A Geek in Japan | History
Adventures of a geek living in Japan
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The Gods that created Japan and the Ise Shrine

Thousands of years ago…

The Universe was formed by silence, darkness and a huge mass of formless matter. Particles within that huge mass started to move and collide with each other creating the first sounds ever heard. The movement of the mass gave place to clouds and the sky, where suddenly the three gods of Japanese mythology appeared. Under the sky a big sphere was formed by still chaotic particles; the gods decided to call it “Earth”. Several thousand years and several generations of gods passed until Goddess Izanami and God Izanagi were born; they were the creators of Japan.

Izanami and Izanagi received orders to put order on Earth. They accepted the responsibility and obtained a holy spear called Amenonuhoko (天沼矛, heavenly jeweled spear) that would help them with their mission. They traveled together through the sky until they arrived to a floating bridge near the Earth. They leaned out and stirred the water of the sea with the tip of the spear Amenonuhoko, when they took out the spear from the water, the drops of salty water that were left on the tip condensed creating the first island of Japan: Awajishima (淡路島). Using the same spear they continued creating islands giving place to Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and the rest of Japanese islands. They also created forests, mountains and rivers. Izanami and Izanagi built their house in Awajishima and got married. To finish their duties they had many children that would have to follow with the creation of Japan and would be responsible to look after it: the God of Wind, the Goddess of the Moon, the Goddess of the Sea, the God of the Forests, the God of the Mountains and Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, considered the “mother” of Japan.

Ise
Izanagi and Izanami creating the first island of Japan using the spear Amenonuhoko

2722 years ago

Jimmu was born, the first Emperor of Japan and the great-grandson of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. He was the first human with the blood of the Gods. Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan is a direct descendant of Jimmu.

2025 years ago

The tenth Emperor of Japan trusted his daughter Yamatohime the mission of finding a permanent place for the worship of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. Legend has it that Yamatohime was 20 years traveling around Japan without finding an appropriate location until she heard the voice of Amaterasu while she was strolling along the side of a river that cut through the forests of Ise. Amaterasu declared to Yamatohime her desire to live there forever: next to the flow of the river, feeling the protection of the trees and contemplating the immensity of the sea. Her desire was granted and the Shintoist Shrine of Ise was built in her honor, which is nowadays considered the most important Shintoist temple in Japan.

Ise
One of the originals drafts of the Ise Shrine.

The Ise Shrine is reconstructed every 20 years using the same kind of materials (a Japanese cypress species) following the original drafts. According to Shintoism, nature continuously dies and is born non-stop, nature is impermanent, this tradition helps to maintain the freshness and purity of the place. Cyclically reconstructing temples makes them have an old, original and new feel at the same time, forever.

70 years ago

In United States, hundreds of scientists of the Manhattan Project played God trying to control the will of particles and the fundamental forces that constitute the universe. The ultimate creation of this group of “scientist-Gods” were not islands, rivers, lakes, forests and mountains; they were Little Boy and Fat Man, two atomic bombs.

Two bombs whose energy ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, reduced two cities to ashes and ended the imperial yearning of Japan. Indirectly they also ended the God-status of the Emperor, supposed direct descendant of Goddess Amaterasu. The Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status when he signed the humanity declaration in front of American General Douglas MacArthur. The God-scientists of Project Manhattan and the imperial ambitions of Hirohito and his government ended the lineage of Japanese gods, Hirohito was the last God of Japan. All Japanese gods up to Hirohito gather together every October in the temple of Goddess Amaterasu, in the Ise Shrine.

July 16th 2011

Pablo, Yuko, Sara, Carlos and I arrived in our bikes to the torii door that invited us to enter into the sacred territories of Goddess Amaterasu through the Uji bridge which leads to the Ise Shrine. We walked through the forest before the eyes of the God-trees, we cooled ourselves down next the God of the River, we strolled between the artificial wood structures with columns directly emerging from a ground covered with pebbles, rising up against us and merging with the nature of its environment. At the end of our walk we were finally able to make out Amaterasu’s home when the God of Wind allowed us to see it by blowing away the white clouds that protect the Kōtai Jingū, the holiest place in Japan.

Photons that traveled from the Sun until being captured 8 minutes after by the wood of a cypress part of the structure of the Goddess of the Sun home, and then they reached the chemical components of a 120mm film when my finger pressed the shutter of my Hasselblad, capturing the “reality” of that particular moment that will be lost in time like tears in the rain but whose image was transformed in bits and will be kept for the rest of eternity.

