Historical Anecdotes


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

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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.

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 growing 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 for lack of that piece 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 gotten a post-JET job offer the day before, and I was stressed about all the good-bye parties I would have to somehow fit in to 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 moving 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 Nakaumi. 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-handedly defending the house of 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 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, 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 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 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 context of that statue later.




You might have heard claims that Wakayama is Benkei’s birth place, so we need a little background information to Shimane’s claim to it. 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 it in the shrine in her memory. After taking care of that, he went off to Kyoto 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 of the letter at Nagami Shrine used with permission.

According to that letter, 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 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 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 day. 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, they flirted with each other through witty poetry, and when he gave her a branch of peach blossoms, they agreed to become husband and wife.

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 was said to have 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 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 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 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 baby 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 would go all the way up, weighed down or not.

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 Benta for a neighbor. The strong and willful child was known for causing trouble. FOr instance, he was known to throw rocks around. Here is one such rock:


Yes, that is me in my naginata sweatshirt.

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. 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 in the following entry.

I’ve written about Izumo Soba before, but how about a reprise? After all, living in Matsue means eating a lot of Izumo Soba and shijimi clam soup.

When most people think about this tea-loving feudal lord Matsudaira “Fumai” Harusato, they probably do not picture his late night escapades in disguise as a commoner to go indulge in a love that his straight-laced advisers disdained: rumor has it that Lord Fumai loved to eat Izumo Soba, a commoner food unbefitting of his rank.

Light grey soba noodles, made of heart-healthy buckwheat flour, are found throughout Japan and in Japanese restaurants around the world served cold and dipped in sauce or served hot in a light broth. While they were never a favorite food of mine, I did enjoy the chances I had to eat them while outside of the country, and relied on them as a filling and cheap meal while studying abroad. Here in the Matsue area, Izumo Soba is made with flour that uses the outer hill of the buckwheat instead of only the inside portion, so the noodles are darker, have more aroma, and are packed with more nutrients. I have become so accustomed to this super-soba that my expectations of soba noodles have increased, and the regular soba options I enjoyed before now no longer measure up. Why would I eat regular factory-made grey noodles when I could instead enjoy hand-mixed, hand-rolled, hand-cut fresh noodles, with visibly speckled tones to show off the extra flavor they contain?

Hand Cut Izumo Soba

True to its commoner origins, Izumo Soba is not strictly restaurant fare. Soba-making parties, especially around the years’ end, are a common experience for many local social groups. Making soba provides a taste of the good-old-days of rural, unhurried Japan. Unhurried make describe the abundant nature of Matsue’s mountainous areas where I’ve done this, but it does not describe the atmosphere in the kitchen as people root me on while I try to rolling a thin slab of dough wider than my arm span with a rolling pin that would be lethal if anyone actually had the strength to pick it up and brandish it around, and as they coach me through cutting the folded dough with the nerve-wracking speed of practiced hands, and as they tease me for my poor handling of the knife half the size of my head and my varied fat and thin noodle slices.

Considering the craftsmanship than goes into producing them, it is unsurprising that so many people make a career out of preparing them, and that the tastes and textures of the noodles tend vary by restaurant, each perhaps more famous or beloved than the last. Just as I have grown such a taste for the deeply-flavored handmade noodles that I cannot happily go back to eating factory-cut ones, the locals all have different suggestions for which restaurant is best.

I can taste some of the differences, but I do not have a favorite. Usually all I suggest is that visitors to the region be sure to try Izumo Soba—preferably Warigo style—at any of the Izumo Soba restaurants they come across, and that they make sure to save room for Lord Fumai’s beloved matcha tea and original Matsue wagashi later.

Are you ready for some beauty science?

Let’s start with a repost of a comic about Tamatsukuri Onsen, one of Japan’s original beauty onsen, a downright fountain of youth according to the Chronicles of Ancient Izumo.

