Saturday, 18 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 8

The climactic end of the Warring States came at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, on October 21, 1600. After Oda Nobunaga killed himself, during his retainer’s attempted assassination in 1573, his army came under control of his subordinate, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Since the Toyotomi clan was descended from peasant stock, neither Hideyoshi nor his heirs would be recognized or accepted as shogun. Even though Hideyoshi would unify Japan, his failed invasions of Korea significantly weakened the clan's power. After Hideyoshi’s death in the second incursion, the power struggle for the right to rule the land fractured into two factions, a Western Army of 120,000 troops led by Ishida Mitsunari, and a 75,000-strong Eastern Army, under the command of Tokugawa Ieyasu.   
Because Ishida could not risk leaving a force that could attack his rear, he was delayed, forced to march on Fushimi, a fortress halfway between Osaka and Kyoto, controlled by Tokugawa’s ally Torii Mototada. The ten days he took to capture it cost him Tokugawa’s seizure of Gifu Castle, and an obligatory retreat southward in the rain. His gunpowder wet, and troops tired from a day’s march, Ishida and his forces stopped at Sekigahara, a small village sitting astride a central Honshu crossroads, under the heights of three mountains. He had hoped to meet Ieyasu somewhere further east but, at the same time, the high ground flanked by two streams favored Mitsunari. Western army troops occupied the heights around Mount Nangu and Mount Matsuo, with Ishida himself positioned northwest of Sekigahara, flanked by Mount Sasao. On October 20, 1600, Tokugawa, having experienced considerably better weather, learned of Ishida’s defensive position at Sekigahara. At dawn of the next day, Tokugawa’s advanced guard stumbled into Ishida’s army. Neither side initially saw each other due to the dense fog caused by the earlier rain. Both sides panicked and withdrew, but both sides were now aware of where everyone was. Around 8 am, wind blew away the fog, last-minute orders issued and the battle engaged. The ground was still muddy from the previous day's rain, so the conflict devolved into something more primal.  
Ieyasu;s army had deployed along the Nakasendō, a more northern part of which Robyn and I would walk in a few days time. His vanguard faced Mitsunari, seemingly exposed to flank attack by the Western troops on Mount Matsuo. But Ieyasu knew these men were under the command of Kobayakawa Hideaki, who had already decided to betray his Ishada and his compatriots. The Western Army’s initial upper hand was turned, with some direct fire encouragement from Ieyasu’s arquebuses, by Hideaki’s defection. Seeing this, four other Western Army generals, switched sides, and turned the tide of battle into an Eastern Army victory. The largest pivotal conflict in Japanese history had lasted only six hours. 
After Ieyasu's final triumph at the siege of Osaka in 1615, Japan settled into several centuries of Sakoku peace, under his Tokugawa Shogunate. A year later, the dying Ieyasu made known his final wish for his successors to build a small shrine in Nikkō and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan. On his deathbed he was deified as Toshogu, Sun God of the East. Up through the magnificent surrounding forest of over 13,000 cedars, Robyn and I headed towards his mausoleum.

                        What would you do if the bird does not sing? 
                        Oda Nobunaga said ‘Kill it if it does not sing.’ 
                        Toyotomi Hideyoshi said ‘Make it want to sing.’ 
                        Tokugawa Ieyasu said ‘Wait until it sings.’
                                        Poem every Japanese schoolchild learns 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 7

Through this treacherous turbulence, bushidō ethics were important in controlling and maintaining public order, but they may not have been enough. Meritocracy devolved to meritocrazy. Masterless wandering samurai rōnin, who had once worked for samurai families during times of peace, formed gangs. Their appearance and behavior began to degenerate into fabulousness, earning them the designation of Kabukimono, from kabuku, meaning ‘to slant or deviate,’ and translatable into English as ‘strange things,’ or ‘the crazy ones.’ Kabukimono dressed in flamboyant clothing, combining colors of yellow and blue, accessorized by wearing short robes with lead weights in the hem, velvet lapels, wide obi sashes, elements of European clothing, or even women’s kimono as cloaks. 
They adapted bizarre hairstyles and facial hair, either styled up in various fashion, or left to grow long. Their katana were longer than normal had fancy hilts, large square tsuba, and red scabbards. Izumo no Okuni, the originator of kabuki theatre, borrowed heavily from kabukimono flair and personality, when she first began performing.
Kabukimono were often very violent and rude, stealing money from townsfolk, not paying at restaurants, or cutting people down, simply to try a new sword. Wrestling, dancing in the streets, fighting with other gangs at night, and other large incidents of violence became more common, especially in large cities such as Edo and Kyoto. Modern Japanese yakuza gangsters may have originated from kabukimono.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 6

