Monday, April 23, 2012

Cherry Blossom Festival at a Japanese Castle - Matsumoto Castle



Although built for war, Japanese castles were also built with an eye for beauty. It would be a boorish samurai castle owner not to have certain trees and flowers planted on the grounds of his castle for their aesthetic quality.

Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture is a beautiful castle in its own right. It's black color stands starkly contrast to the colors around in the form of mountains, rivers, and trees. Before the modern era and its ugly functional buildings, Matsumoto Castle must have been a sight to beyond especially during cherry blossom season.

Once a year for one weak during the peak blooming time of the cherry blossoms, the city of Matsumoto opens up the castle grounds from 6pm to 9pm. The castle and the cherry blossom trees are all illuminated and as visitors stroll about they can listen to live music performances.

One of the aesthetic aspects of Matsumoto Castle is the tsukimi yagura or moon-viewing tower. One wing of the castle is a two-story tower whose walls open up to allow guests to enjoy the view of the full moon. During the festival musicians play from there. The first set is the Japanese harp - the koto - accompanied by the Japanese flute - shakuhachi. The second set is western style flutes and the third set is gagaku, ancient Imperial music. The event is completely free though for 500 Yen you can enjoy some matcha tea and a sweet.
























Friday, April 13, 2012

Miyamoto Musashi Festival - Duel at Ganryujima (Samurai Duel Festival)




An Epic Samurai Duel Frozen In Stone

On the southern tip of Japan's main island, Honshu, lies the small city of Shimonoseki. It's a small place physically but historically it has seen some big historical events. During Golden Week (May 3-5) a pair of festivals are held to honor two of those events. One festival is a larger spectacle which celebrates a great battle that was fought there over 800 years ago between two rival samurai clans. The other festival is much smaller but in fame, it is almost equal.

Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro - Ganryujima 1612

The smaller festival is held to honor a famous duel fought between two legendary swordsmen the likes of which will probably never be seen again. One of the duelists was Miyamoto Musashi one of the most famous swordsmen who ever lived. His opponent was Sasaki Kojiro known as "The Demon of the West" for his feared prowess with a blade. Nearly everyone in Japan knows of this duel as well as many outside of Japan who practice martial arts and study Japanese history. It's literally the stuff of legends.

The duel took place in 1612 on a small island in the straits of Shimonoseki. The island would later be called Ganryujima and it's by this name that the duel is remembered. Countless depictions have been made of this fight in print and in cinema and TV. Of all the duels of the samurai, the Ganryujima one is probably the most famous. Some years ago a cold medicine company used the iconic image of the two swordsmen in the surf and sunset facing off against each other to promote their product. Kojiro, apparently not having used the product which Musashi has, is undone by a sneeze and the commercial ends with Musashi's sword swinging down on the hapless Kojiro.


Depictions of the famous duel in stone and print

What exactly happened on Ganryujima is subject to not a little debate. Myth has intertwined with truth so much that is difficult to separate the two. The most popular version is that Musashi purposely arrived late for the duel. Supposedly he did so in order to unnerve Kojiro and to take advantage of the setting sun which would be behind him.

He was unwashed and his unkempt hair was wrapped by a towel. To add insult to injury, Musashi did not have a sword with him but a crudely carved wooden one which he had made out of an oar on his way over to the island.

Musashi came to the duel looking unkempt

Kojiro is said to have thrown his scabbard away perhaps in anger. Musashi taunted him saying he lost as a warrior would never do such a thing. Kojiro said after killing Musashi he would never use his sword again. He also mocked Musashi's shabby sword.

Musashi with his infamous oar sword

Kojiro perhaps relied too much on his sword prowess which was unique for the times. He did not use a katana as most samurai did. He excelled in the use of a nodachi an especially long sword that was 150cm/5ft long. A katana was generally 70cm/2ft3in long and despite the nodachi's cumbersome weight and length, Kojiro handled it with ease.

Sasaki Kojiro - Master of the long sword style of fighting: Ganryu

Kojiro had perfected a cutting style that he called "Tsubame Gaeshi" or "Turning Swallow Cut" which was like a swallow's tail in flight. It was a quick cut downward followed by slash upward. The length of the blade and the skill in which he used it gave Kojiro the advantage over his opponents.

Few could wield such a long heavy sword as easily as Kojiro 

Musashi's most famous style is the Niten Ichi-Ryu, the use of two swords in combat. However, for his duel with Kojiro he used only one sword, the one that he carved himself with his short sword on the boat ride over according to some accounts. The oar sword was longer than a katana and so not a length Kojiro would be accustomed to.