I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not an expert. I just really like going to onsen and have picked up some nerdy knowledge and onsen guides here and there. I am not a chemist or a beautician. I can say, however, that I have noticed some changes in my skin quality over the course of my time in Shimane, which, for the past few years, have been ranked #1 for beautiful skin based on its humidity, hours of sunlight, life habits, and other environmental factors. I didn’t really believe this over the course of my first winter here when I had terribly dry skin due to indoor heaters, but when I started thinking skin care in terms of texture rather than acne (or lack thereof), I found that following skin care advice I’ve heard here really works well.

But beyond that, knowing nerdy things about onsen I enjoy anyway is plain fun. So let’s dive in! (No. No diving at the onsen. Don’t be Faux Pas Man.)

Onsen, which are all at least 25 degrees C at their source and contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, can be categorized in some of the following (sometimes scary-sounding) ways:

Simple onsen (単純温泉: tanjun-onsen)
The most common type of onsen found throughout Japan, with relatively low concentrations of chemical elements (general 1g/kg and below). Good for people with sensitive skin.

Hydrogen carbonate onsen (炭酸水素泉: tansansuiso-sen)
Good cleanser and for giving you smooth skin.

Sulfate onsen (硫酸塩泉: ryuusan’en-sen)
Works like a toner and supplies moisture to skin.

Iron onsen (鉄泉: tetsu-sen)
Water with somewhat light brown color, good for people prone to anemia.

Chloride onsen (塩化泉: enka-sen)
Helps your skin to retain moisture and gives it a damp texture (in a good way).

Sulphur onsen (硫黄泉: iou-sen)
Antibacterial properties make this good for treating skin ailments. Also considered good to detox your system, and for helping your skin retain moisture.

Radioactive onsen (放射能泉: houshanou-sen)
Includes things like radium onsen and radon onsen. Good for pain relief.

Carbon dioxide onsen (二酸化炭素泉: nisankatanso-sen)
Basically, carbonated onsen. However, the gas bubbles are too tiny to see. Said to promote blood flow, these are relatively rare in Japan. (Shimane has one in the little town of Iinan, named Ramune Onsen. Gee, I wonder how it got that name.)

These chemical elements should be indication on a sign somewhere around the onsen, based on how much of them can be found per 1kg. Just because these are the primary chemical elements which any given onsen might be known for, it doesn’t mean they’re limited to those characteristics.

You also want to note the onsen’s pH balance. Onsen with pH balances from around 6 to 7.5 are the gentlest to your skin. Alkaline, particularly 8.5 and above, are supposed to be good cleansers. Higher acidic concentrations are good for their antibacterial properties (but always remember to keep hygiene in mind when visiting an onsen!).

If you’re looking for beautiful skin, you also want to keep an eye out for metasilicic acid (メタけい酸 metakeisan) content. H2SiO3 is a very simple, diluted silicic acid thought to stimulate collagen, which is what gives your skin a springy, youthful texture (in other words, it prevents wrinkles). Back to that Tamatsukuri Onsen comic up there, the joke is that when the onsen was introduced in writing about 1,300 years ago, the research team found all the locals partying in the hot springs, young and old alike. All of them had youthful, springy skin. Nowadays, onsen aficionado attribute this to the high concentration of metasilicic acid, at 110mg. In order to be considered a good beauty onsen, most would aim to have at least 50mg.

I mentioned that in Japan, people think of skin care in terms of texture (or whiteness, but that’s a totally different topic). They have a number of fun words to describe what skin should feel like, many of which don’t have a full equivalent in English. Some of the common ones are:

つるつる tsuru-tsuru: slick and smooth
すべすべ sube-sube: smooth and sleek
ぺたぺた peta-peta: skin moist enough to make a little sound when you lightly press your fingers to your skin
うるうる uru-uru: damp, moist, well-hydrated skin
さらさら sara-sara: silky and soft
もちもち mochi-mochi: a springy texture (yes, like a good rice cake)
しっとり shittori: retains its moisture really well

Or at least, if I had to try really, really, really hard to differentiate between things like uru-uru and shittori this is my sense. I’m not a professional linguist either, I just happen to be mostly fluent in Japanese. And I do like gitaigo (or gi’ongo, in peta-peta‘s case?).

And I like onsen. That too.

