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Ouchi Juku and Tsurugu Castle

A visit to a preserved Japanese village and a preserved Japanese castle


I planned my visit to Ouchi Juku over a weekend. It would be a long roadtrip, by my reckoning - at least three hours driving just one way - but it was made longer by my decision to add additional stops along the way. At first, I didn't even know about Tsurugu castle or any of the other things I saw on this particular excursion. They merely sprung up as I was scouring google maps for interesting historical landmarks along my route that would make it possible to, ideally, stop no more than every 40 minutes for a break.


My final itinerary ended up one with four planned stops, and a pitstop in Yonezawa for some Starbucks (we were driving south, so, Yonezawa just happened to be on the way). An unplanned sixth stop snuck its way in when we drove past Don Quiote, an iconic "everything" shop with locations all across Japan. Feeling that my friends, who were only visiting Japan temporarily, deserved to have the Don Quiote experience, we ended up spending fourty minutes wandering through its exotic and erratic aisles containing everything from American candies, to clothes, to electronics, to car parts, to a walled off porn island in the rear corner. It was Japan at its most eccentric - and arguably its best or its worst, depending on one's tastes and what one liked about Japan.


After that brief stop, we continued on south into the mountains. I was surprised at how mountainous in fact the road turned out to be - we were clearly driving through some truly wild terrain, narrow roads built along cliffs and tunnel after tunnel through solid rock. The whole way along we were accompanied by a winding river that occasionally widened out to make small pools, dams, or waterfalls. It was a scenic drive and we all enjoyed it quite a bit.


Eventually the mountains leveled out and we ended up back on flat terrain. From here, it was only a few more minutes to our first stop, a temple hidden in a tiny village in the area. I had been quite excited by this discovery. The temple was the resting place of one of the monk Hōnen's top disciples. Hōnen had been the genius instructor who instructed another monk, Shinran, along a then-heretical line of thinking that would soon sieze and overtake Japan to become the nation's leading school of Buddhist thought.



Sakura trees lining temple entrance
Sakura trees lining the temple entrance

Sakura trees lining temple entrance
Sakura trees lining the temple entrance


The essence of their thought was, both monks had studied Buddhism at the Tendai monastary on Mt. Hiei, engaged in the many elaborate rituals and forms of meditation practiced there, and found themselves at a loss. For, neither man felt they'd reached anything close to the state of enlightenment that the Tendai sect claimed resulted from their practices. Hōnen eventually caim to the conclusion that reaching enlightenment by one's own power was simply impossible in the current day and age, which had become an era of spiritual degradation or Mappō. Therefore, the only option left was to take refuge in the vow of the Amida Buddha and to practice the Nenbutsu (the act of begging Amida Buddha for salvation). Only by invoking Amida's vow to grant rebirth to anyone who believes in him into a Pure Land (Jōdo Shinshu) where enlightenment was not just easy to attain, but guaranteed, could modern day believers find salvation from the wheel of samsara and eternal rebirth.


Hōnen found an eager disciple in Shinran, who'd similiarly become disillusioned with the Tendai school's doctrine that enlightenment could be achieved in this life through hard work and discipline. However, their elevation of the Nenbutsu and their rejection of Tendai thought made them heretics in the eyes of the imperial court in Kyoto, who eventually exiled them both from the city and sent them to live out the rest of their lives in miserable backwaters of the deep countryside in the north (and in seperate areas - the master and student would never see each other again). This would prove a critical mistake for the court, however, when Hōnen and Shinran's simplified version of Buddhist practice that relied on belief in a higher power rather than complicated meditation practices and esoteric rituals found great success among the simple farmers and townsfolk in these backwater regions. Shinran especially found enormous success converting the laypeople of the countryside, to the extent that today, over 60% of Japan's Buddhist population belongs to the school founded by Shinran.


