Famous Persons


The previous two entries focused on the autobiographical content of a letter supposedly written by Benkei himself. However, when asking most people about Benkei lore in the San’in region, most people will answer like this: “Yeah, he trained at Gakuenji Temple in modern day Izumo City. And he carried a giant bronze bell from Mt. Daisen all the way back to Gakuenji in one night.

An illustration of one of the illustrious monks of Gakuenji’s history, along the route to the temple

That’s a fair distance to walk in one night even if you’re not carrying an enormous bell.

benkei

—————

Although I had always meant to go see the annual Benkei Festival at Gakuenji, something always kept me from seeing the costumed procession. Although I had always meant to go see the autumn leaf scenery it is famous for, I never did. At last, I had plans to at least visit the temple with Y-chan, but at 3am the night before, I found myself wondering if I shouldn’t bother. With everything going on in daily life getting ready to wrap up my JET contract and set out on a new adventure, I was too busy with all the exciting things going on during the day to be able to settle down and get any sleep at night. The loud thunderstorm certainly wasn’t helping.

Maybe we wouldn’t be able to see much at the temple anyway if the rain made things too slick? If it was anything like our Shugendo experience at Mt. Mitoku then it would probably be off limits anyway. And if it is wasn’t, I would be working on such little sleep. Would I have any energy left at all for sparring practice at naginata that night? My heel was no longer quite as tender and purple, but I would be setting myself up for another lame practice if I was too tired. Maybe I was just never meant to visit Gakuenji…

—————

I felt more cheerful in the morning, and Y-chan and I enjoyed the sight of the low-hanging mists as we drove along the bright green rice paddies and into the mountains of the Shimane Peninsula. For whatever reason, there was a massive gathering of white herons on one of the tree-covered hills. Usually you seem them walking alone through the paddies instead.

When we reached the parking lot of Mt. Furou we were the only ones there, and we encountered no one as we walked on the road up to the temple and admired the deep green of the forest, the vitality in the flow of the stream, and the curtains of droplets leaking off the cliff sides from yesterday’s thunderstorm.



Eventually we found the temple, a strikingly new building among the moss-covered statues of Bodhisattva we had seen along the way. We had to ring a bell to summon someone to the office to pay our entrance fee, as well as ask if there were any places that were off limits due to the damp ground and higher water levels. An older man with a gentle temperament welcomed us and gave us the basic description of the temple and where to find the main sights up the stairs and through the forest. When I asked him about the places associated with Benkei, he first brought up almost the exact thing my guide in Honjo had brought up—many people think Benkei was born in Kii Province, but there is more evidence to suggest he was born in Izumo Province. He suggested I visit the Honjo neighborhood, but I assured him I had already done that the previous Saturday.

The man admitted that despite Benkei’s ties with the temple, there is nothing especially obvious for regular visitors to see. The hanging bell which Benkei carried there from Mt. Daisen was no longer at the temple but instead moved to the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo and was recognized as National Important Cultural Property. His self-portrait (he was a painter??) is left at the temple, but in the storehouses. The well his used for wetting his ink stone is still there, but it’s only remnants and hardly recognizable (I never found it), and the hut were he stayed as he underwent his training no longer exists, they only know where it would have been.

A photo of the wall of Benkei lore at Kanbe-no-Sato, your one-shop-stop for folklore in Matsue.


Another photo of the wall at Kanbe-no-Sato.

We thanked him for his help and I told just seeing as the temple looks like nowadays would be fine. As Y-chan and I headed up the stairs to the main building, we could immediately tell why this was such a famous temple for autumn leaf viewing.


The ground was damp, but the animals seemed happy. We found little frogs everywhere–usually taking Y-chan by surprise but jumping right in front of her feet–a hefty raven perched on the roof of the temple, surrounded in mist. Even the snail at the hand-washing font seemed pretty pleased with the weather than June morning.

Most of the frogs were very tiny. This guy was not as tiny, but much more still. Y-chan didn’t even see what I was taking a picture of.


