The weather was beginning to grow humid in early June, and I put on a fencing mask for the first time in months. One of my naginata teachers dug up an old one to give me a few more chances to do full sparring practice before leaving Matsue, seeing as I usually had to hold back because I only had the other pieces of armor. Not only was I very inexperienced with actual sparring in my 40-something months of naginata practice, but I was distracted by upcoming plans. I had just gotten a new job offer the day before, and I was stressed about all the good-bye parties I would have to someone fit into the next two months, not to mention packing—
WHACK!!—a fierce 10-year-old made a strike at my inner shin, but as I was trying to move my leg out of the way, her bamboo blade struck my heel, and my first sparring practice in months was cut short by the big bump that immediately formed.
Less than two days later, I found myself hiking and kayaking around the Honjo district of Matsue, along the north banks of Lake Shinji. I had long since heard that Benkei was born there, and I had even longer since heard of Benkei. Benkei, as in “Yoshitsune and Benkei,” one of Japan’s ultimate dynamic duos of (semi-fictional?) history. This pair is immortalized in the tragic Tale of Heike, known for their battle exploits throughout Japan, and ultimate demise due to Yoshitsune being betrayed by his own brother. I had already heard of the “Standing death of Benkei,” as he died pelted with arrows while single-handed like defending the house his master at the Battle of Koromo River.
This strongman of Japanese culture is also the star of the phrase “Benkei no naki-tokoro” (“the spot that makes Benkei cry”), which is to say that because he doesn’t have muscle on the front of his shin, that’s his only weak spot, and it’s really weak. It’s essentially the same as the phrase “Achilles heel.” Speaking of heels, mine was a couple shades of purple. What a regrettable naginata sparring practice that had been, I wasn’t even focused on the moment, one of my last moments to be practicing naginata here in Matsue! And here I was, looking for material on the most famous warrior monk naginata wielder in history.
The Benkei lore takes a bit of a back seat to Kojiki mythology here in Matsue and the wider Izumo region, and unlike the city of Tanabe in southern Wakayama Prefecture, not a lot of tourism emphasis is placed on it. People in the Honjo neighborhood, however, are very enthusiastic and proud of all the historical traces he supposedly left behind. These “Benkei no yaki-tokoro” (“the spot that made Benkei fry“) were sold by a statue of baby Benkei and his mother. I’ll explain the content later.
A little bit of background might be necessary, especially if you might have heard claims that Wakayama is Benkei’s birth place. Let’s start with the letter in Nagami Shrine’s storehouse, which supposedly was written by Benkei himself about his own past (and supposedly copied and rewritten later, but that’s historical territory I’m not prepared to jump into). He wrote the letter upon his mother’s death and left the letter in the shrine in her memory, and went off to Kyoto after that to challenge people and take their swords and then have his fateful encounter with young Ushiwakamaru (his future master Minamoto no Yoshitsune) at Gojo Bridge in Kyoto.
Benkichi was a woman born in 1128 to the Tanabe clan in Kii Province (modern day Wakayama and Mie Prefectures). Although she came from a good family, by the age of 20, she still had not gotten married. Perhaps this was because she wasn’t that pretty and because she was very tall and buff (I heard she was about 180cm/70in), or perhaps it was because of the sins of her parents that she needed to cleanse herself of (as she was later told in a dream). Whatever the case, her family sent her to the Izumo region to pray for some good En-musubi. Yes, Izumo was already a matchmaking destination for young single women back in the Heian Era. Izumo Taisha has a very, very long and influential history.
After not having much luck on the southern banks of Lake Nakaumi, she was told in the aforementioned dream to move to Nagami Village at the foot of Mt. Makuragi for seven years. While she was working the fields there to make her living, and before anything close to seven years had passed, she encountered a striking young warrior monk dressed like a Tengu (because that was a stylish thing for wandering warrior monks to do back then). As was the custom back then, they flirted with each other through some witty poetry, and when he gave her a branch of peach blossoms, they agreed to become husband and wife.
Well, some husband he turned out to be. Though they remained married (and supposedly happy together), he went off to do his wandering warrior monk stuff and Benkichi remained in Nagami Village with a tough pregnancy ahead of her. It took a whole thirteen months, and she had such a strong craving for iron that she absentmindedly started eating gardens hoes. She was halfway through eating the tenth one when the other villagers finally noticed and stopped her.
In the morning on the third day of the third month of the first year of the Ninpyou period (that would be March 29, 1151, but again, this is merely the contents of this letter and not the only story out there), baby Benta was finally born. He would later be called “Oniwaka” (something akin to “Young Ogre”), and later still he would change his name to Benkei. Baby Benta was born with long hair, teeth, the name of a Buddhist god of war written on his left shoulder and the name of a Great Tengu written on his right shoulder. Most of his skin was iron and black, except for a little bit around his throat because his mother did not finish eating that tenth garden hoe. He was a truly frightening looking child, but Benkichi was thrilled to have him. While telling her adult son this story later, she admitted he was born looking like this because she had eaten so much iron during the pregnancy.
The spot where Benkei was born is now called “Benkei no Mori” (the Forest of Benkei) and pregnant women pray there so that they might have a safe labor. In the past, women preparing for childbirth would stay in a hut in the forest. Today, I merely have to wonder how safe it would be for a very pregnant woman to climb the steep and slick steps to that clearing in the forest. However, the toy swords and naginata left there are proof of the gratitude of those who safely gave birth and came back later to leave their thanks.
Baby Benta was too strong for his own good and a difficult child to raise. There was a time when poor Benkichi could not get any work done because he wanted to follow her around everywhere, so in a desperate effort to get him to stay put, she tied him by the waist to a heavy mortar. Her efforts were in vain, and the little boy surprised his mother by dragging the mortar all the way up a high hill to follow her. Today, that hill is called “Koeta-saka,” (“the Hill that was Overcome”). It was steep enough that my injured heel felt tender with each step, and I would have been surprised if any baby who was not even weighed down would go all the way up.
As he got older, the Nagami Villagers were less and less thrilled to have him for a neighbor. The strong and willful child was known for causing trouble. Even today, there are stories of the rocks the boy threw around the area. Here is one such rock:
When telling her young adult son about their past, Benkichi told him that it was because of all the trouble he caused that the villagers cruelly forced them to move to an island on Lake Nakaumi, just off shore. Just far enough, I am told, seeing as Benkei could not swim due to his muscles being so heavy. This island was a fateful place for the 9-year-old boy, which I will explain the following entry.