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…

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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.

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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.

I would hope it’s pretty obvious by now, but the view of the sunset from Lake Shinji is pretty famous for being spectacular, especially around the Shimane Art Museum.

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It’s also well known for wild swans, called “Hakucho” (白鳥, literally “white bird”) in Japanese.

hakucho-boat

Not that Hakucho! Though I suppose that can be a wild ride on a very windy day. I meant these hakucho:

hakucho-birds

Someone sure looks happy to be in paradise.

One of the things that makes me sad about my current lifestyle is that there are not that many opportunities to interact with animals. I can’t have any pets at my apartment, and most of my friends don’t have pets, and although I love seeing the wide array of wild birds that call Matsue their home for all or part of the year, it’s not quite the same as getting to interact with them. Bird feeders are not particularly common here, and when it comes down to it, many people–though certainly all–people raised in Japan are not comfortable interacting with animals, especially birds.

When I studied abroad in the Kansai region many years ago, I was a little starved of animal contact then, too. On a trip to an amusement part with my host mother and 5-year-old host brother I dragged them along to the petting zoo, and they didn’t seem to have much of an idea how to pet the furry critters. They both refused to go through the hallway of birds with me, seeing as she was afraid of them and that fear had spread to him. As I walked through, a parrot squawked at me, and that made the two of them scream on the other side of the wall. Even just now, as I was going through some of these photos of me taking advantage of every chance to interact with the birds at the Matsue Vogel Park, one of my supervisors noticed and asked, “Buri-chan, you weren’t afraid? Not at all??”

Nope! Not at all. And I’m really glad there is a place like the Vogel Park to give people a chance to give birds–and animals in general–a chance.

When I first came to Matsue it was the first outing I took while getting to know the city, and since then when I’ve had people come to visit and just want to hang out with them somewhere, I take them here. It had been a while since the last time I was there, and I had been pining for some animal interaction all winter, so once my schedule opened up, I took a Wednesday off from work to go spend the day there.

I distinctly wanted to go on a weekday as early as I could, because it can get very crowded on weekends and the ibises get sleepy in the afternoon. I love feeding the ibises, and they certainly enjoy being fed, so it worked out well. Not well enough to get a photo of them crowded at my feet and honking (or beeping, more like it?) at me, but I did stand around and drawing them later.

It felt so good to take the day to work on art, too! Birds are so much fun to draw, and the kachou (“flowers and birds”) themed Japanese paintings at the Adachi Museum of Art always make me want to go home and draw birds. Ahhh, but flowers. That’s something people come here for too. There begonias, fuchsia, and other flowers make the center greenhouse a paradise all year round.


On a Wednesday in February, it just happens to be a paradise with no people… which might or might not be a good thing?

It was still a little chilly in the greenhouses, but warm enough to fit in a lot of live sketches throughout the day. Usually, you can take a leisurely walk through the park in about an hour, but I took lots and lots of extra time, and made it to all the daily shows and events this time instead of just one or two. Instead of walking you through each part of the park, it’s probably faster just to see the new and improved English website. I skipped the observation tower overlooking Lake Shinji because it was an overcast day, but I fully enjoyed listening to the birds in the forest while walking between greenhouse and observing the birds.





















It was especially fun to take my time while drawing the Banana the Toucan because his cage while right across from the cockatoo whose name I can’t quite remember. She’s usually not very interested in talking to me when I’m there on more crowded days, but today she was really bored, and constantly called out to me with “Hello!” and “Arigatou,” especially while I was facing Banana. When I would face her and interact with her instead, young Banana would start complaining until I’d go back over to him, and he’d quiet down and start hopping around the structures in his enclosure like the show-off he is.

The penguins, although they are one of the most popular attractions, are not quite as interesting to me. Besides their daily march in differing costumes, Sakura-chan has also captured the hearts of millions with this viral video in which she chases her beloved keeper.

