Thursday, December 06, 2007

In the Shadow of Musashi

In the middle of November, thanks to exam week at the university, I had a week's vacation. I decided to take a trip to Kumamoto to visit the various places connected with Miyamoto Musashi. I had been there a couple of times before, but not since I bought my digital camera. I wanted to take a lot of photos and also just soak in the atmosphere by myself. (It's hard to do that when you are with a bunch of non-martial-artists who can't understand why you want to visit some stupid cave in the first place, let alone sit on some rock for half an hour.)

I took a Trans-Kyushu express train from Beppu on Monday morning. The train traverses some beautiful scenery, including the basin of Mt. Aso, an enormous 25-km wide caldera left after a gigantic volcano exploded some 300,000 years ago, leaving what appears to be a ring of mountains surrounding a flat plain.

I arrived into Kumamoto around 2pm and checked into my hotel, a very no-frills business hotel close to the bus station. I had been carefully considering my itinerary, basing it on the weather, as well as museum holidays and bus availability.

I decided to first go to the Shimada Museum of Fine Arts, which contains the largest collection of Musashi-related items in Japan, along with a large number of very fine kabuto and sets of armour.

Upon entering the museum, I was greeted by a very cute young lady who flattered me by complimenting by Japanese (quite dishonestly). To the left was a beautiful display of beautiful kabuto, swords, and armour. In the next room, all collected together in one case, were three paintings by Musashi (Shrike on a Withered Branch, Self Portrait, and Cormorant, I believe) along with the sword he used, and the famous "Sea Cucumber" tsuba he made. Despite having seen all these items before (both in person and in books) and the very real possibility that they are all copies (the real items safely in storage) it is still breathtaking; I imagine it is much like seeing the Mona Lisa with your own eyes.

At the same time, it is humbling to think that this is a good part of all that remains of Musashi's life. How much will I leave behind me, and how long will it be before it is forgotten?

As I was deep in thought, a bus arrived full of middle-aged tourists. They noisily spilled out of the bus and stormed through the exhibit. "A katana? I thought Musashi always used a wooden sword!" one exclaimed loudly. They paused for a few seconds at each exhibit, and were gone almost as suddenly as they had arrived.

I did another few go-rounds. The museum is small, and what documentation there is is in Japanese only. I deciphered what I could, and then approached the receptionist. "Um, I have a question about Musashi, but ... it's kind of specific ..."

"Oh, well let me just get the curator for you!" she said, and scurried off upstairs. In a few moments, an older gentleman appeared and asked me what he could do for me. I had a few questions about the genealogy of Niten Ichi Ryu (the school founded by Musashi) and he went back to his office to retrieve a late Edo-period book he had on the subject. It listed a number of different branches of the schools founded by Musashi, including a few lines of Niten. One of them was apparently founded by his first disciple in Kumamoto, who was given "hamon" or banished from practicing for some reason. I wonder why ...

The books he showed me didn't really answer my questions, but I didn't want to press the matter, nor did my Japanese ability really allow me to rephrase the question. He returned to his office. I tried to think of some other ways to make small talk with the receptionist, but was unsuccessful, so I sheepishly bought a book and a calendar, and was on my way.

By this point it was getting dark, so I took the bus back downtown. I wanted to find a nice restaurant serving bazashi (raw horsemeat) which is the speciality of Kumamoto. I quite like it (imagine a richer version of steak tartare) but eventually settled on a nice little general-purpose place with good ambience. I had a nice meal and struck up a conversation with the waitress; as it happens, she was a high school student at a school in Nagasaki when I was a JET there. She had been taught English by a friend of mine. More little coincidences ... we are all, indeed, connected!

The next day dawned bright and clear. The weather forecast predicted a very slight chance of rain, so I decided that it would be a good time to go to Reigando, the cave where Musashi retired to write his Go Rin no Sho before he passed away.

The bus was packed with senior citizens on their way to a hot spring in the countryside. About 30 minutes outside of the city I got off and walked a couple kilometers up the mountain to the cave. As I approached, I saw a large white marble statue of Musashi that had been erected in the last few years, as it hadn't been there the last time I was.