‘When I tell you, that war is the foundation of all the arts, I mean 
  also that it is the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of 
  men. It is very strange to me to discover this, and very dreadful, 
  but I saw it to be quite an undeniable fact.’ 
                                        John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive

Like most bloodbaths, it was caused by money. The hundred years of continuous social upheaval, political intrigue and military conflict began with the failure of the Ashikaga Shogunate in Kyoto, successor to the Kamakura Hōjō, to win the loyalty of more remote daimyô local warlords. Improvements in agriculture had brought the promise of prosperity, trade with China had brought cash, and earthquakes and famine had brought the armed insurrection of farmers, weary of debt and taxes.
A dispute over shogunal succession brought the final straw, the Ōnin War, and the beginning of the Sengoku jidai ‘Warring States’ century. Fighting in and around Kyoto lasted for eleven years, leaving the city almost completely destroyed. The conflict spread to outlying provinces, culminating with a survival sequence of the three greatest warlords, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Wagon Days historical heroes of the country, the grand unifiers of Japan, writ large. Nobunaga made it, Hideyoshi baked it, Tokugawa ate it.
In any era of constant war, established aristocracy and bureaucracy lose out to new meritocracy. During the Sengoku, overlords were overthrown by more capable subordinates, known as gekokujō, ‘low conquers high.’ Samurai culture was infiltrated by gifted mercenaries from lower social strata, making names. Warfare tactics and technologies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries underwent radical improvement, sometimes to the detriment of the lone wolf swordsman. Large numbers of lightly armored ‘light-foot’ ashigaru infantry, thousands of humble ordinary people with nagayari long lances or naginata, were combined with cavalry in new maneuvers. The arquebus, a matchlock brought by the Portuguese on a Chinese pirate ship in 1543, and mass-produced within a decade, began playing a critical role. By the end of the Sengoku, hundreds of thousands of firearms existed in Japan and massive armies of those same numbers clashed in battles.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 5

We passed a large carved wooden dragon on our way down the hill. A kilometer north along the Daiyo River, we crossed the bridge, to another dragon, embossed on a chrysanthemum bronze vessel. Water flowed from its mouth, reminding us of Benten. Japanese deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water were depicted as huge, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. We headed north, to the most iconic bridge in the country. Rose and pink and carnelian in the rising sun, Arching over swirling white water cataracts in a deep chasm, were the shiny brass sleeves and patina budded baluster onion dome tops and studded side straps of the sacred Shinkyo Bridge. Built in 1636, only shoguns and their Imperial court emissaries were allowed to cross for more than three centuries, finally opened to the general public in 1973. As with most revered structures in Japan the Shinkyo came with its own legend. In 766, a thirty-two year-old priest named Shōdō Shonin declared the mountainous area around Nikkō as the pure land of Kannon and, with his disciples, set out to climb Mount Nantai, to pray for national prosperity. However, they could not cross the fast flowing Daiya River. Shōdō prayed and a ten-foot tall god named Jinja-Daiou appeared, with two big snakes twisted around his right arm, one red and one blue. When Jinja-Daiou released them, they transformed themselves into a rainbow bridge, which Shōdō and his followers used to cross the river. On the other side, they built a small retreat and, after a mysterious purple cloud rose in the east sky, the Shihonryuji ‘Purple-cloud-dragon’ Temple, the first structure built, and the birth of mountain worship, in Nikkō. Shōdō and his followers faced many more hardships in the next fifteen years, but they finally arrived at the top of Mount Nantai in 782. In the following centuries, Nikkō became one of Japan's greatest mountain Buddhist retreats, with 500 subtemples spread through the area.
On the sacred hill across the sacred Shinkyo, the first thing Robyn and I came to, up a long slope into a cedar forest was, not inappropriately, a copper statue of Priest Shōdō. He looked like a hybrid of Mussolini and Topo Gigio. He held the same ritual six-ringed shakujō walking staff as our Jizōs, the sound of which is designed to fend off poisonous serpents or harmful insects, warn small creatures not to inadvertently fall underfoot, attract alms, and the structure of which is designed as a formidable weapon in the hands of a practiced monk. The thirty tons of bluish black rocks of the foundation, brought from the nearby Kanmangafuchi abyss, shine when wet.
We came to the Ronnoji Temple, or at least the lifesize painted aerodrome exterior façade version of the Ronnoji Temple covering its renovations. The same year that Priest Shōdō’s snakes formed the sacred Shinkyo Bridge, he created the home base for three 30 foot-high gold-plated ‘gods of Nikkō,’ wooden images of Buddha, enshrined in Ronnoji’s Sanbutsudo Hall, whose pilgrims still pray for world peace.
But, because it was closed, Robyn and I moved across the path to Shōyō-en garden, also founded by Priest Shōdō, to alleviate the Imperial family successor's homesickness. Designed to resemble Lake Biwa and the surrounding scenery he had left behind, Shōyō-en was built in the Chisen Kaiyu Shiki style of a ‘short excursion around the pond.’ We strolled its curves slowly, feeling a different vista with every turn of the path, and how each component made it seem much larger than it was. There was a central carp pond surrounded and adorned by rhododendrons and moss and topiary and trees and rock paths and stone lanterns and bamboo fences, a pagoda and a small teahouse. And magnificent small stone bridges, light projecting through side-rail moon-shaped fenestrations, onto flagstones. A kerchief’d girl in gumboots with a hose directed us to the small treasure house, and relics of another age.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 4