We hunted around for the well up supposed left by Benkei, and although we didn’t find it, we enjoyed many other surprises. Besides the slight discomfort of my sneakers soaking up the moisture left in the ground, and the growing thirst which I had mistakenly thought I could quench by finding a vending machine somewhere along the walk to the temple, the weather and atmosphere was very close to perfect, and exactly the moment in nature I need to calm my thoughts. Despite all the good things that had been going on for me lately, it was feeling like being in a constant state of adrenaline, and stopping and being quiet and enjoying the peace of the temple was exactly what I had been needing.




On our descent back down the stairs, the man in the little admissions booth noticed us and prepared two hots cups of the temple’s own blend of bancha–perfect timing! He probably had a good idea what had been going through our minds as we wandering through the wondrously green temple, and he said, “You know, as much as people love the nature here, this isn’t actually natural scenery.”

“Oh?” we asked, a little embarrassed to have had our thoughts read.

“Yes. This used to be a normal mountain. The temple and the stairs were placed there on purpose to make this a getaway for court nobles in the Heian era.”

“Oh, right. That makes sense.”

“Also, all those momiji. Did you notice that there were no momiji in the forest on your way to the temple? Those didn’t grow here naturally, the people who planned this temple many centuries put them there on purpose.”

Although I did not check, he was right, I had not noticed any maple trees before we reached the temple grounds. As tempting as it is to picture the actions of people of ages past as something different, something more charming than the modern buildings and getaways we build today, their actions are must closer to current society than to nature. The nature were were enjoying had been custom tailored with societal purpose and a human’s sense of aesthetics, it was merely good fortune that nature played along and made the maple trees so bountiful and the moss so plentiful and the river and waterfalls so atmospheric.

Speaking of waterfalls, that was where we heading next–the main focal point of the temple as it exists in this modern age. A cave was carved out behind Furou-no-taki (a slight waterfall), and Zaoudou, a little temple to house images of Buddha was built against that cave. The route there was relatively short, but mostly covered in slick moss and even more frogs, and a couple of spots where we’d have to use stepping stones to cross the river. The old man was most enthusiastic about this part of the temple, but reminded us to be careful and watch our steps, and that due to the thunderstorm the night before, the water levels might be too high for us to cross some parts. He sheepishly apologized for that, though he had no control over the weather.

The path there, though still man-made, was ever more green than anything else we had already encountered that morning. It was somewhere along this 15 minute walk to the waterfall that Benkei had his hut.




With no Shugendo necessary, we were quite pleased to reach Zaoudou and the tiny waterfall paradise. After having agreed all morning not to push ourselves if things looked too tiring, and to go back if the rain had made things look unsafe, not of that had kept us from reaching this little place, and we smiled and repeated said how good it was that we had came.

“来てよかった!”
Kite yokatta ne~


But maybe a little Shugendo was in order anyway.


It was so satisfying to have finally visited Gakuenji–the major Benkei spot I had heard of all this time, and always wanted to go because I was such a fan of Benkei–and found the conversation with the man there and the atmosphere such a dose of calm that I had been needing in my not-very-chill life, that I picked out an omamori to take home with me. Y-chan and I went on to wind through mountain roads and somehow find ourselves driving through Izumo Taisha twice before visiting another shrine that had been on my list to visit for a while, and stopping for coffee before training back to Matsue in the afternoon.

—————

I managed to take a short and necessary nap, and was much more ready for naginata practice that day than I had been before. My heel was fine, but in my eagerness to make the most of my sparring time and I injured a toe on my other foot with a hard step, but was so enthused about being there that I didn’t notice the blood until practice was over (oops).

At the time I’m writing this, another week has passed. For the last time, I cheered my classmates and teachers on at a naginata competition last Sunday, and said my good-byes to the teachers and students based in Izumo. I have only four more practices here in Matsue, and by the time this is posted, only two. I’m going to make them count, and my feet and I are ready for practice starting in two hours from now.

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We pick up our own local “Tale of Benkei” at the island on Lake Nakaumi just off shore from Nagami Village. The 12th century villagers were tired of the unusually strong 9-year-old causing them trouble. In his letter left behind in Nagami Shrine, he admits it was cold out there, but boasts that he was fine. On the island, however, young Benta–or perhaps he was Oniwaka by now, but either way, eventually Benkei–met his father. His warrior monk father had wandered back into the area, and trained with young Benkei there.

