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.

When introducing Matsue to foreign digintaries, the mayor and vice-mayors frequently mention that Lake Nakaumi and Lake Shinji, Japan’s fifth and seventh largest lakes respectively, are Ramsar Convention Wetlands of International Importance. And seeing as February 2, 2016, is World Wetlands Day, I figured they would make a good theme for today’s post.

I’ve already been busy lately writing an article about them (or more broadly, about Matsue as a City of Water) as part of my series of articles about Matsue in the Asahi Shimbun’s online English newspaper, Asia & Japan Watch, which is included in their From Around Japan feature. For as many basic infobites one could say about them–like that they are both brackish lakes, and the famous islands found on them, and the foods for which they are wellknown–I figured it would be more fun here to write about what they mean to me.

daisen

Lake Nakaumi:
–Home to Daikonshima, land of amazing peonies.
–The view I always get to enjoy on the way to Mihonoseki, or to Sakaiminato or to Yonago or sometimes to Yasugi
–The spotlight of the incredible view I get from Mt. Makuragi (yet have never managed to get my own photo of)
–A part of the wide view while climbing Mt. Daisen (which I also have yet to take a photo of)
–Home to the recently famous “scariest” Eshima Bridge
–Birthplace of Benkei, near-legendary warrior of the 12th century (who was thought to weild a naginata, yeeeeah, rock on, Benkei)
–That lake I don’t see as often because I have to cross a few mountains to get to it

Lake Shinji:
–That lake I see pretty frequently because I live and work right by it
–That lake people go jogging next to
–That lake people set off little fireworks next to
–That lake with the really, really big fireworks display
–That lake where I’ve seen every romantic scene from couples walking hand in hand to musicans strumming on their guitars and singing as if to the ducks
–That lake I eat my lunch next to
–That lake I walk by on the way to the art museum
–That lake with really, really nice lakeside landscaping
–That lake that provides shijimi clams
–And that made it into a viral video about a guy standing there in winter fishing for clams and giving viewers a pep-talk that they should never give up
–That lake you can see from the highway when riding a bus up from Hiroshima
–That lake you can see from viewpoints in Tamatsukuri Onsen
–That lake you can see even better from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, because the lake is right there outside the windows from the onsen
–That lake you can see from Matsue Vogel Park
–That lake you can walk down and touch from Matsue English Garden
–That lake that looks like an ocean on a stormy day
–That lake where a swam calmly glided along next to me one day while I was out there eating lunch
–That lake covered with all sorts of migratory birds in winter
–That lake with fish jumping out of the water in summer
–That lake with the exciting sunset boatride on a windy day
–That lake that looks like a painting when all the shijimi clam fishing boats are out there on a sunny morning
–That lake that defies being captured well on panoramic shots taken on my phone
–That lake that has the sad “bride island”
–That lake that mysteriously fades out towards Izumo, the heart of the Land of the Gods
–That lake which is kind of famous for its sunsets

Today I went out to Mihonoseki, the peninsula that makes up the northeast tip of Matsue, most known for the highly important Miho Shrine, and for its lighthouse.

Can you find the red 'you are here' marker?
The primary point of my activity today

To the south you can see Nakaumi…
Hey look, it's Daisen!

…and to the north you can see the Sea of Japan.
Not to mention the Oki Islands, though they aren't in this picture.

It’s a fairly rural area, with a very laid back way of seafood-rich life.
There were still more in the water, too
Wish you were here, Dad!
Literally, the bridge to the floating island
You want to drive around in this ancient shrine? Sure, why not! I'll help you up there!
I'm still not a big fan of azuki (red bean) manjuu, but I found out today that I do enjoy kuri (chestnut) manjuu!

While waiting for the festivities to start, I peaked into the tourism center to see what was for sale there (besides dried squid and dried seaweed and all kinds of dried fish).
It looks wide from this angle, but the upper floors are actually very narrow
The dried squid beckons you!

That was when the old ladies seated in the back who spoke in a thick Izumo dialect addressed me: “Welcome. Come sit down for a cup of tea.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t refuse when old ladies offer to have you sit down, especially if you have the time to kill. They served me dried squid first and showed me how to tear off the pieces a little bit at a time. It was not my first time having dried squid (I certainly got my fill a month ago while interpreting for a squid-drying workshop!), but one of the other things I’ve learned is to just shut up and pretend it’s my first time hearing something when people want to teach me something, no matter how much I may think I know about it.

After that they gave me some of the kuri-manjuu I had seen on sale in stalls outside leading to the shrine (that I was nearly tempted into buying myself!), and some sencha prepared in a Chinese style tea set–warmed up ahead of time, gong-fu-cha style.

The conversation was light and the location was highly informal, but according to my book-knowledge but yet unpracticed tea philosophy, it was essentially a tea ceremony. I was invited to eat a couple morsels before taking part in the tea my host had chosen and served her favored cups, and we appreciated each other’s company in the fleeting moments it took to consume them.

Though the squid sort of changes the mood... or sets it?

It was light conversation. What country are you from? Have you always lived in Mihonoseki? Is this your first time here? How old are you? Were you a teacher at Mihonoseki elementary school? Has this festival always been like this? Do you have a boyfriend? Hmm, even old ladies can sound like high school girls sometimes. High school girls with thick dialects.

In the spirit of being a guest, I asked questions about the tea cups, and then they decided they should prepare Japanese style matcha in a proper wide cup. Guess who got her afternoon dose of caffeine?

Over the course of our little tea party, they called out to acquaintances walking into the shop, or acquaintances walking into the shop called out to them. They were invited to tea with us, and each time someone new showed up to talk about the make up the girls put on him for the festivities or about the year end party they’re planning, the old ladies introduced me, my job, my country, my age, and that I’m going to find a boyfriend (you can guess whose idea that was).

Soon after the festivities started and the party ended. Even outside where everyone was crowding around with giant cameras that put my point-and-shoot to shame, acquaintances who had briefly passed through the tourist center made sure to point out the best spots to me.

And just what had I gone there to see in the first place?

This was ceremonious, really.

I’ll explain this December 3rd festival properly another time. There is a lot more of the Kojiki to retell first!