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 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.

Does the term “Tengu” mean anything to you? Although sometimes translated as “goblin,” “gargoyle,” or simply “demon”, this particular type of mythical creature conjures images of human-esque anatomy, attire of a yamabushi (mountain monk often involved in esoteric practices), holding fans that control the wind (and possibly more), and red-faced with a long nose that reflects the inflated sizes of their egos.

Karasu-Tengu as illustrated by Mizuki Shigeru

Karasu-Tengu as illustrated by Mizuki Shigeru

Although the term (天狗) refers more literally to dogs of heaven, they are more commonly thought of as birds. Some of the lower ranked kotengu (小天狗), who are often pictured with more bird-like faces with beaks as opposed to the signature long nose. Infamously capricious, they are often involved in folktales throughout Japan, like this one. Tengu are as also sometimes known as Karasu-Tengu (カラス天狗), literally “crow Tengu.” As far as their form is concerned, however, they’re more likely based on black kites–not toys, but the giant birds of prey throughout Japan that light to steal people’s bentou in their talons in single swoops.

Some black kites and a large crow in Izumo for size comparison.

Hanging out with the Karasu-Tengu of Tengu Forest at Izumo Kanbeno Sato in southern Matsue. I've also found a Karasu-Tengu hiding in the forest behind Tamatsukuriyu Shrine in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area...

Hanging out with the Karasu-Tengu of Tengu Forest at Izumo Kanbeno Sato in southern Matsue. I’ve also found a Karasu-Tengu hiding in the forest behind Tamatsukuriyu Shrine in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area…

If there are lower ranked Tengu, then there are also higher ranked Tengu–Daitengu (大天狗). Although there is no known limit to the Kotengu dwelling throughout the mountains of Japan, according to various texts from Kamakura era and referred ever since, there are only 17 Daitengu, though only the top eight (perhaps that should be Top Eight) are mentioned very often. All the Daitengu possess superior intellect, and whether to the ire or to the honor of the locale (attitudes towards Tengu and whether they are good or bad vary from era to era), they have specific areas they inhabit.

The 7th of these 17 is Hōkibō (伯耆坊), who resides on Mt. Daisen, the highest mountain of the San’in region.

Click for source

Click for source

One of the local famous wagashi (Japanese confectionary) producers in Matsue, Saiundo, has a signature sweet named after the local Daitengu. The Hōkibō sweet has sugar and slightly chunky red beans on the outside with a layer of soft mochi on the inside, and is based off the shape of his fan, as illustrated below.

Click for source.


Click for source and a larger version.

Hōkibō has generally been looked upon favorably by the locals in Tottori, but according to Edo period records, he moved to Mt. Ōyama in Kanagawa to oversee the flocks of Tengu there due to a Daitengu vacancy left after Sagamibō left to comfort a banished emperor. Hōkibō’s name still reflects his original home, seeing as Mt. Daisen is in the old Hōki Province. He also still makes appearances in Daisen Town’s parade of characters in historical costumes (see here, and here, and here).

大山s

You know the funny thing about Mt. Daisen and Mt. Ōyama? They’re both written 大山 (quite literally, “big mountain”).

Seeing as he is often mentioned when the Top Eight of the Daitengu are cooperating in something, such as–under the leadership of the top ranked Daitengu, Sōjōbō of Mt. Kurama near Kyoto–watching over a young orphan of the Genji clan who would eventually grow up to demolish the oppressive Heike clan, as well as be one half of Japan’s most legendary of dynamic duos. It just so happens the other half of that duo was born and raised here in the San’in region, and trained on Mt. Daisen!

Click for source and to view a larger verson of the image. This is an ukiyo-e by Tsukioke Yoshitoshi, one of the last great ukiyo-e artists, although he was known for some rather grotesque subject matter. Hōkibō is taking Benkei down by his leg, while Sōjōbō sits back and watches with Ushiwaka.

This is just one interpretation of the famous meeting on Gojo Bridge in Kyoto between Yoshitsune (or Ushiwaka, his childhood name he still used at the time) and Benkei. In general, the start of their story is that Benkei was a powerful naginata user and beat everyone up, but when he was beaten by young Yoshitsune, he swore fealty to him, and this was the start of their semi-historical, semi-fantastical adventures. Their story has been continually expanded upon in literature for hundreds of years with some basic running themes, such as how Yoshitsune trained with Sōjōbō on Mt. Kurama before meeting Benkei. There are many, many stories of young Benkei (called Oniwaka) here in the San’in region, such as how his mother had cravings for iron when she was pregnant with him, so he was born with a black face and strong as iron, but that’s for another time.

In the meantime, just a little plug for Asiascape‘s “Manga as/in Essay” online magazine. I’ll have a 17 page manga piece running in the “Kurama Tengu” issue. I know, what a traitor I sound like, writing about a Kyoto Tengu rather than a San’in Tengu! But research for that piece is what lead to this entry, and Hōkibō was mentioned in the script for the Noh drama, and by liberally extended definition even the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture can be called part of the San’in region. Well, off to go reward myself with another Hōkibō of the wagashi variety.

By shouting “men” I’m not shouting that I must attack the masucline gender. Rather, like in kendo, men (面) is a strike at the face.

I’ve been practicing the naginata at the Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall for six months now under the tutelage of a few teachers, including the #1 ranked competitor in Japan for two years running (she’s quite cool!). While not as well-known as kendo or kyuudo, the naginata also has a long history closely tied with warrior history. While it’s hard to say exactly where it started (some sources say it’s based on the weapon General Guan Yu used in China’s Three Kingdoms era), one of it’s most famous wielders in Japan was Benkei, who had a lot of ties out here in the San’in region!

In the Warring States era, warriors used this sort of sword-on-a-stick to reach horseback riders, but as the country transistioned into a time of peace over the course of the Edo era, it gradually became the weapon of choice for samurai women, should the time ever come when they must protect the home. It was considered ideal for women because they wouldn’t have to be too close to their opponent, and despite its reach, it can be used in narrow spaces. As women started to receive education outside of the home as Japan was westernizing, they frequently learned how to use the naginata as part of their physical education. While it sounds like it may be a male-dominated sport outside of Japan today, in general, it seems to be more popular with women here. In my class, for example, we only have two male students. (Conversely, the judo classes are pretty skewed in the other direction!)

While it’s okay to practice in regular street clothes, most of my classmates (albeit most of my classmates aren’t even half my age!) wear traditional style clothes for practice, including the pleaded trousers know as hakama. Hakama also have a rich tradition of use in many places, but the ones used for martial arts practice are thick, washable material that’s okay to get a little rough in. They can be a bit drafty, though–I always wear something underneath–and they don’t carry the same forced-formality as a kimono. Case in point, some of my young classmates fool around by sticking their arms down the slits at the slides and then flapping them around like wings.