For as nervous as many people around birds, the keepers obviously loved them, and birds are generally pretty affectionate with them, too. Seeing as it was a slow day between the waves of kindergartners on school excursions, the keepers were also pretty happy to chat with me about the birds as well, telling me everything from their names to how old they were to their personalities and which ones were raised at the park from the time they hatched. They were also very happy to indulge me in my question get some animal interaction–for 100~200 yen at select times, you can hold and pet many of the birds (and enormous rabbits, but I stuck with birds today). So I did. Let me interact with all the birds!

Owls are really, really, really soft.


This old call duck was enthusiastic and didn’t want to stay still.


This falcon was disappointed that it was a rainy day so she didn’t get to do her usual outdoor flying show at that hour.


The turacos are some of my favorites.


One of these toucans was named “Puri.” We’re a pair.

That was a good bird fix for a while, I suppose I could always go to Mt. Daisen to hang out with cows if I need a wider variety of mammals in my life. In the meantime, there is still a wide variety of birds to look at and listen to on my usual routes around this City of Water (and waterfowl).

It’s the season to better oneself with New Year’s resolutions and ask for a little divine help in doing by visiting shrines and temples for Hatsumode, squeezing in your prayers along those of all the other visitors and trading in the old good luck charms for freshly powered new ones. Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Shrine, located in southeastern Matsue, is especially popular with people who are seeking longevity, trying to avoid bad luck, seeking prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and especially traffic safety. Though they may have the specialties they are known for, no shrine is limited to their specialities, and many general wishes are made at any given place as well.

The primary deity at Hachimangu shrines is Hachiman-jin, considered a god of war in Shinto and in Buddhism. Historically he has been popularly worshipped by the samurai class, along peasants have worshiped him as a harvest god (though Inari is usually the more notable harvest god, and samurai like local hero Matsudaira Naomasa had a notable devotion to the fox deity). Seeing as success in war is a not a common wish for many people in Japan nowadays, the “safe return from war” seems to now translate as “a safe commute home with no traffic accidents.” Furthermore, although Hachiman-jin is not readily associated with success in passing one’s exams (Tenjin’s the obvious choice there), one could consider exams a sort of battle in and of itself.

With that in mind, these statues seem right at home in the most well-known Hachimangu shrine of Matsue.

First, we have a frog.

Frogs are frequently used for good-luck puns, since they are called kaeru in Japanese. This is synonymous with “to return,” such as in “many returns of good fortune.” In this case, it more blatantly refers to the safe return home of both people and their cars. The statue is called “Buji Kaeru.” This phrase means “return home safely” (無事帰る) but in this case, you could call it the “No Mishap Frog.”

It makes sense to have something like at a shrine well-known for its good graces it is supposed to provide in avoiding traffic accidents (among many other special intentions you could also select ema (prayer boards) for).

Then there’s the Daruma next to it. The Yaruki Daruma.

Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, a monk said to have transmitted Chan/Zen Buddhism to Japan. In Japan, it is popularly said that he meditated so long that his legs fell off due to atrophy, and cute, round, and humorously serious Daruma dolls are a popular symbol for the merit of hard work (though if your legs fall off, I’m not sure how fortuitous that can really be). They are found at Shinto shrines throughout the country, with many shrines putting their own spin on how to use the simple and recognizable doll. A common practice is to purchase a Daruma when you have a goal in mind, and to paint on one eye. It is after you attain the goal that you needed to work hard for that you paint on the other eye. You can put any kind of spin on accomplishing any kind of goal, such as Yaegaki Shrine‘s blue and pink En-musubi dolls for couples.

The Yaruki Daruma provides willpower (yaruki) for studying. We all need a little help with this sometimes, right? I know I do. The sign next to the Yaruki Daruma says:

Willpower Daruma
冷頭静修: Cool your head and study quietly.
Pour some cold water on Daruma-san’s head and then say your prayers.

Pouring water on statues when saying prayers is a pretty common practice throughout Japan, such as pouring hot water on the Oyukake Jizo at Matsue Shinjiko Onsen (and yes, his name is literally “the Jizou to pour hot water on”). I like how stark the advice is on this statue. It’s not just a blanket “study, study, study!” command, it’s “hey, COOL IT and sit down and be quiet and DO THE THING.”