Today, this island is known as Benkei Island. Although there used to be a road attaching it to shore, that has long since crumbled away, and now it is only accessible by boat.

In recent-ish history, a family used to live there for a long time.

Lucky for me I am friends with a boat safety instructor in the area who served as my guide to all the Benkei related spots in Honjo that day. Lucky for us, this day finally worked out. We had been trying for two years to find a time to go do this, but every time we tried to choose a date, it was would too late in the season, or the weather would turn on us and be too windy. Much like all the effort I put into visiting Kaka-no-Kukedo! Prior to the day we went, we weren’t sure if we’d actually go. The weather forecast said there would be rain, and we wouldn’t know the condition of the waves until the day itself. Seeing as this would be my last good chance to go, we agreed to scope things out as early as we could that morning.

It turns out it was a beautiful morning for sea kayaking out on a brackish lake. It was overcast, so we only had the distance outlines of the “scary” Eshima Bridge and of Mt. Daisen, which is also an important spot in Benkei lore which I will touch in the following entry. Although there was rain later than afternoon, in the morning, there were no waves on the lake. It was very peaceful out there.

That said, it’s a little startling to be enjoying the ride and then all of a sudden you realize you are surrounded by hundreds of jellyfish. I’ve seen moon jellies as far as the Ohashi River in Matsue’s city center, which connects Lake Shinji with Lake Nakaumi, but it seems they are common enough in Nakaumi that the people there know not to swim without body suits. They were so close to the surface that I was worried I would scoop one out of the water on my oar and have it land on my head.

Around the island I loved seeing how undisturbed the natural life was, such as the crabs, and the bright seaweed, and then sting ray—-wait, the sting ray!?

Okay, maybe not as exciting as the ocean life I saw while sea kayaking around the Oki Islands, but still cool.

We could not freely explore the island, but it seemed like the perfect little getaway to focus on martial arts training. A few months after he had been brought to the island, and after Benkei’s father disappeared from his life again, the now 10-year-old child threw rocks in the water to make himself a path back to shore. Being the dork I am, I had to celebrate visiting the training grounds of a famous naginata-ka by wielding my oar like a very poorly constructed naginata.






Speaking of naginata construction, one of the people who came with young lady Benkichi from her hometown in Kii Province was a swordsmith. As strong as Benkichi was, you couldn’t expect a young lady to move to an unfamiliar place all alone! You could think of this man as an uncle of Benkei. He made an exquisite naginata for the 15-year-old warrior, and it was an amazing weapon that took a thousand days to make. It was so amazing that Benkei already became jealous of there being any other weapons just as good as it, so he asked, “Are you planning on making any more of these for anyone else?” And the swordsmith answered, “If they pay me enough, yes.” To prevent this, Benkei made a hasty decision and sliced the swordsmith down with the naginata of his own making.

Over the course of the following couple years, Benkei regretted killing him, and prayed for him at his grave. The original location used to be at the top of the hill, but it was rediscovered when construction on a road required cutting into the hill. It is now located at the side of the road leading to the Honjo district, directly beneath the spot it had occupied before.

Young Benkei still had quite a bit of training ahead of him in the surrounding area: at Mt. Makuragi, at Nagamizu Temple, and most famously, at Gakuenji Temple. We’ll touch on Gakuenji in the following entry, but to continue to the story of the letter he supposedly recorded and left there, Benkichi fell ill right around the time teenage Benkei regretted killing his swordsmith uncle and was about to leave to undergo training as a monk. She called him close to her sick bed and told him about her past, and told him how proud she was of what a strong young man he had grown into. Since his father’s origins were a mystery, she told him to visit his relatives in Kii Province, and call himself a member of the Tanabe clan when he set off into the world as a monk.