                                        ‘Far-off mountain peaks
                                         Reflected in his eyes:
                                         The dragonfly.’
                                                     Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

The wood grain on the low dark table in our minshuku room was as coarse as Sizuo’s breakfast was fine. Because Keiko was away, he was the chef, and produced nine courses, all in different-shaped porcelain. Elegant eggs and fish and squid were accompanied by pungent dishes of fermentation- sour plums, pickled vegetables, and nattō, slimy and sticky and stringy soybeans, brewed into a powerfully distinctive cheesy rancidity. Nattō was discovered by Yoritomo’s first son, Yoshiie, on a battle campaign day in northeastern Japan, when his army was attacked while boiling soybeans for their horses. They hurriedly packed up the beans, and did not open the straw bags until a few days later, by which time the beans had over-ripened. The soldiers ate it anyway, and offered some to Yoshiie, who liked the taste. In a country without cheese, this was the next best thing for breakfast. Thirty years earlier, my diary reveals I was less appreciative. We eat raw eggs, seaweed and the ferns for breakfast, and sat pondering my route- dismayed in Japan. Sizuo bowed and pointed us in the direction of Japanese history. Robyn and I followed the road down towards the mountain shrine that had defined it.

   ‘On the first day of the fourth month, we went to worship at the 
    mountain shrine. In ancient times, the name of the mountain was 
    written Ni-kō (the Mountain of Two Storms); but when the great 
    teacher Kukai built a temple here, he changed the name to 
    Nik-ko (Sunlight). He must have had the power to see a thousand 
    years beyond, for the radiance of the shrine now shines 
    throughout the heavens. Its blessings flow over the land to the 
    farthest corners, and all the people live in security and peace. I 
    was awestruck, barely able to tell it in words.’

Monday, 13 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 3

At dusk, Sizuo drove us through the mountains. Shadows of monkeys danced in the tree branches along the winding road. We arrived into a dark courtyard in the forest. Sizuo led us up a steep path made up of large irregular stones, towards a dim light. I thought I was going to break a leg.
“Gyoshintei.” He whispered, ringing the bell beside the noren entrance curtain hanging over the door, decorated with a white three-peaked crown. An elderly lady opened the curtain and Sizuo, after exchanging a few words with her, bowed and disappeared into the darkness. She ushered us in, and gestured sharply to a young pixie, dressed in a pink and grey-striped kimono, who bowed and motioned for Robyn and I to follow. Through sliding shoji screens we came into an elegant interior, pure, like a ryotei traditional inn, or a tea ceremony room, facing a carefully tended serene garden on our right, and an alcove of hanging calligraphy scrolls, ikebana and porcelain pottery, at the far end of the room. A long black lacquer table was line dark hardwood legless chairs upholstered in green velour, on the all-tatami mat floor.
Pixie spoke no English, but the fixed menu would solve any chance for choice. 
“What kind of food do they serve?” Asked Robyn.
“Shōjin Ryōri.” I said. “It means ‘devotion’ or ‘self-discipline’ cooking, meant to ‘progress the spirit.’ A kind of Japanese Buddhist monk vegetarian. The seasonal freshness of the food is supposed to put you in the best frame of mind to appreciate Buddha’s teachings, in flow with nature. Bitter spring buds and shoots help remove body fat accumulated during the winter. Summer melon vegetables, tomatoes and eggplants and cucumbers, have a cooling effect. Fall provides sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins and fruit, which revive bodies fatigued from the summer heat. And winter root vegetables, daikon radish and turnip and lotus root, provide warmth and sustenance. Nothing is wasted. Every last lettuce leaf or radish top finds a place in a dish and each dish, despite the humble ingredients, is exquisitely presented, a complex and tasty embrace of the essence of everything it includes. Just to make the perfect gomadofu sesame tofu, a blend of ground white sesame, kuzu and water, can take up to ten years, not because it is a difficult dish, but because of the need to learn how to respect the ingredients you are working with, and treat them with care and contemplation, in a simple harmonious balance Other ingredients include local yuba bean curd, miso, grains, seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, and sea vegetables.”
Pixie produced two sets of rough-hewn chopsticks, and a feast for the senses. 
“Itadakimasu.” We said. I humbly receive. To thank the animals and plants who gave their lives for the meal and everyone who played a role in cultivating, hunting and preparing the food. 
A dish of wasabi and beans and cabbage came first.
“We'll set the mats on fire tonight.” I said. There followed squid and sardines with their long axes dotted with some kind of red oil, green broccoli raab, and pink, white and green turnip balls on skewers. A red lacquer tray and white plate held flared sashimi with wasabi and flowers and shosu leaf that tasted like mint soap. Herb bread, covered in egg, jade and black curled fern fronds and coral and white daikon, rested in a kidney-shaped white bowl lined with a banana leaf. Bright vermilion bowls and plates of green viscous vegetable arrived with white rice and picked lettuce, and something tempura, accompanied by a clear broth full of shiny green leaves. The green tea ran blue.
At the end of the meal Sizuo had magically rematerialized, instructed us to put our payment in the envelope provided, and drove us back to the minshuku. The other travelers had used up most of the hot water in the onsen, but we had a soak anyway.
The winds came up overnight. I could barely get off the tatami, out from under the futon, to look, because of my stiffness. Outside, in the courtyard, the cherry blossoms were flying, up into the night sky.

