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

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

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

benkei

—————

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

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

—————

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

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



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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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




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

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

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

“Oh, right. That makes sense.”

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

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

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

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




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

“来てよかった!”
Kite yokatta ne~


But maybe a little Shugendo was in order anyway.


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

—————

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

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

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.

There are so many firsts of the New Year often marked by the prefix hatsu (初), which means “first” or “new.” Hatsuburogu is one of the few that is not in popular use, as I just made this up for my first freshly written blog post of the year (scheduled entries are great for vacations, and I thoroughly enjoyed my New Year holiday hibernation).

Some things take place on the first day, like the Hatsu-hi-no-de (初日の出, first sunrise) and Hatsuyume (初夢, first dream), and quite often the Hatsuwarai (初笑い, first laugh). In my Hatsuyume I was laughing with my Grandpa, so I guess that covered two. I don’t have a great view of the sunrise from my apartment and the San’in region is much more well-known for its sunsets anyway, but I did kick myself out of bed to go take a look.

My Hatsumode (初詣, first shrine/temple visit) was to Izumo Taisha a couple days later. This was like the opposite experience of my first Hatsumode experience at Kamosu Shrine, which took place after midnight in the midst of a silent snowfall. This being Izumo Taisha during the daytime, we figured it would be so crowded that we could barely move and with our plans to rent kimono we feared it would rain, but it turns out all of Japan had lovely spring-like weather that day, and although the shrine grounds and surrounding area were very lively and the yatai (food stall) areas were too crowded for us to bother sticking around, we made very smooth, thorough rounds around the shrine. Out of all my visits to Izumo Taisha, I enjoyed this time the most.

hatsumode-biyori

kimono-asobi

izumo-taisha-mairi

wabbits

My Hatsugama (初釜, literally “first kettle” but refers to the first tea ceremony) is in a couple days. I’m very busy getting ready for it, since my classmates and I have our turn to serve as touban, the people “on duty” so to speak to prepare the ceremony and serve everyone. It’s more responsibility than I’ve ever been given in a tea ceremony, as usually the most I’ve done is otemae (preparing the tea in front of everyone) and ohakobi (serving tea and sweets to the guests). This time I’ll be doing everything from giving greetings and explaining the decor to serving sake and food in a formal kaiseki meal, but my responsibilities aren’t that heavy when compared to my classmates who are bringing all behind-the-scenes tool, ordering wagashi, arranging flowers, and everything else in addition to the tea preparation and serving we’ll do together! We’ll be hosting it in the place where I had my first Hatsugama experience two years ago.

I’ll be on the serving end instead of the receiving end of this set-up, probably in this very room.


Since it’s the Year of the Monkey, we’ll be using this Hear-No-See-No-Speak-No-Evil futaoki (a tool to rest your hishaku (ladle) on)


A musubi-yanagi (bound willow branch) decoration, a typical New Year decoration in the Omotesenke school. The circle stands for good things coming full circle once again.

At the time this entry is scheduled to post, I’ll be at my naginata Hatsugeiko (初稽古, first practice). The Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall (the Shimane Budokan) puts on a big Saturday event for everyone from a variety of different disciplines to make a first practice at the same time, so the dojo is filled with all shouts of all kinds as people strike, guard, throw, and do whatever else their martial art calls for. Afterward, they serve zenzai, a traditional red bean and mochi soup to kick off the new year.

Last year was a really good year for me in practicing naginata. For instance, there are eight basic engi (set forms done with a partner), and of those, forms 6~8 are a little complicated and therefore usually only taught to high schoolers and adults. We learned 6 and 7 this year and will probably move on to 8 soon. I also borrowed a mask so that I could compete in my first sparring match at the Chuugoku region competition this past November. I lost, but it had to be called by the judges at the end of the match instead of being a clear loss partway through, and I feel I did really well. Actually, last year was my first time to have worn a mask and gotten any real sparring experience at all! There were some long training weekends with lots of pointers from teachers in other cities, and I passed my 1-kyuu test this past fall. I could potentially test for a shodan rank later this year (which, if you’re not familiar with kyuu and dan ranks, is like the equivalent of a first degree black belt), but it’s still hard to say.

Unfortunately the only photos I have of myself doing naginata are showing off my poor stances from a couple years ago. So here is a doodle I did a couple months ago instead, though the stance is still not right. The hands should be lower in chuudan stance.

The first calligraphy of the new year is also special. It’s called Hatsu—er, no. It’s called Kakizome, but still written with that character (書初め). I can’t say Shodo (calligraphy) is among my regular artistic pursuits, although I have been taught for fun a few times. It’s been forever since I held a brush and felt very stiff while writing my first characters on the Izumo style Japanese paper I made at the Abe Eishirou Kinenkan last year, 晃 (akiraka, clear like bright light) and 輝き (kagayaki, shining and radiance and sparkling and all that fun stuff), but then I let loose with a bunch of Zen phrases often used in the tea ceremony world.