After she passed away he recorded all of her wishes in the letter he wrote there in the shrine, and he touched on his own experience training with his Tengu-like father and how he regretted slaying the man who put so much effort into making such a fine naginata for him. He left the letter there in her memory, but because he followed her wishes to visit his relatives and call himself a member of the Tanabe clan in Kii, that is likely why there is confusion as where Benkei was actually born, much less raised. Regardless, he would be famous for his exploits in Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s service all over the Warring States of 12th century Japan.

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.

It just so happened this week fell around when Boy’s Day is celebrated in the San’in region, given the 1-month delay. My guide’s family had a whole display taking up half their tatami room, including this Benkei doll.


Reminds me of the cute and chubby statue of Benkei and Ushiwaka at Gojo Bridge in Kyoto.

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.


Photo used with permission.

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.



This is where the hut for the pregnant ladies used to be located.

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.

It twists and turns a lot, you can’t see the scale of it in any single photo.


Yes, that’s Lake Nakaumi out there.

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:


Yes, I just happened to be wearing my naginata sweatshirt that day.

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.

It’s that time of year again, when everyone is getting ready to celebrate their favorite Irish person.

St. Patrick? What? Of course not, he wasn’t Irish.
I’m referring to Patrick Lafcadio Hearn!

Well, not that he was born in Ireland, he was born in 1850 in Lefkada, Greece, as his mother was Greek. After soap-opera levels of complications between his parents he was cared for by his great aunt in Dublin, where he spent a good chunk of his childhood, but he spent most of his life outside of the country. Plus, he dropped the Irish “Patrick” name in favor of his more exotic middle name inspired by his birthplace. Although he was technically one of many, many Irish immigrants to the United States, he never identified much with the mainstreamers, and instead chose to write about the gritty ways of life that countered western white man’s culture. Maybe we’re not so much celebrating a Irishman as we are celebrating a hipster.

Biographers around the world often point out how Hearn never seemed to feel at home and embraced various subcultures and ways of life even if he never quite fit in, and it wasn’t until he came to Matsue and met his wife Setsu that he found his place. His writings about Matsue, Izumo, the Oki Islands, and parts of Tottori in “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (1894) gave him world-wide fame, and he lived out the rest of his days as a respected writer and teacher. Though his attitudes toward Japan became more nuanced over the fourteen years he lived there, Matsue remained a city he loved and looked back on fondly, especially places like the garden of his former residence, which faced the northern moat of Matsue Castle.

The garden is preserved as it was in Hearn's time, as is the home itself.

The garden is preserved as it was in Hearn’s time, as is the home itself.

Not to worry, you lonely hipster, Hearn. Matsue still loves you back.

A semi-official photo of one of the many faces of Hearn found through the city

A semi-official photo of one of the many faces of Hearn found through the city

Besides Hearn’s influence felt throughout the city, the Hearn ties have been binding Matsue cities around the world together in 111 years since Hearn’s time. New Orleans, where he worked for ten years, has been in a lively Friendship City relationship with Matsue since 1994, and in July 2014, the city contributed to the opening of the Lefcadio Hern Historical Center in his birthplace of Lefkada. Matsue has had unofficial ties with Dublin for even long than that, and as a result, there are many people here who enthusiastically embrace traditional Irish culture. Perhaps Hearn never would have expected that his influence would lead to the annual Irish Festival in Matsue!

This year’s festival will be on Sunday, March 8, 2015, and it kicks off with a water parade on the castle moats and then a green and wildly costumed parade through the streets, followed by performances and food. The Shamrock, an Irish pub held in the Karakoro Art Studio Vault, will serve Guiness on tap and Irish dishes to enjoy with the live evening performances on the 7th and the 8th. I have entries posted about the 2013 and 2014 Irish Festivals.

Also, just a little plug for a new book coming out from Harvest Publishing which pairs photos from around the San’in region with Hearn’s writing about them, both in Japanese and English. The book announcement poster is in Japanese, but it’ll give you a sense of the style they’re taking with the approach. The title, “Shoukei,” refers to a longing or aspiration. I made sure to read a handful of Hearn’s books (available for free via Project Gutenberg) before moving here to Matsue and largely forgot about them while making my own impressions, but every so often when I look back at the descriptions, I’m struck by how accurate they still are.