伊勢神宮

伊勢神宮

伊勢神宮

After coming back to Tokyo, Sara wrote:

“I just came back from the holiest place in Japan where I met several gods. The river delighted me with the reflection of the sun. The stones told me where to stop. The trees showed me the path to follow. The wind allowed me to see for a second a forbidden space for humans. I talked to them, I listened to them, all surrounded by the deepest silence.”

October 2011
As every year, thousands of gods met in the Ise Shrine to deal with Gods’ matters. Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan, was also there. Like every year he has to attend the meeting, as even though he is not a God anymore, according to Japanese mythology he is a descendant of them . When the day ended many of them went to the onsen of Spirited Away to relax and enjoy a bath in the hot springs.

Year 2013
The Ise Shrine will be reconstructed according to the original drafts following the tradition that Yamatohime started when he heard Amaterasu’s voice while strolling around Ise two thousand years ago.
————————————————————————————————————————–

Albert Einstein, one of the scientist that played God in Project Manhattan said one time:

“I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details.” – Albert Einstein

When we stopped for a rest next to the Ise river, I thought about Spirited Away when Haku, the God of the River, is able to remember his real name:

Haku: Thanks Chihiro. My real name is Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi.
Chihiro: ¿Nigihayami?
Haku: Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi.
Chihiro: What a beautiful name. It sounds like a God’s name.
Haku: I also remember when you fell in me when you were a child.

1

Tower similar to Tokyo Sky Tree in a 19th century woodblock print

In this ukiyo-e woodblock print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa a mysterious structure can be seen in the horizon whose silhouette is very similar to the Tokyo Sky Tree, which is currently under construction.

Tokyo Sky Tree Kuniyoshi Utagawa
Woodblock print created by Kuniyoshi Utagawa in 1831.

Finished Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree as it will look when its construction is finished at the end of this year. It will be 634 meters tall, being the second highest man-made structure in the world.

Several historians believe that the tower portrayed in the woodblock print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa didn’t really exist, it was a creative product of the artist imagination. It turns out that in that time it was forbidden to build any structure taller than Edo castle; moreover this woodblock print is the only proof of the “supposed existence” of that tower.

Did Kuniyoshi Utagawa predict the construction of Tokyo Sky Tree almost 200 years ago?

Source: Mainichi.

2

Takeda Shingen

Not long ago I had the chance to visit Yamanashi prefecture (山梨県) for the first time. Most of the land of this prefecture is a big plain located north from Mount Fuji. Yamanashi is known for its delicious peaches, for its beautiful landscapes, for having the fastest train in the world (still under tests) and for being the territory once ruled by Takeda Shingen, one of the most respected daimyo (general, feudal lord) in the history of Japan. I will write today about things that I learned about Takeda Shingen during my visit to Yamanashi, specially thanks to the nice taxi drivers that explained me the history of the area.

Takeda Shingen
Takeda Shingen – 武田 信玄

Takeda Shingen armor
Takeda Shingen armor

Takeda Shingen never ruled over a big part of Japan, and neither had a great army, but he was feared even by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, being Ieyasu the one that took control over all Japan at the end of the 16th century. On of the keys to Takeda’s power was the location of his territory, a big plain protected by huge mountains.

Yamanashi 山梨
Mountain range that protected the lands of Takeda Shingen. You can see Mount Fuji behind the mountain range.

Yamanashi 山梨
In the foreground of the picture, the forests where scouts spotted the enemy incursions. In second plane the plains where the inhabitants of the former Kai province, controlled by Takeda Shingen, lived (Yamanashi nowadays). In the horizon more mountains and the imposing Mount Fuji overlooking the territory.

Yamanashi 山梨

Yamanashi 山梨

Yamanashi 山梨

Apart from the great location of his territories, Takeda was a calm and extremely intelligent man. According to historians, Takeda was not able to control all Japan because he died young (when he was 49 years old) and because he persisted stubbornly on fighting only one rival: Uesugi Kenshin, the daimyo of Echigo province.

The legendary rivalry of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, has been used in our days in novels, tales, poems, TV dramas, movies (Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa), video games (Sengoku Basara), etc.

Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin
Manga based on the rivalry of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin

sengoku basara 3
Sengoku Basara anime, on the right Takeda Shingen using a tessen (Japanese war fan)


Kagemusha, the most ambitious and expensive movie by Akira Kurosawa, is partly based on the life of Takeda Shingen (in the center of the shot)

There are many facts that are still not known, but it is known that the armies of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fought against each other dozens of times, the last time in the battle of Kawanakajima. The details of the last battle are not well known but both sides lost around 4,000 soldiers and at the end of the battle Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fought one on one. Takeda Shingen got a deep wound made by the katana of Uesugi Kenshin, but he could defend himself with his tessen (Japanese war fan) and could escape alive.

battle of Kawanakajima
Takeda Shingen, on the left, fighting in the battle of Kawanakajima against Uesugi Kenshin.

Takeda and Kenshin armies
The armies of Takeda and Kenshin fighting each other in a battle in the coast of Izu.

The Army of Takeda
The army of Takeda, on the right, in one of the battles against Kenshin

tessen
The favorite weapon of Takeda Shingen was his tessen (Japanese war fan)

Even tough they were eternal rivals, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin had a lot of respect for each other. They gave presents and sent letters to each other frequently. For example, Takeda Shingen gave his best katana to Uesugi Kenshin as a present! Who would give his best weapon to his worst enemy? According to the samurai honor code and the personality of Japanese generals (also the culture and the Japanese society) in a situation of rivalry it is more important the mutual respect than winning, you can always disagree with somebody but you have to maintain the respect. In the case of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, they considered themselves lucky to have themselves as enemies.

Takeda Shingen letter
One of the original letters written by Takeda Shingen to his enemy Uesugi Kenshin.

Another example of the respect they had for each other was when Kai province (Yamanashi nowadays) ran out of salt and the armies of Takeda Shingen started to weaken (it was not easy to get salt in that time in the interior of Japan). Uesugi Kenshin could have taken advantage of the situation and try to defeat his enemy; but he did the opposite, he gave Takeda several shipments of salt and waited for the armies of Takeda to recover before starting the next battle. Uesugi Kenshin wrote in one of his letters to Takeda Shingen:

“Peace is achieved with rice and salt, not with katanas and arrows” – Uesugi Kenshin

Takeda Shingen died prematurely at the age of 49, just when he was becoming very powerful by invading his neighboring provinces (except the province of Uesugi Kenshin, that he could never invade) and winning several battles to Tokugawa Ieyasu (the future shogun and unifier of Japan). The cause of his death is still not very clear, some say he died of pneumonia, but the most popular legend says that he was assassinated with an arrow thrown by a ninja during the night without nobody noticing until the morning.

When Uesugi Kenshin had news of his rival death instead of being happy it seems that he cried and ordered all the people in his territories to mourn the death of Takeda Shingen to respect his honor. He also decided to never attack again the territories of Takeda, now controlled by his son. In fact, three years after the death of Takeda Shingen, the provinces of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin formed an alliance to fight against Ieyasu Tokugawa. However, they couldn’t do much against the unstoppable power of Ieyasu Tokugawa.

Ieyasu Tokugawa, who unified Japan and started the Tokugawa shogunate that lasted from the 16th century until the end of the 19th century, was a big admirer of the battle style of Takeda Shingen, and he copied and assimilated many of his techniques and strategies. Also the initial government of Tokugawa was based on the government of Takeda: most of the laws, the structure of the government, tax administration, etc. were copied by Ieyasu Tokugawa and applied all over Japan. Many consider that the foundations of the Japan of today were initiated by the governing style of Takeda Shingen.

Takeda Shingen grave
Takeda Shingen grave in a temple near Kofu station in Yamanashi.


Takeda Shingen statue at the exit of Kofu station.

Most of the sightseeing spots in Yamanashi are near Kofu station. You can get there in an hour and a half with the “Kaiji” train from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. If you visit Kofu or the province of Yamanashi you have to try “Shingen mochi”, the typical sweet from the area, that according to locals it is eaten there since the times of Takeda Shingen.

Shingen mochi
Shingen mochi box.

Shingen mochi
One of the four shingen mochi that were inside the box. It was delicious!

Takeda Shingen family symbol
Takeda Shingen family symbol.

It seems that the family of the founder of Mitsubishi are direct descendants of the family of Takeda Shingen and the logo of Mitsubishi is an evolution of the symbol used by Takeda Shingen in his armors and flags almost 500 years ago. Would Takeda Shingen be surprised to see Mitsubishi cars with his clan symbol (somewhat modified) all around the world?

