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A Mirage of Blaze stop: September 12, we went to Samegao Castle, where Kagetora died. It was a spectacular experience of many dimensions.

Myoko Kogen (Then and Now)

We’re staying for a couple of days at Oyado Furuya, a ryokan in Myoko Kogen, a ski resort town and the first place we’ve stayed that’s not in a big city. It’s a very nice place I highly recommend, but the thing that impresses me most is the landscape of the Niigata Prefecture, a beautiful, mountainous region with many forests. The weather is also quite nice up here. It’s no longer miserably hot and humid but instead a bit too warm but, on the whole, pleasant. It’s also nice to be away from the massive urban train stations of chaos and doom and out into small, country stations with a single conductor taking tickets by hand.



(Arai Station)

We were met at the station by American travel writer, William Ross, who works in association with the ryokan. He lavishly praised the snows of the region, stating that American ski resorts couldn’t hold a candle. All I could think was “But all that snow prevented Ujiteru from sending reinforcements to Kagetora, and he died!” When I told this to Marshall later, he got a good laugh out of it, as did I, but my thought wasn’t entirely fatuous.

An echoing tunnel descends back through the years of a place. The same climate that makes skiing tourists happy today once spilled blood on these hills. What does that mean? That Japan has progressed and is more peaceful and harmonious today? (In fact, it’s the protection of this progress from forces of a more brutal time that forms a core motivation in Mirage.) That the land exists outside of humanity and takes no interest in human doings? (Like the morning glories Takaya mentions in Gunjou.) That life is impermanent? We make—and are made by--narratives that layer like tree rings giving way to new tree rings? Everything is sunk deeper than what we see.

Samegao Castle Park (This is not its official name)

From the pictures, I had not expected this park to be so beautiful. Much more than just the castle ruins, it includes nature walks, models of ancient huts and technologies, and a very nice visitor’s center, where we were greeted by a very nice lady with very little English but a great deal of will to give us the full Samegao experience. She gave us cold tea and some beautiful postcards and explained the park as best as we were mutually able.

The land feels sub-tropical, rich with ferns and dense woods and many critters. I’m not used to seeing frogs and many sorts of large grasshoppers/crickets/cicadas jumping around right in front of us. I’m also not used to large orb webs piled almost one of the other, like a row of frosted glass walls.


(Path by parking lot)


The Ruins

The castle ruins are up a fairly short but steep trail that’s a slog in the heat. (But it seems right somehow to embrace discomfort in visiting a place where so much death occurred.)

The top of the hill (the ruins) is a very pleasant space of mowed grass, comprising two small, roughly circular knolls, each with a table and picnic benches. Across a gulley is a third open space surrounded by trees. The outlook from the highest knoll is incredible and very appropriate for a castle: up where you can see the enemy armies approaching from extremely far away. Below these knolls, on the other side of a stretch of trees, is a broader open space, the 二の丸,which I might guess means the “second circle/level.” The level below this leads down to the well, which is kind of a pit with some barbed wire around it.

As a manmade structure, this place is almost completely gone. There a few stones half buried, averaging a foot or less in diameter, with the tallest less than two feet high. There appears to be a very small shrine by one of the picnic benches, where someone had left a small fruit. (I wonder if this was the middle-aged man we met on the path, the only other person we saw in the park besides some docents. We truly had the place to ourselves, which is likely one advantage of coming in the heat in the off-season.)

One thing this trip has driven home to me is how the brutality of the Sengoku Period is evidenced in the lack of extant ruins. My friend, Toshio, told me that oldest castles we’re likely to see in Japan date to the early 1600s, which, of course, coincides with the advent of the Pax Tokugawa.

Another thing driven home, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is the smallness of the dimensions. Somehow from the photos I’d seen of the Samegao-jou ruins, I had the impression of an expansive place, like ruins I’d seen in Greece, for example. But this was small, a big house really. The three upper knolls are tiny spaces: a single picnic table takes up a good amount of space per knoll.


("Samegao" post and stones)


(Stone with writing)


(Top knoll with yours truly for scale)


(See your enemies coming from quite a long ways away.)

Thinky Thoughts

It must have been a terrible way to die, holed up in the last stronghold that might have provided a path to safety, having the outer walls burned down around you, realizing there is no hope for your followers or your family or yourself. (Wikpedia, by the way, informs me that Kagetora had four children, two boys and two girls. I don’t know if all but the eldest were still alive up to the Otate no Ran?)

It made me cry a little. There is something particularly weird about being there, 430-odd years later, on a serene summer day of forested stillness with the cicadas chirping unconcernedly, where such a massacre took place. It’s comforting, in a way, to see that peace returns. It made me think of my own mortality and, more broadly, of the future of our world today. Are we, in fact, headed for a new warring states period of water wars and peak oil? Worse, are we headed for The Road? Even if we are—even if we all die in the great catastrophe—peace will return. Life on Earth is tenacious and the Earth and its life a long way from over. There is, indeed, some comfort in that thought, even if it’s not personal.

There is also a lesson here about the choice to make war. There is no law of nature that says this place had to be a battleground. If there were, it wouldn’t be sitting serenely today. It was a choice to fight: a very complicated, socially restricted, politically fraught, multigenerational choice, but a choice nonetheless. So, too, when our leaders tell us that we “have to” fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, or what have you, it behooves us to remember that we don’t. It’s a choice. We could be sitting on the summer grass in the sun… or possible someday, hoards would come to drive us to suicide. It’s all in the realm of human choice.


(Kagetora)

Mirage of Blaze

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered what historical Mirage characters would think if they knew that their 21st century claim to fame rested largely on one woman’s highly fictitious account of their angsty afterlife hijinks. What would Kagetora think if he knew someone like me had traveled halfway around the world in a large degree to visit the place where he died because this woman wrote him a racy afterlife? I can’t begin to guess.

I love Kagetora/Takaya the character dearly, but his real antecedent, of course, I know from nothing. I know his life must have been very, very hard, and I’m sorry. And by extension, I hope I can retain some sympathy for all those people I never know who fight through hard lives with no recognition, all those Naoe Nobutsunas, who end up as scarcely a footnote in history if recorded at all.

The fact is I really haven’t thought about Mirage per se much on this journey, and that seems kind of appropriate. It’s one thing to enjoy a story in the solitude of my head, but it seems a little vulgar maybe to let fiction outweigh reality in the midst of the warm stone ruins. That is a time for real people and real mourning.

But fiction represents life, and Mirage is about all these things: understanding historical flow, calming the spirits and restoring the serenity, knowing when to hold on and when to let go. These are all Mirage lessons.

The nice lady at the visitor’s center invited us to come again, and I hope I can. This is, indeed, a beautiful and sacred space.


(Notes: Photos by Marshall. This post is out of sequence in our Japan rambles. I'm a bit behind but wanted to do Samegao while it was fresh in my mind.
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