Hopefully this will help to make your next visit to an onsen more interesting. Throw these terms into conversation with your friends, and then make up observations about the smell and color and feel of the onsen water and pretend you’re taste-testing on a food competition show or something. Your friends will either think you sound really cool or they will be tempted to dump a bucket of cold water on your head to make you just shut up and enjoy onsen for the simple pleasure that they are.

Reblog for good measure!
Matsue Castle achieved National Treasure status last year, but the thousands of citizens who contributed to that recognition still want to retain as much of the castle’s history as possible.

San'in Monogatari

matsue-castle-gate

Matsue City aims to reconstruct Matsue Castle’s Otemon Gate that was torn down in the early Meiji Period, and is seeking source materials on which to base it.

Requested Materials: Old photos or blueprints of Matsue Castle’s Otemon Gate (materials than can be used for reconstruction purposes)
Reward Money: 5,000,000 yen
※This is only applicable in cases where an expert reviews the materials and determines that they are useful for reconstruction purposes.
Deadline:March 31, 2016
※Application period may end sooner upon finding usable materials.

If you have applicable materials, please contact: kokuhou AT city.matsue.lg.jp.

illustrationsite

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Mt. Kameda, now known as Jozan and the site of National Treasure Matsue Castle, is home to more than one historic building. Just down the stairs and north of the castle town sits Kounkaku, a Meiji era imperial guest house.

Completed in 1903 in anticipation of Emperor Meiji’s visit, it turned out to be used for instead in 1907 by his son who would go on to be Emperor Taisho. He stayed there for three nights in late May, and the buildings’ original function as a fitting spot to house an emperor was served.

During that time period when Japan was rapidly Westernizing, there was a rush to build Western style ballrooms where people in Western style attire would gather and socialize. Although they had observed many buildings abroad, the buildings in Japan maintained local construction techniques, there by retaining some elements that are very local in character, such as the wooden ceiling found at Kounkaku. In the emperor’s private sleeping quarters as well, the floors are made of tatami mats.


Whereas the floors in his working areas were covered in lush carpets. I’m give or take about the floors, but I love those curtains.

The building served as a prefectural office for a short period of time, and then as the Matsue Folklore Museum for a few decades, but ended with the 2011 opening of the Matsue History Museum nearby in a new (and very nice) building modeled on a high ranking samurai home. Kounkaku was closed for about two years undergoing renovations, and reopened last October both as a general tourism spot and as an event space.

We’ve hosted a couple of receptions for delegates from Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, here on the second floor (it’s tempting to call it a ballroom, but it was not actually designed as a party space). I’ve had a few people ask me if the building was based on Southern plantation buildings, as something about it feels very much like home to them.

I can’t say it feels familiar to me, but I do feel at home in buildings that transport you back to ages long ago. Great care was taken in preserving the buildings’ integrity while adding accessibility options and toilets to the back of it outside of the original building. The paint colors are as close to the original as we have sources to indicate, and all the locks and keyholes, marbled Meiji glass, and wooden door remain the same. Even the knicks in the wood from years of use remain as they are, adding character akin to freckles to a building that remains proud and regal.

My affection for the state of the building made me alarmed when I was consulted about adding a cafe to the downstairs.

I could see why it seemed like a good idea on the surface, but I was consumed with how many ways a good idea could go wrong. There was some talk about opening a Cafe Du Monde chain there, given the connections between Matsue and New Orleans and that Japan is the only place where the chicory coffee and beignet shop allows any chains. If they put enough effort into maintaining the character of both Cafe Du Monde and of Kounkaku I though that had potential to be very impressive, but the company that owns the Cafe Du Monde chains in Japan–and made an abomination of them by selling breakfast hot dog sandwiches and not even providing beignets at its Kyoto Station location–likely would not allow the city such flexibility to try to honor the original. What’s a more, a chain—-if it were any kind of coffee shop with a recognizable name in Japan, that name would inevitably be all over the Meiji architecture, during the imperial guest house into a shrine to modern commerce and convenience culture. With those fears in mind, I strong advised that unless they could made an independant shop with commitment to a Meiji style atmosphere and menu, it would be safer not to chance it with a commercial enterprise.