“Roused thus by these earliest sounds of the city’s wakening life, I slide open my little Japanese paper window to look out upon the morning over a soft green cloud of spring foliage rising from the river-bounded garden below. Before me, tremulously mirroring everything upon its farther side, glimmers the broad glassy mouth of the Ohashigawa, opening into the grand Shinji Lake, which spreads out broadly to the right in a dim grey frame of peaks…
“But oh, the charm of the vision—those first ghostly love-colours of a morning steeped in mist soft as sleep itself resolved into a visible exhalation! Long reaches of faintly-tinted vapour cloud the far lake verge—long nebulous bands, such as you may have seen in old Japanese picture-books, and must have deemed only artistic whimsicalities unless you had previously looked upon the real phenomena. All the bases of the mountains are veiled by them, and they stretch athwart the loftier peaks at different heights like immeasurable lengths of gauze (this singular appearance the Japanese term ‘shelving’), so that the lake appears incomparably larger than it really is, and not an actual lake, but a beautiful spectral sea of the same tint as the dawn-sky and mixing with it, while peak-tips rise like islands from the brume, and visionary strips of hill-ranges figure as league-long causeways stretching out of sight—an exquisite chaos, ever-changing aspect as the delicate fogs rise, slowly, very slowly. As the sun’s yellow rim comes into sight, fine thin lines of warmer tone—spectral violets and opalines-shoot across the flood, treetops take tender fire, and the unpainted façades of high edifices across the water change their wood-colour to vapoury gold through the delicious haze.”
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, The Chief City of the Province of the Gods

Sunrise over Ohashigawa

Sunrise over Ohashigawa


Sunset over Lake Shinji

Sunset over Lake Shinji

Seventh feudal lord of the Matsue Domain, Matsudaira Harusato (aka Lord Fumai), has just gotten major a facelift.

fubaki

I was asked to make a cover for the February 2015 issue of the city newsletter, and I wanted to do something that felt very representative of Matsue to me. I like history and I like drawing portraits, so I wanted to draw a historical figure. Hands down, this tea-loving lord is my favorite figure of Matsue’s history. Furthermore, they wanted something bright and flashy, so flowers typically work for that. What’s more, I really like camellia (tsubaki), and they are one of the flower symbols of Matsue, and they are frequently used in the tea ceremony, and the camellia valley on the Matsue Castle grounds starts going into major bloom around late February. So Lord Fumai and camellia seemed my obvious choice for content.

Until I asked whether they wanted something like my cartoony Fumai-ko they might have seen before, or if they’d prefer something a little more refined.

My cartoony Fumai-ko to explain Bote-Bote Tea.

“Refined! Refined!” they cheered.

But, given my artistic roots, “refined” mentally translated to “shoujo manga.”

Unfortunately, this is not a face that translates well in shoujo manga.

Ironically, I’m writing this post as the “Portrait In Museum: The Appeal of Portraiture” exhibit is going on at Shimane Art Museum (until March 9). This historical portrait is one of the featured pieces.

Something felt terribly off to me as I was working on it, so much so that I covered up the face while working on the flowers so that I wouldn’t be so disgusted with the results. I consulted with fellow artists to see if there was something I could fix in the anatomy, and as pretty as we all sort of felt it was, we could not quite tell what was so bothersome about it. The people who requested it for the newsletter all loved it and thought it was beautiful, but I was still very put off by it.

The reception has mostly been good, though people go out of their way to say how pretty the camellia are opposed to mentioning the odd figure in the middle, or he’s just an afterthought and people don’t notice him as much as I do. Many people didn’t recognize that it was Lord Fumai even though he was labeled as Lord Fumai right by the spot that said, “Hey! Your local American CIR drew this!” As a couple of elderly acquaintances brought it up in conversation, one said to the other, “There were such pretty camellia! And she drew Lafcadio Hearn, too.” No!! Hearn gets to be on covers all the time, but Fumai is my favorite, so I wanted him to be on the cover!

At last, a friend who is not regularly steeped in the worlds of glittery shoujo manga saw it and burst out laughing, as she articulated right away what was so funny about it—-why is this old man so pretty???

