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A Steep Climb

A Steep Climb

Warriors in full battle armor running at speed – the image that comes to mind in the Musha Bashira, one of the outside passages of this ancient castle, designed to accommodate their girth with extra width and set below the floor – but suddenly they turn, confronted by an offset route and a steep set of stairs that are difficult negotiate even under ideal circumstances. Castles, even those constructed during more peaceful times, were built with both offensive and defensive positions in mind. Many early castles were built on high walls (see Kumamoto) or in locations designed to reduce the opportunity for attack. Other castles, like Matsumoto, were built in anticipation of gun warfare (with appropriate gun slots and thick walls) but were never used due to the end of civil wars at the start of the Edo period. Matsumoto’s primary defense is its moat, (which photographs beautifully in more peaceful times) as well as the de rigueur hidden floor. Inside, the halls and stairs are offset, designed to slow down intruders. Most challenging now, for the visitor, are the extremely steep stairs, especially as they are negotiated in stocking feet. Each staircase is progressively steeper until you reach the final one, which is at about a 70% angle AND has uneven steps that are of differing sizes. Today, the view from the top of the Japanese Alps and the city of Matsumoto make the climb worthwhile, even though dangerous. This castle also has a rare moon viewing room; the story goes that you can see the moon three times: once in the sky, once in the water and once in your cup of sake (six times if the sake is...
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Sword Holding

Sword Holding

We often get requests from travelers who want to visit a “swordmaker” based on their casual interest in the Japanese sword, or katana.   However, the world of swordmaking in Japan is not quite a spectator sport and, for the most part, unless you’re truly a collector or a potential purchaser of a sword (which runs upwards of $20,000), visiting a swordmaker is just not easily done.  There are, however, a few festivals and exhibitions throughout the year that include public displays of swordmaking.   One is in the Nagano area, in the town of Sakaki, where a series of workshops are done during a two month period in the late spring.  Another is in the town of Seki, where traditional Japanese sword making is demonstrated to the public at the Cutlery Festival every year. Another option, though, for a true aficionado is a visit to one of the many artisans on the periphery of the sword world – including those artist masters of the various fittings and elements.  We had one such opportunity with a visit to a master sword polishing school.   This ancient discipline has been handed down for generations and hundreds of years.   The polishing of swords is an art, and the practitioners in Japan apprentice for years before going out on their own.  In addition to understanding all the nuances of polishing, they also must become experts on the history of the swords they polish, the evolution of metallurgy, the creation of their own tools and even geology (since polishing is done with a variety of stones, each more finely grained than the last). The most unusual aspect of the polishing is the set up for polishing, with a bench that allows the polisher to perch part of his body on one foot, wrapping one toe around the base and then balance the sword in front on him.   Below I’ve included a picture of my guinea pig boyfriend trying to manage the correct position – not recommended for those without significant yoga practice and strong feet. The best part of the visit, though, for someone with a true love of swords, was an opportunity to learn how to correctly hold and examine a sword and, in the course of doing so, to handle blades as old as 800 years.   Sword collectors in Japan take great care with their collections and regular and correct polishing is necessary to maintain the blade.   Visiting a sword polisher was an interesting way to gain a greater understanding of the depth of love the Japanese have for their...
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Reigando Cave

Reigando Cave

Took a visit to Reigando Cave, the site where Miyamoto Musashi, the famed samurai and swordsman, wrote the Book of Five Rings.   This cave is located way outside the small city of Kumamoto, up in the mountains – windy road there, then, once we got to the turn off (by some beautiful terraced rice fields), there was another climb up a very windy road to the entrance way.  There is a small shrine right at the front – where we were greated by a pilgrimmage couple beating an hypnotic rhythm on a drum and chanting in preparation for their entry into the sacred space.   Then there is a bit of a climb up and over several large rock formations to get to the actual cave.  Very slippery when wet, these seemed  to form the perfect metaphor for the end of spiritual quest, which often gets more difficult the closer to the objective you get.   The route is lined with hundreds of sitting Buddha’s that were placed there several hundred years ago and now are in quite disrepair after earthquakes and weather.   The  story is that each person can see themselves in one of the Buddha’s faces – as our guide pointed out, this was more likely before westerners started arriving.   The cave itself is a large, shallow cave that opens on to a view of trees.  There is a large central rock, on which someone has places a small statue, some alter-like area and stairs and wooden floor built in to make it more accessible.   For those with a serious interest in samurai studies, this is a must see destination, well worth the personal pilgrimage to...
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Samurai, Swords and San Francisco

While you can travel through Japan with any number of themes in mind (traditional arts, manga, ceramics, contemporary arts, nature and hiking, etc), getting ready for a themed trip from the US can have its challenges. This weekend, however, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to attend a Samurai Symposium put on by the Society of Asian Arts at the Asian Art Museum. This was in conjunction with their visiting exhibition called Lords of the Samurai, featuring a wide variety of works from the Hosakawa collection. The symposium was great – with a lot of speakers who managed to make what could have been some pretty esoteric topics accessible to the non-expert. Topics ranged from the history of the family’s collection to how Noh drama is related to samurai culture to a demonstration of sword handling. The exhibit itself is superb – featuring a range of art and artifacts, highlighted by a superb set of samurai armor. There are a number of beautiful sword blades (note that the blades are often displayed separately from the fittings for true historic swords) ranging over a few centuries. There are battle banners, equestrian fittings, calligraphy, tea utensils, screens, sumi-e, tsuba and a wide range of items all from the collection of one family which spans several centuries. Having the opportunity to learn a little bit about some of this aspect of Japanese culture before heading off to Japan is a great way to prepare yourself for a trip and to learn more about what you’d like to focus on when you get there. The fruits of my labor are being put to use in preparing for Esprit’s new trip: In the Shadow of the Samurai, which is open to the...