This small temple in a tiny village in the deep countryside that contained the remains of one of Hōnen's other top disciples was, in that sense, a remarkable part of Japan's history. This was exactly the sort of small village temple and small village whose patronage had allowed the Pure Land school of Buddhism to thrive. Belief in the Amida Buddha was cultivated exactly in forgotten backwaters like this, and the whole episode was a reminder of how, time and again, both in secular power (the shogunate) and spiritual power (religious movements), it was really the denigrated and reviled far-off countryside regions of Japan that steered the fate and molded the character of the country, rather than the rich, well-educated, and elitist nobles of the imperial house in Kyoto.



Temple compound from the outside
Temple compound from the outside


The temple was surprisingly large, and we found a gift shop at the entrance manned by some surprisingly talkative and friendly older Japanese ladies. They seemed quite excited by our visit, and gave us pamphlets exlaining the temple grounds and a long lecture (in Japanese, which I didn't understand) about the temple. Then we wandered the temple grounds, which turned out to contain four or five buildings at least, among them some impressive ceremonial Buddhist halls with large Buddha sculptures and intricate art on the level of what one would expect to find at a temple in the capital. All of it was, however, modestly and peacefully integrated into the natural landscape, the trees and the forest, of the countryside, giving the temple a sort of quiet and peace that the temples in the capital could not acheive. The whole place was immaculately maintained, and there were a few other visitors wandering the grounds - suggesting it wasn't completely off the map - but, only about half a dozen. It was nice to experience a temple like this without all the crowds I was used to at the bigger temples. Eventually, we took some photos at the Koi pond and bid farewell to the temple, getting back to the road.


We drove then for about another hour or hour and a half before we reached our next major stop - Tsurugu castle in Aizu. The town of Aizu proved to be much bigger than I'd expected - much more of a city than a town, and not a very pretty one at that. And, the castle of Aizu also turned out to be much bigger and (in contrast to the city) more beautiful than I'd expected. The sakura flowers were in full bloom here, and the entire castle grounds was so thick with visitors that we could hardly drive through it to the parking lot. It took us nearly thirty minutes just to get out of the bumper to bumper traffic. But when we did, we were greeted with the most perfect sight of a traditional Japanese castle grounds in full bloom with Sakura flowers, and in the middle of festive celebrations - with stalls of traditional Japanese fare laid out, people wandering around in traditional Kimonos, and whole groups of people happily picnicking on the grass.



entry to tsurugu castle, from the parking lot
entry to the castle, from the parking lot

entry to tsurugu castle
entry to tsurugu castle

sakura at tsurugu castle
sakura at tsurugu castle

picnic in sakura blossoms
picnic in the sakura

castle walls with sakura
castle walls

Tsurugu castle with Sakura, Japan
Tsurugu castle


I particularly enjoyed the food stall area, where there was such Japanese classics as grilled fish on a stick, dango, and even a small matcha tea stall where the matcha master mixed the tea right infront of you and then you drank it on little impromptu wooden benches infront of the stall. There was a moat running around the premise, and the areas near the moat-side were all elevated ground, almost like a wall circling the compound. You could walk up unto these and get a fantastic view of the compound and the castle. When I first climbed the stairs, I even noticed another interesting "stall" of sorts - some woman running around with a group of puppies and a professional camera. She handed the puppies to passerby and took their photo with the puppy and the castle in the background (for a price) then, after selling a few photos, grabbed her puppy posse and scurried off to some other location on the grounds at a pace that suggested to me her activities were maybe not quite legal.



traditional fair, Japan, Tsurugu castle
traditional fair entryway

traditional fair food stalls in Japan
traditional fair stalls

Japanese food stalls
various stalls

matcha stall
matcha stall

samurai armor
samurai armor

sake
sake

dango
dango

grilled fish
grilled fish

dango
dango

matcha master making matcha tea
matcha master hard at work making my matcha


In the end, I couldn't resist paying for entry into the castle, though this proved mildly disappointing since the whole castle had been converted into a museum and no longer really maintained its traditional character. Still, there were excellent views from the very top, so the climb at least had its payoff that way. I noticed that much of the castle's history was devoted to a regiment of child-soldiers that had defended the castle when government forces first tried to retake it from its Daimyo lords, during the era of the Meiji restoration. Seeing smoke rising from the castle and believing the castle to have been lost, this group of young samurai - only about seventeen years old - all committed ritual suicide with their samurai swords. In fact, the castle had not been lost yet, and what they were seeing was just smoke from the battle. Only one of the group of youths survived his suicide attempt and could explain what happened to his rescuers. In grief, a monument was erected to the whole troupe to celebrate their chivalry and their loyalty to their lord.


