Apr 162013
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was called monkey in his youth

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was nicknamed “monkey” in his youth for either his appearance or physical agility. When he became the most powerful man in 16th century Japan, nobody dared to call him this way anymore. But I think there still were reasons to do so. 🙂

Believe it or not, these two photos were taken on two consecutive days. One in Arashiyama Monkey Park, the other during cherry blossom festival in Daigo-ji Temple in Kyoto.

Mar 012013
Amanosake ''Soboshu'' sake brewed formerly by monks

From 7th to 9th century Japan sent nineteen missions to China with an objective to acquire knowledge in the fields of religion, economy, medicine, and technology. Many of the students were young priests and while the missions were state-sponsored not all students revealed all their knowledge to the government. Instead kept most important secrets inside their temples.

One of them were the techniques to produce a good alcohol:

General concepts for brewing “rice wine” were more or less a common knowledge in the old Japan, but they usually produced a muddy liquid often with unpleasant smell. At those times alcohol was brewed either by government-controlled breweries or temples. The latter was called soboshu (僧坊酒) and thanks to the secret recipes, these liquors were superior to others.

Kongo-ji temple in Kawachi what is now southern Osaka Prefecture had refined its brewing techniques so that their sake called “Amanosake” became known as the best in whole Japan. It produced a clear, gold liquid with distinctive taste, especially cherished by high-ranked nobles and warriors.

When warlord Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi set on his conquest to subjugate all Japan, the abbot of Kongo-ji was clever enough to donate the sake to the powerful generals.

Thanks to that Kongo-ji not only survived the times when all other temples around were burnt to the ground, but also thrived economically. The temple to this day keeps a personally stamped letter from Toyotomi Hideyshi asking them to be prepared for orders from him.

Indeed the big order came in 1598 for a big hanami (cherry blossom viewing) party held in Daigo-ji temple in Kyoto by Hideyoshi. And it was really big – 1300 people attended this event organized by unquestionable ruler at that time.

Later technology and government orders caused a shift in sake brewing to the merchant class. Kongo-ji lost its importance as a brewery and “Amanosake” produced by the temple became only a legendary sake.

About 20 years ago, local sake brewery in Kawachi Nagano reproduced the old recipes preserved in Kongo-ji to reproduce the taste so much cherished by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

This contemporary sake is also called “Amanosake Soboshu” (天野酒 僧坊酒) and has a tagline “reproducing the taste of sake beloved by Toyotomi Hireyoshi”. It has a beautiful gold color and is rather sweet with nutty aftertaste definitely worth a try, if you ever have chance to…

One of marketing terms used to drive the interest in this alcohol was maboroshi no sake (幻の酒). Roughly translated as legendary or phantom sake that no longer exists.

In February this year this “legendary” sake lived up to its name. ABC TV broadcasted an evening show with the–above story. In an hour after the program was shown, the–brewery servers went down under the load of orders. Within a day all stock was sold out and legendary sake is now a true legendary sake for those who were late.

Good news is that the next jar of the sake is now being brewed, but will it last for long?

Feb 162013
Restored Tokaido road in Shizuoka

Between modern towns of Shimada and Kikugawa in Shizuoka Prefecture, there is a short section of the original Tokaido road – main route between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto.

The road there goes uphill and it was inconvenient both for railroad and car highways. Owing to that, a small section the original stone paving is preserved.

In the old days this part of the Tokaido connected post towns Kanaya-juku and Nissaka-juku. Now it is a designated historical spot.

It is said that cobblestones were laid out by the order of the shogunate between 1815 and 1830.

While abandoned for some time, the road must have been heavily used by samurai, imperial envoys, merchants, countless inhabitants of Edo on their journey to pilgrimage sites. Not to forget famous yakuza gang members, it is Shizuoka anyway.

So you enter a deep forest and you can breathe this history wondering if you step on the same stone as Shimizu Jirocho or Saigo Takamori…

And then you see this…

Come on, NTT! Really? Right in the middle of a forest, under a historical road you need to put your telephone cabling?

Truth is however more complex. While the stone pavement is now over 400 meters long, it was built merely 20 years ago, though there is a small section (30 meters) of original stones preserved.

