Japan

It seems only right to kick off this, my photo-journal of magical (and research) moments I’ve known in stunning Japan, with a snap of the welcoming and iconic Fuji-San. I’m told I was very lucky to catch the sacred mountain on this particular Spring day when its usual cloak of clouds was gloriously absent. I love the way that as the mountain’s snow cap rises out of the blue haze of the distance, it seems to float, part of the azure sky. No photograph can truly convey the mountain’s staggering size and grandeur, but one real-life glance tells you why Fujiyama has inspired so many artists and poets!

Early in Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, disgruntled warlord Silver Wolf’s leather war mask is described.   The above similar Edo period war mask was one of many I saw on sale in antique shops throughout Japan. Because warfare occupied a very long, central position in Japanese culture and history, there’s no shortage of relics like this one for sale, both from the Sengoku (Age of Warring States) and Edo (or Tokugawa) eras. War masks were often fitted with flexible throat guards, and were worn not only for protection, but to terrify enemies with their fierce, frozen scowls and demonic leers. The samurai were acutely conscious of the psychology of warfare as well as its purely physical aspects.

Ah, those quirky aspects of Japanese culture! I visited a massive public bathhouse complex in Tokyo, the name of which roughly translated as ‘Onsen (hot springs) World’. As you enter Onsen World, you leave behind your clothes in a locker and instead wear a colourful yukata (light kimono) of your choice, with a dramatic male or female (according to your gender) warrior character on the back. After parboiling in the 42 degree centigrade rock pools of volcanic water, you relax by roaming the complex, a giant reproduction of an Edo period marketplace, and eat, get massaged, or even learn how to throw shuriken (iron ninja ‘star knives’). On attaining a good shuriken grouping, you can win prizes, including what must surely be authentic Edo period Winnie the Poohs and Mickey Mouses. And there I was, thinking those lovable rascals came along somewhat later in history! I asked the attendant in black, seen on the far right of the photograph, ‘Gomen nasai, demo anata wa honto ninja deska?’ Excuse me, but are you a genuine ninja? ‘Mochiron,’ he shrugged, meaning naturally.

Yet, even as I grasped my rubber shuriken prize and took off through the market, doubt followed me. 🙂

Proud father with his gorgeous ‘Kodomo-San’ (children), photographed during my first visit to Japan in my twenties. I’d waited years to get there, and the trip did not disappoint…aspects of the culture resonated with me as they had in my teenage years. It was life changing to experience a culture that I felt worked despite, or perhaps because of, being a dynamic blend of surviving medieval traditions and an intensely creative focus on the future.

This ‘samurai’ was selling wooden bird whistles on the shore of Lake Ashi near Hakone.

Once a year, during the Japanese holiday season of Golden Week, the Kyoto Taikai is held at the Hachimangu Shrine. It stands on a 1200 year old worship site inside a forest of giant bamboo, on a mountaintop overlooking the ancient city of Kyoto. The Kyoto Taikai is effectively the world titles of the art of Iaido, and the two-day event begins with waves of competitors taking cable cars up the side of the mountain to the first stage of the shrine, where they all don traditional clothing and swords.  Then, incense burns and great drums beckon from above as His Imperial Highness Prince Munenori Kaya and a Shinto priest, along with masters of various schools of the samurai sword, lead the colourful procession of gathered ‘Iaidoka’ up the final stretch of the mountain, through beautiful landscaped gardens to the very heart of the shrine. There, the prince, then the competitors, receive a special blessing from the priest, and everyone is given their own tiny cup of sacred (blessed) sake to drink as part of the greeting ritual.

With fellow Australians from the Seishinkan Iaido team, inside part of the shrine complex, taking tea with Fuku-Kancho (Deputy Chief Instructor) Doctor Yasu Watanabe just before the Kyoto Taikai in 2007.

2007: stepping onto the performance platform in the heart of the mountaintop shrine to Hachiman, God of War, during the ‘Embu‘ (a pre-contest swordsmen’s exhibition held on Day One of the two-day meet).

Back again in 2008 and preparing to perform my first waza (set of skills) in the Embu. The boy to the left, waiting for his turn, is a samurai descendant and already a contest champion in his own right.

Performing the Mae (frontal attack) waza, while trying not to think about Prince Kaya and the event’s judges who are watching from the white tent in the background. The following day I felt edgy before the actual contest started too, but ended up placing fifth in my division (Dangai), a very satisfying result.

Engrossed spectators and contestants watch the Embu while worshippers pay their respects in the background.

A great & unique honour bestowed on the Australian team: posing for photos with the prince, at his request, on the Embu platform. Kneeling to Prince Kaya‘s immediate left is Kancho (Chief Instructor) Glenn Stockwell, resident of Japan, head teacher of the Seishinkan Dojo, and multiple gold medal winning Taikai champion.

Miniature of a formal group shot, taken before the contest began, showing Prince Kaya surrounded by the 300-odd competitors from across Japan as well as overseas. Yes, I really am in there; second row, second from the left. The youngest in this disciplined crowd is 8, and at the other end of the scale there are several competitors in their 90s. One 86 year old Iaidoka has been known to walk from his Tokyo home to Kyoto for the contest, then home again. Why? He says ‘It’s the invigorating Spring weather’.

Note the many girls and women visible in the first row. Despite being the art of duelling with a katana, Iaido also demands calm, elegance and finesse, not brute strength or aggression. Thus it attracts many women who often outscore their male counterparts (like me, sigh) who can sometimes disadvantage themselves by lapsing into those stereotypical male sporting instincts (like unnecessary ferocity) when under pressure.