It’s gotten a little easier to look at since then, as I now know what was so weird was about it. Apparently, all that green tea gave him the power of Matcha Magic for this spectacular transformation!

Around 300 years before construction on Matsue Castle started, a nearby mountain was chosen as the highly defensible spot for a castle that would see its share of battle: Gassan Toda Castle, on Mt. Gassan in modern day Yasugi.

Originally built by the Sasaki clan in the 14th century in the Kamakura era, it is more commonly associated with the Amago clan, which stemmed from the Sasaki clan. This branch of the family started when Sasaki Takahisa, orphaned at the age of 3, was raised by a nun. In respect for her, he used the name Amago (尼子), which means “child of a nun.”

When you hear the term “Amago clan” (aka Amako clan), it is usually paired with the term “Mori clan.” In the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history, stated as spanning 1467~1573. There were plenty of battles before and after this period, but this is when Japan was split up amongst several warlords as opposed to power being split between only a few factions. The development was not sudden–many of the clan rivalries were based off of previous loyalities and rivalries leading up to that point, and power was gradually consolidated as clans began pledging allegiance to the more prominent warlords, and these prominent warlords gained the territories that previously been long fought over. Here in the San’in region as well as in other parts of western Japan, the Amago and Mori clans had a long and colorful history of going head to head against each other out here, but many other clans were involved as well, including the clans these clans served, or the clans that served these clans. (Still with me? Good.)

One such servant of the Amago clan was Yamanaka Yukimori, aka Yamanaka Shikanosuke (1545~1578), a famous general loyal to Amago Katsuhisa (1553~1578). He’s a celebrated local hero here in the Izumo region, especially in Yasugi, where there are big campaigns for having one of NHK’s annual Taiga drama based on his life.

The fact that he and his master have the same year of death might have tipped you off that they met a tragic end. Indeed, in was their misfortune to have been active towards the decline of the clan. After Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed by an internal scuffle and the Mori clan effectively defeated the clan, he abandoned his monkly ways to fight, but was defeated and sought refuge on the Oki Islands. Upon his return, he captured a couple provinces, including what is now eastern Tottori. As the continued their battles with their limited armies, Shikanosuke sought an alliance with Oda Nobunaga, only to find that had only been used and no one came to their aid.

In the end, he and Katsuhisa were defeated by the Mori clan. Katsuhisa was forced to commit ritual suicide there, while Shikanosuke surrendered, but was supposedly captured and killed shortly afterward by the Mori clan anyway. As for surrending instead of following his master in suicide, some say that he sold Katsuhisa out as part of his offer to surrender, and others say that Katsuhisa willingly went along with this plan in an effort to save their remaining men. Whether they displayed cowardice or bravery in defeat, we can at least bet that a Taiga drama would build up an appropriate amount of drama around the end of an otherwise very heroic character.

With the fall of the Amago clan Gassan Toda Castle soon fell to the Mori clan as well, though it had proved to have strong defense until that point. Amago Haruhisa, the leader of the clan, successfully withheld a seige by the Ouchi clan in 1542~1543. It was a major defeat for the Ouchi clan which lead to internal struggles, and the Ouchi clan wound up being wiped out by the Mori clan later. Haruhisa went on to control territories like modern day eastern Shimane, western Tottori and the Oki Islands, but remember how Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed? That was Haruhisa’s fault.

The Amago clan was wiped out, and although the Mori clan continued to thrive, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and lost control of their territory in the San’in region (but they remained in the San’yo region).

Enter the Horio clan! Horio Yoshiharu, who was with the winning side, was granted control of the Izumo domain. He moved into Gassan Toda Castle, and although it was in a highly defensible location, it wasn’t in a good spot for raising a bustling economy around it. Thus, they decided to build a new castle in a better location, and Matsue Castle was completed four years later in 1611. Matsue Castle remains one of the 12 last original castles of Japan, but Gassan Toda was not only abandoned, but pieces of it were dismantled and used in the construction of Matsue Castle.