Niten Ichi-Ryu (Two Sword Technique) Musashi's famed style

A replica of the type of boat Musashi would have used to arrive at the duel

Apparently despite his disheveled appearance and his seemingly indifferent attitude to the duel, Musashi had studied his man and used his weaknesses against him. "Confuse the enemy by attacking with varied techniques" is one Musashi's maxims from "The Book of Five Rings" and he did so at Ganryujima. Kojiro was expecting a normal duel with conventional weapons a situation which he had always excelled at but Musashi was playing for keeps.


Kojiro attacked first either by design or goaded into doing so in anger at Musashi's overall appearance and demeanor.

"When the enemy attacks, remain undisturbed but feign weakness. As the enemy reaches you, suddenly move away indicating that you intend to jump aside, then dash in attacking strongly."

- The Book of Fire

Perhaps this is what Musashi did, dodging Kojiro's blow which only cut the headband from his hair before leaping up and striking Kojiro's head with his wooden sword.


In films and TV, this is the iconic moment of the duel. Both men have made their strikes and now stand looking defiantly at each other. Usually Musashi's headband falls off first and Kojiro smiles thinking he got the best of Musashi in that exchange then suddenly! a trickle of blood seeps down from his forehead and a surprised Kojiro slumps down dead onto the sandy beach with a shattered skull.


Other versions of the duel say Kojiro rose and tried to cut Musashi with an upward slash which only cut his kimono then Musashi finished him off with a blow to the ribs.


Some detractors claim Musashi fought unfairly and one scholar Harada Mukashi goes so far as to suggest Musashi and his students assassinated Kojiro. Supporters however claim the duel was in keeping with the precepts of Musashi's fighting philosophy. 

It could be seen that Kojiro himself wasn't exactly on the up and up either in the fairness department. His usual opponents would not be accustomed to the length of his long sword and would probably miscalculate the speed and dexterity they thought Kojiro could wield such a heavy weapon. Such mental miscalculations could cost them the duel and their lives. Musashi turned that situation around by presenting a weapon Kojiro would be completely unfamiliar with.

Regardless of the exact details or the fairness of the fight, Sasaki Kojiro was dead at duel's end. Musashi fearing reprisal from Kojiro's students leapt back on the boat and headed away. The famous duel ended as the sun sank into the west.

This would be Musashi's last true duel and of them, his greatest challenge. Musashi would go on to live to his early 60s. In his later years, he wrote down his philosophy in his seminal work "The Book of Five Rings." This book and the legends of his duels would ensure his legacy as one of the greatest swordsmen who ever lived.


Young Miyamoto Musashi wanna-be's practicing Kendo during Ganryujima Matsuri


Arrr!!! The boat to Ganryujima sports a Jolly Roger (pirate flag for ye landlubbers)

A feisty Banana participating in a tug-of-war event during the festival

Although Kojiro died, the island was named after his fighting style

Friday, April 6, 2012

Visiting the Grave of Jesus Christ in Northern Japan





According to popular belief, Jesus Christ was crucified and buried in Jerusalem in the early to mid First Century A.D. But in actuality (cough! bullcrap!) Jesus escaped and made His made through Siberia to Aomori in northern Japan where He lived out His days to the ripe old age of 106 with wife and kids and was later buried in the village of Shingo.

One summer while I was visiting Aomori's festivals in August, I decided to stop in to see this auspicious grave for myself. 

On a small hill sit two mounds from which two wooden crosses (obviously later additions) stand. These are the graves of Jesus and His brother or at least His brother's ears (it's a long story).

Jesus's grave in the foreground and the grave of His brother's ears in the background

Supposedly the story goes that Jesus was not crucified at all but that it was His brother known as Isukuri in Japanese who took the fall. Jesus took His brother's ears with Him and He left Israel far behind crossing over Siberia and coming to the northern area of Japan's main island Honshu from Alaska no less. He gave up preaching and became a rice merchant later having a family. It was said He went around Japan wearing a cape and helping people. Due to His long nose as compared to the Japanese He was thought of as a Tengu, a long nose goblin of Japanese folklore. Eventually Jesus passed away at the age of 106 and was buried along with His brother's ears and the locks of His mother's hairs.

Jesus's Grave?

It sounds more than a little farfetched but believers claim that there are some mysterious clues in the area that help to support this. The original name for Shingo was Heraimura which some believe is a corruption of the word Hebrew. The locals of the area had a long custom of drawing crosses on babies' foreheads in charcoal to protect them from evil the first time they were taken outside. Another local custom is/was to make a cross with salvia on feet and legs when they become numb.