Yamanashi 山梨
The philosophy of battle that Takeda Shingen instilled in his men: 風林火山 Furin Kazan.

風林火山 Furin Kazan, is literally translated as “wind, forest, fire and mountain”. It is not a philosophy of battle created originally by Takeda Shingen, but he was the first to introduce it in Japan. It is a strategy of the book The Art of War by Sun Tzu and can be interpreted as follows:

“Move fast like the wind 風, remain compact like a forest 林, attack as furiously as fire 火, defend yourself as if you were a mountain 山“.

picture of Takeda Shingen
A coffee can with a picture of Takeda Shingen.

Yamanashi 山梨

Yamanashi 山梨

Yamanashi 山梨
Maybe Takeda Shingen walked around this forest.

Yamanashi 山梨

Yamanashi 山梨
Feeling like Takeda Shingen :)

Yamanashi 山梨

If you still want to know more about Takeda Shingen you can read the Samurai Archives

Other Japanese samurai and heroes:

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Suidobashi

Suidobashi is one of the historic bridges in Japan that is still preserved nowadays. Suidobashi bridge crosses the river Kanda in downtown Tokyo; in the past it was used by merchants, travelers, warriors and samurai that followed the Tokaido route (that linked the present cities of Tokyo and Kyoto).

This is how Suidobashi bridge and some areas of downtown Tokyo looked 200 or 300 years ago as represented by ukiyo-e artists:

Suidobashi

Kanda river and Suidobashi bridge
Kanda river and Suidobashi bridge.

Suidobashi bridge and mount fuji
Suidobashi bridge and mount Fuji on the horizon.

Suidobashi

Suidobashi

And this is how Suidobashi bridge and its surroundings look nowadays:

Suidobashi

Suidobashi

Suidobashi

Suidobashi. Roller coaster through building
A roller coaster passing through a building!

Suidobashi
Google Maps view. The white thing is Tokyo Dome stadium

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The Kuril Islands dispute

Walking around Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido (the northernmost prefecture in Japan), we saw several times these signs claiming: “Let’s regain Japan’s Northern Territories with the Spirit of the Whole Nation”.

Hokkaido

All Kuril Islands were Japanese from 1875 until the San Francisco treaty was signed in 1945, since then the Kuril Islands belong to Russia. Even so, Japan claims the islands as part of its national territory, specially the four islands which are very near Hokkaido (as seen in the sign on the picture). These four islands have a Japanese name and most of its inhabitants belong to the ethnic group Ainu, who speak Japanese (the Ainu language is in danger of extinction)

Kuril Islands
In this map from Wikipedia you can see how the Japanese control over the Kuril Islands changed over the years.

Some years ago Russia was thinking about giving back some of the islands to Japan, but they eventually backed out.

More information about the dispute in Hokkaido prefecture website and Wikipedia.

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Brief History of Japan – Part 3

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Europe and the United States were already fully engaged in the industrial revolution, Japan was a feudal country ruled by an army (samurai) who had the power of life and death over the rest of society. In July 1853, an American squad led by Admiral Perry entered the Tokyo Bay. The Admiral proposed the Japanese government to sign a treaty that would authorize the United States to do business with the archipelago.

Perplexed before the sight of American cannons, the Shogun, for the first time in six centuries of military power, consulted the Emperor about the most convenient way to act. Without hesitation, he replied that they needed to expel the Americans. Unfortunately, the General didn’t have sufficient means to expel the Americans and he was forced to sign the treaty.

As a result to his disobedience to the Emperor, considered a living god by all Japanese, Tokugawa lost the trust of his people. He had to resign in order to allow a triumphant restoration of the imperial power. Young Mutsushito, better known as Emperor Meiji, found himself, being only 15 years of age, as the head of the country. The first thing he did as Emperor was to change the name of the capital from Edo to Tokyo (Capital of the East). Paradoxically, with the return of the Emperor to power, Japan would fully enter the modern world.

This post is the third part of my brief summary of the history of Japan:

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Brief History of Japan – Part 2

Between the 14th and 16th century, Japanese people were ruled under a system of feuds that were always fighting against each other. The capital was still Kyoto, where the Shogun “controlled” the whole country. But when the Shogun Hideyoshi died in 1598, the new Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to rule from his castle in Edo.

Up until then, Edo had been a small unimportant village, but starting on the 17th century, it would turn into the capital of Japan; Edo is now known as Tokyo. All sorts of commercial routes from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo quickly appeared. Samurai, nomads and traders started to settle in the new key center of the island.