Granted, my advise was only asked for in passing, but I doubt my influence went very far. There were other who also loved the building who had even more grave concerns, such as keeping the Prfectural Cultural Property from going up in flames due to electrical fires.

The cafe opened at the same time the building reopened to visitors last fall. And to my pleasant surprise, the Kamedayama Tea Room was not a name I recognized.

I should know by now that Matsue loves its castle town atmosphere too much to let it be sold out in the name of progress. Even the castle tower itself only stands today because a Meiji period citizens’ group pooling money together to buy it from the government to prevent it from being demolished in a nationwide effort to toss out the old and unnecessary remnants of feudal Japan. Likewise, they would not let just any cafe operate inside of a building as special as Kounkaku.

As the name suggests, it is named for the mount on which Matsue Castle stands. Due to strict fire prevention guidelines placed on designated cultural properties, there are limits to how much electricity the cafe can use, and no open flames are allowed. As such, the food is prepared off site and kept cooled and/or heated up on the premises, thereby although reducing noise. Visual noise is also kept to a minimum with the sleek and understated design of the furniture and dishes.

So far I’ve only tried an Earl Grey with persimmon cheesecake, as well as one breakfast there, but they do have an appetizing lunch menu as well. I am also very intrigued by the Kuromoji Tea, a brew hailing from the nearby Oki Islands and long since a favorite in Shimane Prefecture. I’ll bet it’s fragrant, and I’m saving trying it for a time when I don’t need a kick of caffeine.

It’s now also the closest spot to Matsue Castle to grab lunch or stop in for tea time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the springtime picnics around the castle are likely to decrease.

At some point over the course of my tea lessons, Tea-sensei happened to mention using chocolate truffles for Christmas tea ceremonies. The mention of chocolate made me excited and very curious, and next thing you know, several months later we started planning a tea ceremony for Christmas 2014.

Although I was originally in this for the chocolate, Tea-sensei was excited to use it as a chance to bring out the tools and decorative items she usually doesn’t have any other chance to use. She and her husband run a shop that sells very expensive stuff, mostly with a traditional Japanese spin, but they are knowledgable of and collect wares from around the world. Although the Japanese tea ceremony tends to put a heavy emphasis on items made by Japanese craftsmen, as well as Korean and at time Chinese craftsmen, she occasionally uses things like incense containers from Thailand during practices, and she was looking forward to using her items from Europe and Africa for this ceremony.

Combining a holiday that feels both Western and modern with a traditional and very Japanese-feeling practice may strike people as odd, but the tea ceremony as we know it today actually owes a lot to the Catholic Mass. The founder of the three major schools of tea ceremony, Sen Rikyuu (1522-1591), although he was not a Christian convert, lived in a time when many samurai warlords were baptized Christians and welcomed the Portugese missionaries (this is before the attitudes at the top changed and then Christians were persucuted). Rikyu was therefore familiar with the religion and had attended Mass, which influenced part of the motions of the tea ceremony. Many early practitioners of the tea ceremony, most famously Takayama Ukon (aka Dom Justo Takayama), one of Rikyu’s seven closest followers, were Christians and viewed the tea ceremony through that angle. It’s very likely that Christmas tea ceremonies were celebrated regularly, like other seasonal occasions.

Tea-sensei, who is not Christian and has never had a foreign or Christian student before me, has done these a number of times in the past even if not consistently. There are some details she keeps consistent, such as one of the first details she mentioned after the chocolate truffles: in the tokonoma (decorative alcove) there is usually a seasonal scroll, which often has subjects heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. For a Christmas tea ceremony, however, they hang a painting of Mary and offer the tea before her first, and everyone bows in thanks for her having given birth to Jesus. The painting she chose was from her collection of African Christian art, of which I’ve seen a few items from but cannot recall the details of which items came from which countries.

She asked for my input at many steps of planning the ceremony, especially on what sorts of items to use for a traditional ceremony. “What sort of chawan should we use?” she asked, and off the cuff, I answered gold since baby Jesus received that from the Wise Men. She immediately made a mental note of it and asked what else he received, which lead to a discussion of the merits or demerits of using frankincense or mhyrr in a tea ceremony (in the end, we did not–that would be a little too overpowering).