Depiction of traditional local inhabitant

Baby marked with charcoal cross to protect it from evil

In addition there is a local dance tradition called Nanyadoyara whose meaning makes little sense in Japanese. One scholar believes it to be an ancient military song of Judea giving glory to God in Hebrew. Others, however, think it is more likely an old love song sung in the ancient forgotten local dialect.


Another supporting claim is the crest of the Sawaguchi family which is thought to represent the Jewish Star of David. The Sawaguchi family is believed to be the descendants of Jesus and supposedly their physical appearance is slightly different than average Japanese owing to this august lineage. They are Buddhists, however.

Sawaguchi Family Crest

Now just when you think you've heard more than you can possibly believe, the Jesus in Aomori Claim goes even further. For centuries, religious scholars have debated the missing years of Jesus from 12 to 30. In Aomori, that answer is solved. It turns out at the age of 21 Jesus came to Japan and studied Shintoism in Toyama Prefecture for over 10 years before returning to Israel. This information is provided by Jesus Himself in an ancient document known as "Christ's Will."

Replica of Christ's Will

So in modern terms Jesus was a Japanophile or worse a Wapanese, Weeabo, or Otaku two thousand years before Anime. But His crucifixion sentencing showed that even back then people hated these types.

All of this came to light in the 1930s when ancient documents were discovered in Ibaraki in the possession of a Shinto priest who later traveled to Shingo to verify the claim. These documents were later taken to Tokyo where they were (conveniently) lost in the war. Later books based on these documents were written that have even more farfetched claims of UFOs and Atlantis.


UFOs and Atlantis aside, one of the chief problems with the claim is that it says Jesus learned to read and write Japanese. This is a rather hard pill to swallow as writing did not come to Japan until several centuries later. In the time of Jesus, Japan was in the Yayoi Period, a time of rudimentary civilization that had an unwritten language. The Yayoi people however did grow rice and had some of the basic elements of Shintoism according to Chinese chroniclers.


Did Jesus really visit Japan, twice even? I think there may be several possible explanations behind the story though none involving Jesus himself.

Tourism would be amongst the first theories but it seems a rather extreme length to go to when there are plenty of Japanese historical and legendary people to lay claim to. For example one of the popular characters is Minamoto Yoshitsune. He was a warrior who lived in the late 12th Century and the figure of a popular cycle of tales that has influenced Noh, Kabuki, and modern culture. Many places throughout Japan claim that Yoshitsune once passed through their area with far more believability.

It may be an echo of memory of a Christian missionary from the 16th-17th Century. In the mid-1500s the Portuguese arrived in Japan and a thriving trade sprung up with Japan importing guns and Christianity. Catholic missionaries spread the Gospel throughout the land for a number of decades until the Japanese authorities souring on the deal felt they were getting more Christians than guns. 

Persecutions became the order of the day and after the failed rebellion of Christian peasants in Shimabara in the mid-17th Century, Christianity was officially outlawed and foreign Christian missionaries required to stay out of Japan on pain of death. It is believed some lived on hidden by the faithful in remote areas and such a place like Shingo would have been ideal for such a missionary in hiding. However one would think there would be more traces of Latin not Hebrew in the area.


Another possible theory is that it might have been an even earlier Christian missionary or someone who was Christian but not necessarily a missionary. This early Christian might have come from Israel during the time of Roman persecutions and brought with him/them some of their language and customs. This may seem improbable but one has to keep in mind that the ancient world was not so primitive as we moderns like to imagine. There was extensive trade and travel between the western and eastern world. The Silk Route stretched all the way into northern China and goods from this trade route have been discovered in Siberia. The stories of long-nosed goblins the Tengu and the hairy Namahage devils of neighboring Akita Prefecture suggests the possibility of early contact with non-Asian visitors. 

A darker theory of mine though suggests that the story might have been made to mesh with the imperialistic mentality of the day when the discovery was made. In the 1930s Japan was becoming more aggressively militaristic and passionately devoted to the Imperial family. By taking one of the wellsprings of Western civilization and claiming there were Japanese roots was definite way of claiming superiority.

Regardless of the unbelievability of the claim, it's still a nice out-of-the-way spot to visit and supposedly there are some pyramids in the area too that predate the ones in Egypt. Truly a blessed place!



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Tokyo, Japan
Vagabond traveler currently hold up in Tokyo. I've done a far bit of traveling and had a few interesting adventures along the way. This blog is a chronicle of adventures past and present and those yet to come. I’ve been to about 30 countries though some no bigger than a kitchen table. I’ve run with the bulls of Pamplona, hiked the Inca Trail, got mugged in Mexico City, floated down the Nile in an old boat, climbed the Great Pyramid of Egypt, got ripped at Oktoberfest, and rode the notorious Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Party Train.