The likeness is a little bit cartoonish, as it is based on a contemporary portrait of Musashi. But the eyes have a real vitality in them, and he seems to stare down at you with quite an air of intensity. Behind the statue is a path which leads to a lookout point, where you can see the Ariake Sea and all the mountains in the vicinity, as well as valleys where people continue to farm as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, perhaps.

There is a small temple outside of Reigando cave, which was a holy site long before Musashi went there to pray and to write. The gate, manned by a bored-looking monk biding his time watching game-shows and playing solitaire on a notebook computer, contained a number of Musashi-related items: replicas of the bokuto he carved from an oar and used to defeat Sasaki Kojiro, as well as a few of his paintings, including this one of a rather miserable-looking Daruma. I wonder if Musashi, who had wandered the length and breadth of Japan many times over by the time he settled in Kumamoto, felt a bit like this weary-looking Daruma.

The approach to the cave itself is overlooked by steep stone walls, upon which perch a hundred stone Buddhas. It is said that each one bears a different expression on its face, and if you can find the one that looks like you, you'll have good fortune. Over the centuries, many of them have been damaged (by earthquakes?) and lost their heads.

I was the only visitor to the cave that day, and after my experience at the museum, I felt very lucky. The scores of Buddhas, many headless, other laughing, grimacing, or serene, made for a very quiet scene of contemplation. I was happy to be alone.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, the sky was turning grayer and a light rain began to fall. I hurried up to the cave entrance, which is ... imposing.

Perhaps it was just being alone in that silent place, or the atmosphere created by the numerous ancient stone guardians all around, but the cave looked to me like the entrance to another world. Everywhere I looked, I was struck with the age of the place, and it created this incredible sense of gravity. I don't want to get melodramatic, and say that I felt a "presence" or that the place was "haunted" ... but it was nothing like I have ever experienced before.

The rain began to get heavier as I climbed the stairs up to the cave. Inside, it was utterly silent. I would be lying if I said it wasn't a little bit frightening. I really felt as though I weren't quite alone there.

The interior of the cave contains an enclosed altar (it is difficult to see what is contained at the very back) and a large rock which gives the impression of rising up through the floor. Of course, the cave must have been very different in Musashi's time. The floor was almost certainly not there, and the rough steps carved into the side of the rock let you imagine that at the time it was the only place to sit - I wondered if he sat looking out at the landscape in front of the cave, (a view now mostly obscured by trees) or whether, perhaps, he sat with his back to the opening, looking into the darkness.

I signed the guest register and noticed that I was the only visitor today. The rain was falling heavily now, meaning (much to my delight) that I was stuck there for the time being. I spent an hour in the cave, thinking quite successfully (as I recall now) about nothing. Eventually the rain let up, and the sun came out as if to say, "Okay, you're free to go now."

As I was leaving, I found the Buddha that looks like me ... or at least, the one I think represents me somehow. Poor guy ... don't worry ... I feel the same way too ...

I bought a charm at the temple ("Progress in the Martial Arts" - if only it were that easy!) and walked back down to the road. I checked the bus schedule, and the next bus was in 2 hours or so. I decided to hitch-hike. At first I made a sign saying "Kumamoto Downtown Area" but nobody stopped. Eventually I realized that having a sign just made it easy for people not to stop: "Downtown? We're not going there ... well, not exactly. Someone else will pick him up..." I ditched the sign. Exactly two cars later, a farmer in a sub-compact pulled over. "Where you headed?" he asked. "Anywhere, really ... but I'm hoping to go downtown ... anywhere there's a bus stop would be fine." "Well, where would you like to go?" I told him the castle and he said nothing. I don't think he said another word, actually, until about 25 minutes later, when he pulled up at the back gate of the castle. I thanked him and he told me to have a nice time, then took off.

Kumamoto castle is considered one of the finest castles in Japan, because of its size, impressive lines, and well-designed castle walls. The day I was there, there were tons of tourists; many of them Korean, and also a lot of students on school trips.

Like most castles in Japan, Kumamoto castle is not original. Most of it was burned down in 1877 during the last rebellion following the Meiji Restoration, and was rebuilt in concrete. There are some parts, though, that remain original and let us see what the interior would have been like.