I tried looking for material about what kinds of tools the tea ceremony practioners might have used back in the 16th century but found nothing, so I had to answer based on familiarity with a side of Christmas not often seen in Japan’s Santa and Snowman displays in shopping malls. She asked which flowers to use, and it seems she hadn’t even thought to use pointsettias or holly. Upon that suggestion, her husband made this wreath with a crucifix to hang in entry of the house, which would set the mood for everyone on their way to the tea room.

Because it was so close to the end of the year, when the students usually get together to do a massive cleaning of every knook and cranny of the tea rooms and all the tools for practice throughout the year, ten or so of us did that first before getting ready for the evening ceremony. I wore a dress instead of a kimono, as I was also taking advantage of the chance to use some nice Western style items I don’t usually have a good excuse to wear, and it was nice not to have to wear a kimono for performing the ceremony.

Performing the ceremony by candlelight, however, was very difficult. As nice as the atmosphere was, I could hardly see what I was doing, and I was not used to the very wide and heavy natsume (tea caddy) I was using, which was actually foreign pottery item instead of a Japanese laquerware piece. I wound up spilling a bunch of tea in my lap while trying to put the lid back in place, but thankfully, my dress was more forgiving to being coated in matcha powder than a kimono likely would have been. Oops. Not one of my more graceful moments. In the low light, however, hardly anyone could tell and thankfully I didn’t need to stand up until the end of ceremony and had a good chance to clean it up before letting it spill all over the tatami mats.

Moments like that are what make private ceremonies with your school mates very relaxed and fun, especially since it was a learning experience for everyone. With so many tools we were unfamiliar with, everyone took their time observing each one, and there was so much information that I could not keep organized in my head which tea bowl came from which European country, but I do recall interesting details such as chosing the tea bowl with the fish as a Christian symbol, which I wouldn’t have thought of using for Christmas. Although I am usually at the receiving end of all this information overload, I was also asked to explain some of the Christian symbolism and background they weren’t familiar with, and by the end of the night, everyone had learned something new in addition to enjoying the tea ceremony for the purely the tea aspect.

I had no explanation for the Christmas Cake, though. That’s a Japanese thing, and I doubt it’s the sort of thing Sen Rikyu would have used in a 16th century ceremony. I find it more sad for him and his guests that they didn’t have chocolate truffles.

Izumo Taisha (or more formally, Izumo Oyashiro), considered the largest and perhaps oldest shrine in Japan, has a number of points of note on a normal visit. I’ve written about it and mentioned it many times throughout this blog, but I’ll address a few of the major ones here.

First, like any Shinto shrine, there is at least one Torii gate to signify the boundary between the mundane world and the spiritual realm. In Izumo Taisha’s case, there are four gates made of different materials: stone, wood, iron, and copper. Visitors bow under each of these, spiritually preparing themselves to may their respects. Also as part of this entrance, there is a cleansing pond (not actually for bathing in, but for see your reflection and therefore self-reflecting) and a small shrine were a god lives and purifies you without your even noticing. This is all before you even reach the hand-washing font, a typical feature of Shinto shrines.





One of the points of interest comes after the wooden gate. Between the stone gate and the wooden gate, there is a bustling street of gift shops and restaurants full of Izumo-style items, and it all leads uphill. The wooden gate is like the main entrance, and after that, the path continues downhill to the main shrine (the honden). This is highly unusual, as most honden are placed at the highest point in the shrine, making it necessary to go up to them.

Along this path, there are two rows of old pine trees. It’s common nature to want to continue straight through the middle of them, but this path is reserved for the gods! Walk along the left or right of them instead.


Either way will lead you to a statue of Okuninushi. On the left, a statue of Okuninushi admonishing the White Hare of Inaba for fooling the sharks but giving him medicinal advice anyway, and on the left, a statue of Okuninushi handing over the lands of Japan to the heavens and is granted domain over En-musubi (signified by a giant wave he kneels in front of, as this scene did take place at nearby Inasa-no-hama Beach). Also, they’re a recent addition, but there are now statues of hares all over the shrine grounds.


