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.
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.