Dog Day in the park, Harajuku, Tokyo. Japanese dog-lovers take their animal friends’ grooming very seriously. That must have been expensive.

In Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, readers meet the oddball Temple Cat who befriends young Moon. These cats, also called Kimono Cats, are regarded as sacred in Japan because of the unique markings on their coats which, it is said, resemble the silhouette of a woman in a kimono. Since medieval times, the Japanese have believed that these markings indicate that a special soul has been reborn -as a Kimono Cat. The cats, which usually also feature a triangular, stumpy tail, are sent to live in the grounds of shrines and temples, hence one of their names. The above image shows a typical Temple Cat in a shrine in inner-city Tokyo.

A bridge in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Nikko area, a paradise ringed with snow-capped mountains.

Part of the stunning cluster of mountaintop shrines in Nikko.

The (original) three wise monkeys for which the shrines of Nikko are so famous. Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Compared to its global reputation, this intricate carving is actually tiny.

Nikko also boasts ‘Edo Wonderland’ a medieval samurai village theme park. First you have to get past the gate guard. Since he wears a sword, who’d try to sneak in without paying?

The dedicated actors playing medieval characters in the village are only too willing to cross swords with visitors for the camera. Along with samurai, the park is also populated with Tokugawa-era ninja, kabuki actors, geisha, peasant farmers and merchants (and roamed by bands of excited, costumed, Japanese children). There’s also Edo period fortune-tellers, restaurants serving the food of the day in the costume and decor of the era, plus a live ninja adventure show featuring some daring acrobatic fighting with what really looked like solid metal swords. Oh, and fun things to try: they offer coached target throwing with real shuriken, blow dart gun marksmanship and an indoor archery challenge. Prizes include rubber shuriken and soft toys of the theme park’s (somewhat inevitable) trademark manga-type character, a cat with a samurai hairstyle.

While in Edo Wonderland, I took the opportunity to get some proper instruction in the art of throwing shuriken, as I figured any author writing about the world of the ninja (or shinobi) should actually have some hands-on experience with this trademark exotic weapon. Was the aiming and throwing process hard? Oh yes.  Could I actually hit the target? Eventually. Could I control where my shuriken went? No. And what would that mean, I had to ask, were I in actual combat? The coach grinned.  ‘…you be dead ninja’.

These Hatamoto (samurai retainers) farewell you with syncronized, dignified bows on leaving the park at the end of your ‘trip back in time’.

I want one! This cute little house in Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture (in the mountains north-east of Tokyo) dates back to the early 1600s, as much of the town does. Kakunodate’s well-preserved samurai district is where the movie The Twilight Samurai starring Hiroyuki Sanada, was filmed. Many western film fans now recognise Sanada-sensei, having seen him use his considerable sword skills and formidable presence against Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.

This artist captures the changing seasons of Kakunodate in his front porch studio.

This friendly lady cooks & sells two local Akita region delicacies: smoked & salted fish on a stick, and coal-baked rice on a skewer. I tried both and found them different but delicious.

This Kakunodate samurai descendant celebrating the Cherry Blossom Festival looked the perfect blend of the Old and New Japan with his traditional hairstyle, sword, and state of the art mobile phone.

After descending from the keep to one of the castle’s sumptuous outer gardens, there’s nothing better than unwinding by practising the Tea Ceremony under the expert guidance of a stately lady. My tea cup, still holding the Zen-influenced ritual’s famous green aromatic brew, waits in the foreground.

Looking up toward the keep from the tranquil lower gardens of Hikone Castle. If you’re a samurai movie buff, this picture postcard vista may look strangely familiar. Several key scenes of the record breaking TV mini-series Shogun, based on the best-selling novel by Australian-born James Clavell and starring Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune and the lovely Yoko Shimada, were filmed in this very part of the garden. Here, Pilot Major John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain), a romantic action-hero version of real life Japan castaway William Adams, drew a map of the world in raked sand, then explained it for Lord Toranaga (Toshiro Mifune), a thinly-disguised Ieyasu Tokugawa, while Lady Mariko (Yoko Shimada) translated…

So peaceful looking, isn’t it? This farmland and mountain area outside Kyoto was once the home of a group of families who comprised the legendary Koga ninja clan of professional spies and stealth assassins.

Inside a preserved ninja house near Konan-Eki (Konan Railway Station) in this Koga heartland, I found this collection of shuriken, blow dart guns and (even more interesting) historical ninja training manuals. A similar museum in Iga Ueno, the mountain city that, when just a village, was home to the Iga ninja ‘shadow clan’, houses the scroll containing the Furube Sutra, a translation of which opens the Moonshadow saga.

The Kentucky Fried Chicken staff in Kyoto clearly felt the need to give Colonel Sanders a samurai makeover. So the colonel wears a single sword, an armoured forehead guard (protection against the blades of vengeful, legless warrior chickens, maybe?) and stands beside a (Clan KFC ) war banner.

The ubiquitous Tanuki, a mythical straw hat-wearing racoon entity who loves sake and is known as the patron god of gluttons. Tanuki-Sama is a big star in Japan and frequently rendered as sake bottles or ceramic figures. One of a huge pantheon of native gods, goblins and spirits, he is popular enough to have most of this Kyoto shop dedicated to his specific memorabilia.

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