After passing one of the worship halls inside which personal rituals are performed, the honden comes into view. Built in Taisha-tsukuri style, the oldest style of Japanese shrine architecture which supposedly predates the influence of Buddhism, it is 24 meters high (as a point of reference, the stone torii gate is 23 meters high). Izumo Taisha practices sengu, a reconstruction of the shrine at fixed intervals so as to keep the shrine’s spiritual power continually refreshed. In Izumo Taisha’s case it is done every 60 years in rotating construction on one part of the shrine at a time instead of everything all at once, and in 2013 the honden was reopened after reconstruction on the roof. Because this was relatively recent, Okuninushi is said to still be in a good mood with his fresh new space.




Impressive at the honden is now, historical records referred to be once being the tallest wooden structure in Japan, towering at 48 meters. Most historians had dismissed this as fantastical until the year 2000, when clusters of three gargantuan wooden pillars each were discovered underground slightly in front of the current location of the honden. Their places are indicated in the concrete now, and three model pillars are on display outside on of the treasure storehouses to the east side of the shrine. The originals are on display inside the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, and tests and sources indicate that they were used to help the shrine attain its 48 meter height in the Kamakura Period, built in the year 1248. As another point of reference, the pole on which the largest silk Japanese flag is flown is 48 meters high.



Models of old layouts at neighboring museum of Ancient Izumo (one of my favorite museums).






As another couple points of interest, the long buildings to the east and west of the honden have doors which are only opened during Kamiarisai, the week when the myriads of gods from around Japan are meeting. That’s because these Jukusha are hotel rooms for the visiting gods. Furthermore, Susano-o, god of the seas and suppressor of the Yamata-no-Orochi beast, as well as father-in-law to Okuninushi (or his ancestor depending on your sources), has his own little shrine nestled in the forest just north of the honden.


At the westernmost point in the shrine is the Kagura-den, another spot for performing rituals and especially popular for weddings. It is also home to the largest shimenawa (sacred rope) in Japan, which weighs about 1,500 kilograms and is about 8 meters long. (I’ve visited the facility in Iinan Town where they make the rope and tried out making some much smaller ones).



This only scratches the surface of the details about Izumo Taisha, but we’ll take one more look at the shrine in the following entry!

I’ve completed the manga portion of The Kojiki As Told By Brittany, but we still have the explanation behind Kuniyuzuri (Relinquishing of the Land) to address! After all, this is one of the most influential legends in the San’in region, but it plays a role in Shinto lore and ancient, semi-mythological Japanese history at large.

This is because a large portion of ancient, semi-mythological Japanese history is focused on the imperial family, in particular, that their lineage is traced back to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. This can theoretically be said for the current Japanese Imperial Family members who are related by blood as opposed to by marriage.

How did one family gain this power, though?

That requires a walk very far back in Japanese history, when different clans, called uji, took over other clans and enforced a hierarchy of gods, with the victors’ gods being worshipped by the overtaken clan members. One of the uji that gained a significant amount of power of the Yamato clan, which claimed to be descended from the Sun Goddess, and would later have a base in central Japan (modern-day Nara) that was rich with rice cultivation, and they would also use their religious influence to rule over the commoners.

Further west, however, Izumo Province had their own religious traditions (see the other legends listed in my Kojiki comics for some of the gods they had special ties to—Okuninushi being a major one, of course). Izumo and Yamato were at odds, but ultimately Yamato won control over the Izumo region, and went on to establish the Yamato state by the 8th century. Although “Yamato” is now synonymous with anything traditionally Japanese, Izumo continued to retain its religious significance–or at least, one could argue that in modern day Japan. See Klaus Antoni’s article, “Izumo as the ‘Other Japan’: Construction vs. Reality” for a very critical and interesting scholarly look at how Izumo and why the Izumo area, particularly in regard to Shintoism, is known the way it is today. It’s very interesting to note that Izumo traditionally seemed to represent Korean and other foreign influence, and many of the Izumo gods were thought of as having foreign origin, but at some point along the region’s history (especially within the past couple centuries) Izumo began to be thought of as something more traditionally Japanese than the rest of Westernized Japan. Intriguing as that topic is, I will continue to describe things here as simply as I can so as to show how the Kuniyuzuri legend is generally approached and spoken of outside of the scholarly sphere.