Still there are not too many places in Japan where you can feel the atmosphere of traveling in Edo period.

Or maybe I am wrong? Tokaido was the main artery of Japan, so it must have been much more busy than on the pictures. Maybe the highway full of cars is closer to the historical atmosphere?

Feb 112013
Crooked street in Matsue

This street in Matsue in northwestern Japan looks like a work of a crazy engineer who bore a grudge against drivers, but in fact it is a modern interpretation of an old idea that was implemented here 400 years ago.

Matsue was a castle town built at the beginning of the Edo period and at that time no one could predict it will bring over 250 years of peace in Japan. Thus the castle and town structure had defense measures implemented and one of those was an intentional crooking of the street called kagigata (鉤型).

It slowed down movement of people, possibly attacking troops, and obscured the view thus allowing an ambush.

The road has been renovated for 400th anniversary of establishing Matsue castle town. I am impressed with the creative way Matsue city council preserved the memory of this place.

Nov 232011
Oteguchi entrance and Turret No. 6

I have been living in Osaka for 18th months, but what I knew about Osaka Castle one month ago was merely that “it” had been rebuilt in concrete some time ago and that there was a plum orchard. That was all. And it might be so until today if not one tweet.

I have visited the main keep twice before I moved to Osaka, but since I did so, the castle became too close. With “I can visit it whenever I want” attitude it was never on my schedule.

When my interest in Japanese history grew, I embarked on a 日本100名城 quest (100 famous Japanese castles). I have learned a great deal about the castles, their political and military significance. Every visit to a Japanese castle or its remains gave me opportunity to learn something new.

And I mean even places where a fortress once stood, but not much exists now like the Yamazaki Castle or the Kannnonji Castle.

But Osaka Castle was still too close for me.

In autumn 2011 Osaka celebrated 80th anniversary of the reconstruction of the main keep of the Osaka Castle. It was rebuilt in concrete funded by voluntary offerings from citizens. Though posters promoting the event sprung all over the city, I wasn’t really interested in the history of reconstruction itself. I might have lost a great opportunity as I turned my eye blind to the details of related events.

Then one evening I read a tweet from @glyzinie about two turrets of Osaka Castle being open to the public (which was only for a few days on the occasion of the anniversary).

Thanks to a rainy weather forecast I had no plans to travel on that weekend so I went to the castle. It immediately opened a new world to me. Actually, I went there three times over the last three weekends to explore different areas.

But first things first: Tamon Yagura, Watari Yagura and Sengan Yagura—turrets–were open to the public three weeks ago. They constitute part of a defense system for Oteguchi entrance and Dobashi earthen bridge.

While one can recognize the main functions of the turrets from outside (a potential attacker’s perspective), seeing it from inside the turret (a defender’s perspective) was a really precious experience. The thick walls with openings for guns limit the visibility, but also focus attention on particular spots.

The name Sengan Yagura is said to come from the times when Ishiyama Honganji temple stood there Oda Nobunaga troops attacked the temple. The position of the turret was so perfect for defense against attackers that it would require tremendous costs to conquer it. Sengan (千貫) comes from a name of an old currency and supposedly was used to indicate the value of the turret (roughly speaking it was almost 4 tonnes of gold).

Another original building open to the public was Kinzou—a treasure house—which is the only historic building in the main enclosure, right next to the reconstruction of the main keep. Now hosting a small exhibition with old coins, reminds that not only military or political power was in the center, but also economy.

Last weekend another three original objects were open to the public. Inui Yagura in the Western Enclosure, a storehouse for gun powder and a …hole in the ground that uncovered “mysterious stone wall” a few meters below the current level.

Inui Turret was facing castle town to the West and the river to the North (hence its name which is used to indicate this direction according to Chinese system). During the Edo period the river was main water transport artery to and from Kyoto.

Ensho-gura—the storehouse for explosives—was probably the most impressive. While the space inside was empty, its 2-meter thick granite walls were nothing I have seen so far. It was built in 1685 and no wonder that from a few dozens storehouses on the premises this one stands to this day.

In the last three weeks I have managed to make up for ignoring the Osaka Castle for so long. By walking around and discovering things I have learnt a great deal about its layout, defensive structures and operations.