                               ‘Outside, like flowers bursting into bloom,
                                The night was bright:
                                So bright that it brought stars.’
                                                                 Tsuboi Shigeji, Butterfly

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 2

The sun began to set to our left, casting long shadows on tractors in paddy fields, and occasional conspicuous temples and graves, surrounded by the residents who were next.
I had always been a great admirer of Matsuo Bashō, the most famous haiku poet of Edo Japan. Like me, for a time, Bashō renounced his stable social position to wander, heading far into the wilderness to gain inspiration. His firsthand experience of the world he encountered allowed him to capture the feeling of any scene in a few simple elements, in ways I could only dream of.
One of his Bashō’s first stops, in his Narrow Road to the Deep North, was Nikkō. Still fresh on his journey, the poet inked a celebratory haiku.

                                       ‘How holy a place ...
                                        Green leaves, young leaves, 
                                        and through them Nikkō.’

He went on to describe his lodgings, and host.

   ‘On the last night of the third month, we found lodgings at the 
    foot of Mount Nikkō. The innkeeper introduced himself as 
    Gozaemon the Buddha. ‘I’m known as that because I put honesty 
    first and foremost in everything I do. You can sleep here safe 
    tonight with your minds at ease.’ We wondered what kind of 
    Buddha it was that had taken on human form in this troubled, 
    filthy world to help two beggar pilgrims. I observed him 
    carefully, and saw that, however ignorant or clumsy he might 
    have seemed, he was indeed a man of stubborn honesty. He was 
    a man close to the Confucian ideal of Perfection: strong, simple, 
    straightforward. I found his purity of heart most admirable.’

As I would, for ours. Sizuo Ohfusa was a sweet and gentle man who arrived in less than ten minutes after we had followed the email instruction from his wife, Keiko. Phone to come to the station for pick you up. Car number 26-28.
Incredibly quiet and polite, Sizuo-san loaded our Ospreys into his van, and drove us across the other side of the Daiya River, to Rindou No Ie, his small very clean minshuku in the hills near a forested park. We were welcomed by Peaches the Cat, an alcove with fans, blue and white porcelain chargers, an umbrella stand, dog statue, yellow forsythia ikebana, and Sizuo’s tour of the inn. Our room was upstairs in the back, with futons rolled out on tatami mats, a hot water thermos, and a bird’s eye view of the flowering cherry tree in the garden. Sizuo was proud of the blossoms.

                                    ‘If the wind, at least,
                                     Does not blow clean
                                     My garden cherries,
                                     Fall they may, but while Spring
                                     Lasts, I would gaze upon them.’
                                                               Izumi Shikibu

The toilet across the hall had a sink in the top, filled with a plastic bouquet of flowers. The seat popped up whenever I opened the door. There are some ghost stories in Japan where- when you are sitting in the bathroom in the traditional style of the Japanese toilet - a hand is actually starting to grab you from beneath. It's a very scary story.’