Satisfied with my visit to the castle, I made a beeline for the car to try and make it to our main destination before sundown. It was only another fourty minutes drive to Ouchi Juku, the traditional, edo-era village we'd come all this way to see. The road took us through the most back-road, treacherous country and mountain paths we'd seen yet on the drive. And after a rushed drive, we arrived just in time - to find that the whole village had, unfortunately, closed for the day.


While this was a major disappointment, we found some consolation in that the parking lot remained open and that there appeared to be no prohibition on wandering the village grounds after closing time. So, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the village and soaked in its traditional atmosphere, getting a sense - as I'd intended - of how the old Japan might have looked. The houses had a very curious structure - their roofs seemed made entirely of straw, and to stretch almost entirely to the ground. I assumed this construction must have had something to do with the heavy snowfall in the region, and that somehow, the odd shape and material of the roofs were designed to carry heavy loads of snow (and insulate the people within). It was springtime now, however, so there was no snow to be seen. Just a lovely lane of old, thatched buildings set around a single dirt path with two creaks running through it on either side. At the end of the road was a shrine up some stairs into the forest, and a cemetery.



Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Ouchi Juku
Ouchi Juku

Noticing signs for another temple a bit of a walk from the village, as sundown approached we wandered a short ways away to see this final temple as well. The temple proved worth the short, fifteen minute walk. It was surrounded by a thick path of forest and encircled by a small stream, and seemed so old, moss covered and lonely, it truly felt like stepping into another world. We paid a short visit to this mystical patch of forest and its temple, accompanied only by the sound of birdsong in the trees and rustle of running water from the stream. Then, we made our way back to the car and began the drive home.



Forest temple at Ouchi Juku
Forest temple at Ouchi Juku

Forest temple at Ouchi Juku
Forest temple at Ouchi Juku

Forest temple at Ouchi Juku
Forest temple at Ouchi Juku

Forest temple at Ouchi Juku
Forest temple at Ouchi Juku

There was, however, one more stop to be had. I had seen on a map that there was a temple nearby that was built directly into the mountain. The photos were striking and so, even though it was now completely dark, we did our best to stop at this temple just outside Aizu on the way back. It took us some searching (the road to the temple was located, confusingly, amid a construction site), but eventually we found and made a small drive into the mountain. Summoning our courage, and aware that bears and other creatures might be out roaming at night in mountains like these, we made the short hike up to the temple.


This final journey also proved worth the effort. The wooden structure was about four levels tall, and each level completely lacked walls - it was a curiously open air structure, except for a ceremonial prayer hall at the top level. Infront of this prayer hall was a bell with a rope - it was customary to ring the bell. So, we each took turns ringing the large metal bell - its chimes echoed out into the dark night and the open valley around us. In the distance, we could see lights from the city of Aizu - this forlorn temple had quite the view. Far enough from civilization not to be disturbed by it, yet, close enough to keep civilization in sight, this temple had for years functioned as a training ground for Buddhist monks and an ascetic, mountain retreat. We could see that a small cave was carved right into the mountain and could be walked into from the upper floor. Once upon a time, aspiring monks had probably spent hours or even weeks locked up in that cave, practicing their mantras and seeking enlightenment (or, the favor of the Amida Buddha).


That was all for this trip. After that, we got back in the car and began the long drive home, stopping only briefly at a traditional soba house for some dinner. It was late by the time we got back to Nagai. But, I think we all felt strongly that in spite missing our intended target during its opening hours, we'd experienced quite the eventful and fulfilling journey that day nonetheless.





End.






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