Edo tokyo
Edo/Tokyo around 400 years ago.

For more than 200 years, different generations of the Tokugawa family ruled the country. They were extremely conservative and that led them to close the doors to any external influence. Meaning foreigners were not allowed in Japan. If a foreigner was found in the country, he was immediately sentenced to death. Many Spanish and Portuguese explorers died when they arrived to Japan. Moreover, a 1614 law forbid all Japanese people to leave the country.

Japan was totally closed to external influences until 1868. Think about the consequences that this isolation can have for a country and its people. All Japanese people had a love for Japan that was almost neurotic, they thought they were the center of the world and they sweated blood working for their country. This can still be felt today. Also think that in 1868, the Western world already had trains and different technologies that Japan didn’t have; they were still using beasts of burden. How could they develop all the necessary technology to confront the United States in WWII in only 72 years? How could they, after being defeated in WWII, make a comeback in so little time and become one of the biggest world powers, becoming a world leader in technology?

This post is the second part of my brief summary of the history of Japan:

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Brief History of Japan – Part 1

Sometimes I refer to Japanese historic concepts in some posts but I have rarely written about Japanese history in my English blog. Understanding Japanese history is fundamental to understand Japanese society and the causes of the current Japanese technological developments. I will try to write and summarize all Japanese history in the most brief and least boring possible way.

Legend has it that Japan was born from the love between two gods: Izanagi and Izanami. These two gods had a daughter named Amaterasu, from whom all the long dynasty of Japanese emperors until today descend. This is one of the reasons why even today, a great portion of the Japanese population believes the emperor is a living god.

The first Japanese settlers go back to the Jomon Period more than 8 000 years ago. But the first real Japanese state wouldn’t be created until the 8th century, whose first capital was Nara. This city was built following the model of Chinese cities.

Nara Japon
Nara, the first capital of Japan.

During the first years of existence of the Japanese state the emperor lived in Nara. However at that time there were many fights and wars between sects and at one point the emperor couldn’t resist such pressure and he had to move to Kyoto. Today, Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities in Japan and an obligatory visit.

Anyway, families continued fighting to seize power. At the end, the chief of the Minamoto Clan was named Shogun (General) and set up his headquarter in Kamakura (close to current Tokyo). Then, an era marked by military ideology and Zen Buddhism started and lasted until 1333. During that time, a new class appeared, the samurai, which little by little imposed their control over the whole country.

Samurai
Samurai started to control Japan around year 1300.

This post is the first part of my brief summary of the history of Japan:

1

First Nintendo building

Everything started in 1889 when Fusajiro Yamauchi began producing Japanese playing cards called Hanafuda; apart from Hanafuda cards he also imported some western games, mixed ideas and set up two stores, one in Kyoto and one in Osaka. Playing cards were a novelty for Japanese people and were very succesful at the time. Fusajiro Yamauchi decided to expand his business and in 1933 he legally established Yamauchi Nintendo & Co, establishing as well the first factory in Nintendo’s history. Nowadays Nintendo still sells playing cards in Japan, however its video games division was the responsible for its international expansion. Nintendo is now the leading video games company in the world thanks to the success of Nintendo DS and Wii.

I was searching around online to see if I could find the location of that 1933 first building of Nintendo, however I was not successful until it occured to me to use Google Maps and search for YAMAUCHI NINTENDO!! and it worked! Here you have the pictures of what probably is a reconstruction of the original building on top of the original location. When I went there I peeped inside the building and nobody seemed to be using it nowadays.

Nintendo first building

Nintendo first building

Nintendo first building

Nintendo first building

5

Melonpan

Melonpan pan is one of my favorite Japanese sweets. Melopan are sweet bread with the shape of half melon, the texture inside is like bread and on the surface it is crispy.

Melon Pan

Originally melopan did not have melon flavor, the name came just from the shape and the wrinkled surface that reminds that of a melon. But the concept evolved and now many melonpan have melon flavor. It sounds like a bad combination, but for me the more it tastes like melon the more I like it! If you come for travel to Japan try it, you can find it almost in any convenience store or bakery. It can also be found in some places in China or Corea. As an alternative, you could also give it a try and bake melonpan at home, here there is the recipe.

Melon Pan
This was just delicious, it tasted A LOT like a melon!

Melon Pan
With chocolate.

Melon Pan

Melon Pan

Melon Pan

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