蓬莱山
無事是貴人
福寿雙生
和敬清寂

Those were done shortly after watching the sunrise and drinking my first cup of tea of the year. I’d like to blame my poor character balance and stroke control on being blinded by the sunlight, but I suppose this is another year to improve.

You see the occasional bash to the eye or slight bump to the head in regular practice, but that was my first time being hit squarely on the top of the head with a back-swinging naginata. I’m okay–lesson learned, humility attained!

To wrap this little series up, yes, I did pass my test for 2-kyuu, but was told a lot to improve on. It’s still too early to tell if the 1-kyuu test will be available later this year or not, but regardless, I hope to improve on the basics more this year as well.

When watching a naginata match, be it a small local match or the regional championships, there will usually be a program printed with the names of all of the participants included in bracket form so that the audience can follow along, mark who advanced where, and how the judges were split between determining the winners. Single matches can go on for what feels like a really long time, or they can be over before you’re even had a chance to locate the kids you’re cheering for. It can be exhausting to closely observe a long morning of match after match after match, but once you get the rhythm of it, it gets a lot easier to tell what’s going on. That doesn’t always make it easy to catch all of the details, though.

Seeing as I don’t always see my classmates’ names written down because we mostly interact on a vocal basis, it’s always fun seeing for the first time how their names are written. Given that a single, common-sounding name can have numerous ways of being expressed in kanji (or–surprise!–hiragana or katakana phonetic characters instead), it gives you a glimpse into how their parents’ generation thinks, and what trends have seemed to emerge in the previous decades.

A trend that many Japanese people find somewhat worrying is Kira-Kira names. Think Western celebrity baby names or other lists of the most cringe-worthy, “did they actually let them put that on the birth certificate?” names. Although civil servants do turn down names like “Pikachu” despite it’s clever potential kanji, there is still a rising trend in bending the laws of kanji readings to fit things they would not usually say, or choosing creative ways of writing common names, or coming up with entirely new names for their special-snowflake children. I find it really funny when I go to a small elementary school, see a board with all the students listed, and a good handful of them all have the same trendy name but each of them have different kanji. However, there is a push against them not just for those children who will sometimes be stuck with ridiculous or unfortunate names, but because it could genuinely make their lives more difficult. One point Kira-Kira opponents like to refer to is ambulance workers, and how trying to get an unusual name correct would cost them precious time.

I cannot comment of the validity of all of their concerns, but I can tell you even with my outside perspective that a lot of names sound weird. However, there are a lot of very tempting kanji out there to use! That makes reading lists of names, especially of the current generation of elementary school students and below, very interesting. However, I’m not the only one who had no idea how to read some of them. Their peers didn’t know some of the ones we saw listed, and even the adults around us weren’t sure and had to ask people who knew the kids personally.

But it’s not just personal names! Although some surnames are far more common than others and some kanji are used and used and overused in surnames, Japan has a very, very varied set of surnames. Sometimes two names written with the same characters have different pronunciations. Is it Nakajima or Nakashima? Both! Is it Nishikori, or Nishikiori? If you’re in this part of Shimane, probably Nishikori (as in Nishikori Kei, the recently famous tennis star born in Matsue). Is it Takata or Takada? Kanamori or Kanemori? But sometimes, it’s “what in the world is that kanji???” Even worse when you’ve got a common-sounding surname but a really, really complex way of writing it, so much so that it won’t normally pop up while typing in Japanese text. You find people just give up and address things to you in hiragana.

At least everyone taking part in the naginata matches has their name clearly displayed on their uniform and armor, so even if you can’t read it, you can at least recognize it–hopefully fast enough to keep track of everything else going on in the match.

This is just based off my observation, but even though vocal power seemed to be encouraged in all of the martial arts I’ve tried or seen, none of them can top the yelling that goes on in kendo. All the most vocal power to them.

Naginata kyuu tests, at least here in my block, take place about once a year following a local competition (think belt test, only you don’t get a new colored belt to wear). They test you on a certain set of exercises depending on which level you’re testing for, with the strictness of the judges of course increases with each higher level you aim for. They often include engi, a set of attacks and blocks done in a pair. When making a strike, whether in routine group practice, sets in pairs, or in sparring, you always call out the name of your attack so that judges know that you made the strike with intent rather than fluke.

Dan levels count upward, but kyuu levels beneath them start at 5 and then work their way up to 1. Adults start testing at 3, so I attained 3-kyuu after almost a year of practice. This was drawn during preparation for my 2-kyuu test last September.