The Yamato clan, that is, the imperial line, ordered the writing of the Kojiki, Nihonshoki, and 48 Fudoki, upon which most of Japanese Shinto mythology is based. The Kojiki was completed in 712, and was a mash of clan myths from around Japan mainly compiled by a nobleman named O-no-Yasumaro. It was written in Chinese characters that more or less fit Japanese pronunciation.

The 48 Fudoki, records of individual provinces under the imperial court’s rule, underwent compilation starting in 713, the year after the completion of the Kojiki. In addition to geographical, economic, and ecological data, the Fudoki also expanded on Shinto mythology. Of them, only the records of Izumo Province remain mostly intact today.

A few years later, in 720, the Nihonshoki was finished. This had more of a national history textbook approach and political basis with a different sort of mash of writing in Chinese style. It also included Shinto mythology, and O-no-Yasumaro likely contributed a lot to this project. However, there are some differences, and many of the same gods are recorded under different names than were used for them in the Kojiki.

Part of the reason these were compiled were to stand up to outside cultural and political pressure from the Asian continent (especially Tang, now known as China) and show that they were their own legitimate political entity all along. Another reason was to internally justify the rule of the Yamato clan as opposed to any other powerful family, and much of this reasoning was based on their lineage from Amaterasu, which thereby gave them heaven-granted dominion over the islands of Japan. Despite the large role Okuninushi (an earthly–and thereby foreign?–kami) played in establishing a functional state and culture, his key scene in this narrative is that he willingly handed power over to Amaterasu’s descendants.

This of course makes the beach Inasa-no-Hama, the stage for this momentous event in mythological politics, historically important, (but you might already remember this as the beach from where the gods proceed to Izumo Taisha for their annual meeting).

I’d like to point out that the imperial family is not the only family in Japan that claims direct lineage from heavenly kami. The family that has continually passed down responsibility as head priest of Izumo Taisha, the Sengu Family, claims to be descended from Ame-no-ho-hi, the first messenger sent down from the heavens (and is also said to be her son, thereby uncle to first emperor Ninigi, and thereby also of Amaterasu’s bloodline even if not the heir) to request that Okuninushi relinquish his land, but who instead befriended Okuninushi. Befriended him enough to remain his main servant, apparently.

That makes last year’s royal wedding (or rather, de-royalfying) wedding very interesting. The former Princess Noriko of Takamado, a first cousin once removed of Emperor Akihito, married Kunimaro Senge on October 5, 2014, at Izumo Taisha with a private reception at Ichibata Hotel here in Matsue in the (now so-called) land of En-musubi, divine fate-binding. Her husband is the eldest son of Takamasa Senge, current head priest of Izumo Taisha. Although she is now technically a commoner and imperial lineage is passed down through the male line anyway, mythologically, it still means that the descendents of Amanoterasu and Ame-no-ho-hi (who disobeyed Amanoterasu’s order and did not receive the same privileges as his nephew Ninigi) are now married. No one really mentioned this little tidbit in any of the media coverage I noticed.

Granted, family lineages are not always so smooth throughout centuries worth of enough drama to fill NHK’s decades of annual lengthy Taiga Drama (period dramas). Just as much as the imperial family has had drama surrounding its transfers of power between relatives, the Sengu family is also only one branch of the Ame-no-ho-hi family line, and they have been officially in charge of Izumo Taisha since 1947 after it was privatized again following its brief stint as a government-administered, Imperially-affiliated shrine during state-lead Shinto. Although the Sengu family has more followers throughout the nation in their Izumo Taisha-Kyo faith (sort of like an order or spirituality within the broader faith of Shintoism), it is said that the Kitajima family–whom they seperated from–has more local followers for their supposedly more orthodox Izumo-Kyo. But alas, this all takes place many centuries after the mythology of their origins was recorded in the Kojiki/Nihonshoki/Fudoki.

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