The advice seems even more effective when you imagine this face saying it to you.


One hot summer day in July, my Forest Therapy in Iinan-cho began with waking up in a hotel called Mori no Su, a stylish “nest in the forest.” The food had been imaginative and delicious, and the night had been comfortingly dark, save for the active fireflies around the windows. The warm tones of the interior, the woven design of the furniture, and the understated calmness without distractions like televisions and computers made it feel like a comforting place to nestle into the forest, breathe deeply, and let go of my stressors.

This put me in the right mind set for the guided Forest Therapy that Iinan-cho specializes in. Our guide brought my attention to little things I often overlook in the woods. We learned about different kinds of trees and shrubs, and I found myself looking for new little mysteries among the dirt and greenery. What sort of bug had made those bubbly nests? What sort of flowers was that fragrance coming from? I could hear many kinds of birds, to my chagrin I could not spot a single one among the lush ceiling of leaves. No matter, I thought as I swayed in a hammock prepared in advance for us. Nature is not about seeing everything; sometimes it is about closing your eyes.

What a wonder, though, that nature provides so much for us! Oxygen, raw materials, and food. I was struck later by how much I take that for granted when we went fishing for yamame (landlocked salmon). A little pool was filled with them, and fishing lines and bait, charcoal pits, and experienced fishermen were all immediately available to ensure that even the most inexperienced of fishers could catch something. I count myself among those fishers.



My friends pulled out fish after fish, it seemed, all healthy and wriggling at the ends of the lines. The fish at the end of my line, however, were healthiest. By this, I mean they all got a free lunch and swam away.

Soon, all of my friends were waiting for me in the shade as I continued to let after fish after fish get away. I was ready to forego a fresh-caught lunch, but my more experienced supporters stayed with me—going so far as to prep the bait on my hook for me, and coach me through the whole process. Unluckily for one single fish, I was at last successful.


My sojourn in the depths of nature was certainly pleasurable, but perhaps I need more practice before I can be a little more self-sufficient. For now, I will happily accept all the pampering and coaching the locals provide.

[Originally published on Shimane: Explore Unfamiliar Japan, but I have embellished a bit on the photos here. All photos were used with permission.]

Although the tale of Kaka-no-Kukedo, the birthplace of the primary deity of Sada Shrine, is a more riveting tale, I included another Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki legend in this story. The Fudoki (like 8th century encyclopedias of Japan) in part set out to determine names for all the major geographical features of the country, which included assigning fortuitous kanji (Chinese written characters) for them. Quite often, the names they chose required some mythological background.

This is case, a village derived its name from a little bird.

Read about this bird’s role in Japanese culture here.

The Cettia diphone, clumsily translated as the Japanese Bush Warbler or Japanese nightingale, is simpler to refer to as the known here as uguisu (鶯). In ancient times, it used to be called a houki-dori, a Houki bird (法吉鳥). The legend states that Umugi-hime (sometimes known as Umuka-hime while her sister Kisagai-hime is sometimes known as Kisaka-hime) changed into a Houki bird’s form and flew to that place. Hence, it was called Houki Village (法吉郷).

Years later, the written characters remained, but their pronunciation changed to Hokki. This district of Matsue remainds under that name, and also retains an uguisu as its symbol.

There is, of course, a shrine dedicated to Umugi-hime, though it has changed locations from Uguisu Valley to a spot with a better vantage point. Seeing as she and her sister made their big appearance in the Kojiki when they answered Onamuji’s mother’s pleas and healed his burns and brought him back to life, it is a shrine popularly associated with mothers’ love.




Nearby, there is a pond called Takido. It is said to have salt water because it is connected to the sea, and because many fish get lost there, you can catch quite the haul. Specifically, it is said to be connected to Kaka-no-Kukedo, but given the distance, I can’t help but find this a bit fishy.

Despite the self-proclaimed connection to uguisu (and for that matter, saltwater fish?), the area is probably better known for a good firefly viewing spot in summer.