You can, however, still climb Mt. Gassan and see what remains of the castle walls. It has been left fairly quiet, and while there is no longer a castle at the top, there is a little shrine to Ookuninushi (the same god as at Izumo Taisha) at the 197 meter summit. That seems to be a little abandoned though, too…



That said, I tend to really like the allure of things you just happen to stumble upon in the forests.




It’s a quite, peaceful mountain, and Horio Yoshiharu–who died months before the completition of Matsue Castle–was buried in Iwakuraji Temple at the foot of the mountain. However historically inaccurate, the city of Matsue still honors their founder by recreating his march into (what would become) the town and on into the castle keep with the annual Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade.

Click for source

While I don’t suggest taking quite that deep of a rest, you can rest up after the short hike up the mountain by visiting Hirose Onsen at the Toda Gassou facility for a nice view of the town. It’s a surphulric onsen–rich in radium-sodium, calcium chloride, and sulfide–and acts as a natural toner that gives your skin elasticity.

Click for source

I can attest to the nice view and smooth skin afterward! I wonder if the Amago clan and the warriors who served them ever had many chances to enjoy the Hirose waters?

His famous progeny Matsudaira “Fumai” Harusato comes up in this blog a lot, but the first of the Izumo Province Matsudaira clan was Matsudaira Naomasa (1601~1666) who was probably the Matsue feudal lord most known for his valor.

He was the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate (otherwise known as the Edo period). Though he was born only two years before this period officially started, things weren’t entirely pacified right away, so he had martial experience from an early age. At the tender age of 14 in 1615, he led troops in the Battle of Osaka, which was one of the final big battles to bring in the new era. Sanada Yukimura happened to be fighting on the losing side of this battle, but nonetheless was classy enough to show his admiration for his youthful enemy. He won a lot of recognition from people on his own side as well, and had a career in a handful of fiefs around Japan before being given the Matsue Domain starting in 1638 (seeing as the previous clans had no heirs). The Matsudaira clan would rule uninterrupted for the remainder of Matsue’s feudal history, until 1871 when the whole governing system was abolished.

Naomasa was a dedicated follower of the harvest god (but commonly known as the fox god) Inari, and founded the Jozan Inari Shrine, still found on the northern end of the Matsue Castle grounds today. Lafcadio Hearn was rather fond of this foxy shrine and described its founding thus:

When Naomasu, the grandson of Iyeyasu, first came to Matsue to rule the province, there entered into his presence a beautiful boy, who said: ‘I came hither from the home of your august father in Echizen, to protect you from all harm. But I have no dwelling-place, and am staying therefore at the Buddhist temple of Fu-mon-in. Now if you will make for me a dwelling within the castle grounds, I will protect from fire the buildings there and the houses of the city, and your other residence likewise which is in the capital. For I am Inari Shinyemon.’ With these words he vanished from sight. Therefore Naomasu dedicated to him the great temple which still stands in the castle grounds, surrounded by one thousand foxes of stone.

(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

Naomasa also started the Horan-enya ritual, one of the three great boat festivals of Japan. It’s like holy kabuki on boats.

Click for source and small a gallery of Horan-enya photos.

Well, it started as a ritual to save them from a famine, and it evolved over the years after a fishing boat dashed to the rescue of a boat carrying Inari that was getting jostled in the wind and waves of the Ohashi River in the middle of Matsue. It’s only done every 10 years now, and the next one should be in 2019.

Naomasa also founded Gessho-ji Temple, which he named after his mother. All of the Matsudaira feudal lords of Matsue are buried here, and it is also famous for its hydrangea and for a giant stone turtle that used to roam around at night and terrorize people. That’s a ghost story for another time.

Naomasa’s final resting place, surrounded by bright blue hydrangea in the rainy season.

Finally, most visitors to Matsue recognize Naomasa by the equestrian statue of him that stands in front of the Shimane prefecture government office, facing towards the castle (the statue used to be directly in front of the castle, and there is a miniature version of the statue inside). While I haven’t exactly gone looking for them, I can’t say I’ve seen any other statues of 14-year-old samurai, so it’s pretty cool.

Click for gallery source and other historical postcards of Matsue. This one is from 1927.

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