The castle was built and designed by super-samurai Kato Kiyomasa. Some of you may remember me assembling and painting a tiny, ridiculously-detailed white-metal model of Kiyomasa a few years back (I'm such a nerd!) The model is based on this painting.

The castle contains a nice museum-style series of displays, including a lot of Kiyomasa's personal effects. It also talks a lot about the history of the area. Japanese history is (for me at least) extremely hard to understand. Despite the emphasis on loyalty (or perhaps because of it - the slightest transgression must have been punished quite severely!) vassals were always betraying their lords; lords were always ordering their vassals to commit suicide; alliances were continually being made and being broken ... and so, somehow, despite being an extremely well-respected and venerated Daimyo, Kiyomasa's dynasty didn't last long, as his son was banished and replaced by the Hosokawa's as the local warlords. It was the Hosokawa family that Musashi came to Kumamoto to serve.

Just north of the castle is located the Hosokawa residence, a fine example of a high-ranking Daimyo's home. Aside from the layout of the gardens, and the architecture of the house itself, though, there was little to see.

The nice side, however, was that there was almost nobody there, so I had the place basically to myself. There's nothing worse than looking at a garden that was meant for quiet contemplation in the middle of a herd of junior high school kids on a field trip.

That night, I went out for a bit of a walk around town. I stopped in a bookstore, but didn't see anything worth buying...

The next day was my last day in Kumamoto. I had two scheduled stops on my way out of town. The first was Suizenji, considered one of the three finest gardens in Japan. (They never actually print the lists, they just say "One of the top three [fill in the blank]s in Japan." So I don't know how true that is, but I do know that Suizenji is absolutely beautiful. It was almost impossible (even for me) to take a bad picture.

That hill in the background is designed to look like a miniature Mt. Fuji. It even has some bushes planted on the back slope that resemble horizontal clouds around the peak.

Suizenji is beautiful, but it just made me wish I was there with a girl. Clearly, it was time for more Musashi! Time for our last stop:

Musashi-zuka, or the Grave of Musashi. When Musashi retired to the cave to write the Go Rin no Sho, it was because he was dying of stomach cancer, and he knew his time was almost finished. One can only imagine the agony he must have endured as he wrote the scrolls containing the distillation of his life experience as a swordsman. If anybody ever criticizes the Go Rin no Sho (and there are many people who do) I would suggest they remember the circumstances under which it was written.

In any case, a few months after writing the scrolls, Musashi died. He requested to be buried (some say standing up, in full armour) beside the road used by the Daimyo as they travelled to and from Edo on their mandatory trips to the capital. He wanted to watch over his Lord, even in death.

Now, there is a small but very nice park containing his gravesite. It is dominated by a statue, based on his famous self-portrait.

In the grove of trees beside the statue lies his gravesite. There is also a beautiful pond with a small waterfall.

I had read in a number of places that Musashi was quite content in Kumamoto, until his Lord, Hosokawa Tadatoshi passed away, only 8 years after Musashi arrived. After Tadatoshi's death, it seems that Musashi was discontent; perhaps Tadatoshi's heir was not interested in Musashi's teachings and he may have felt unappreciated and unwanted, something of a relic. Although he had a large number of students, there seems to be a consensus that Musashi's last years were a disappointment. Considering this, I felt a sense of melancholy as I sat beside the waterfall. Musashi dedicated his life to the martial arts, but in the end, what did it get him? And how much did he have to give up? Did he "enjoy" his life in the common sense of the word? Did he feel that he had accomplished everything he set out to do?

I stopped in at the dojo which stands beside Musashi-zuka Park. It is quite a fine dojo, and when I was there, a number of ladies were doing Tai-Chi. They were quite amused to see this large foreign guy peering in at them. I decided to ask them for directions to the last place on my list: some good Kumamoto pork-bone ramen! They happily informed me of a very well-regarded ramen shop just down the street and over.

I was able to get a very delicious, very filling bowl of ramen, and then walked back to the station to catch my train. The perfect end to a very fulfilling three-day trip.