th century Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki as the birthplace of Sada-no-Okami, primary deity at the influential Sada Shrine, it is only accessible by boat.
However, if the waves are too high, it’s not accessible at all. I had to settle for seeing the outside and imagining the supposedly wonderous view of light from the inside. It seems the best time of year to go is during a short period of time in midsummer when there are special sunrise tours to see the sun rise through the view of the hole. I guess it’s hard to say I did the tour when I only got to see the cave from outside. And apparently this year they’ve started offering an 80-minute tour of several other caves in the area, too! Maybe if I had just been a little more patient…
But hey, watching the waves crash against the rocks was neat and all.
I even got a good view of Mato-jima, the “target island” Baby Sada practiced his archery on!
And riding the waves out there was fun!
While this is the main stage of this legend, there is a spot further inland that I’ll introduce next time.