In addition to signs for castles, there were some other kanji that kept showing up on signs for something important, and whatever it was was somewhere near. I pushed my bike up through what diminished to a sprinkle in the woods, and came upon this particular site. Whatever it was, it was accompanied by a giant stone plaque and an entrance way into some woods off the side of the road. It didn’t look like castle ruins, and it didn’t look like a gravesite. I walked into the woods and found … nothing really at all. It was kind of an overgrown grassy clearing. There were also a large amount of extremely thick bamboo growing everywhere between the trees.
I quickly found that it was a place full of mosquitoes.
Less than 60 seconds after starting my form I resorted to swatting furiously around my head and exposed legs and raced to my bike to continue my journey towards the castles.
The proper signs revealed themselves to me and I was drawing nearer to the castle ruins I have never visited before, Kusunaguma Castle Ruins. I expected nothing, to be honest, and really just wanted to find some downhill slopes again. I arrived at a small village and explored some of the small roads extending from it. Most became dead ends at houses. One I followed down opened up to a wide expanse of rice fields. Again I pondered the presence of these which were so far removed in the hills. Below is a picture of one of the houses and farming storage units that are common in these places. I fantasized about being a kid and coming here for weekend visits in the summer. Or maybe being stuck in a snow storm in a house like this.
Apparently this town was home to the infamous Kusunaguma Castle Ruins, and this is what I found …
SOMETHING! The building on the right acted as a small information center, and on the left were stairs leading up to a shrine. The information center was tidy with tables and a TV, and then two unplugged refrigerators with beer! Deucers of Kirin! How could I take them though? I have to be honest, it was tempting. The refrigerators were unplugged. It’s not like anybody was going to drink them soon, I thought. A calendar inside was flipped to May of this year. I wasn’t able to get much information from this information center, and assumed the grand attraction was the shrine next door. I have noticed in Japan, that the more stairs there are leading up to a shrine.
It is actually quite timely that I embarked on my castle adventure at this time. A week earlier at the Sakurai High School enkai drinking party, I finally got to chat with one of the teachers who is also a zen buddhist priest. He has the clean shaved head, but like my aikido sensei, he isn’t what you would maybe expect of a priest at first glance. Nevertheless, and extremely interesting guy. Anyway, I got to talking with him and asked him if he practiced zazen, the zen practice of seated meditation. He said, sometimes. As I asked him more esoteric questions about zen, he directed me to more relevant matters concerning his buddhist status. Mostly, I think he said, his job is to take care of the temple which has been in his family for many hundreds of years. He said that his temple was crucial during the Sengoku Era (Warring States Period) in the mid 1500’s. At that time, the Maeda clan was in control of the areas now called Ishikawa Prefecture (neighboring prefecture to the west containing the famous city of Kanazawa) and Toyama Prefecture. To the north in Niigata, was a powerful warlord named Uesugi Kenshin who was trying to expand his area south into Toyama. Kurobe, being a city in eastern Toyama made it a bit of an outpost against invasion, and apparently many soldiers lived in my teacher’s temple. The lord Maeda would use these temples as bases and would compensate the priests and communities in gold and protection. The teacher then said his temple was a “castle” in Japanese, oshiro. I was really confused because when you say Japanese castle, I have a grand image of the giant castles you find in large cities in Japan, but I know his temple is nothing of the sort. It seems I have come across another mistake in generalizing about certain Japanese words. Maybe the term “oshiro can also be used for temples which housed soldiers as well. It also reveals how religion in Japan has been utilized by society and politics throughout its history. Temples have often been sites of military and political struggle throughout Japanese history. Perhaps, this “castle” of Kosunaguma was similar to my teacher’s temple/castle.
I climbed the stairs to find a fairly normal looking temple, but instead of disappointment, I was filled with historical curiousity.
Well, on to the next castle, whatever it may be. Luckily there was a lot of downhill and no rain. After about 20 minutes I made it to the next castle, Matsukura Castle, which I had visited a year before.
At a fork in the road just before the castle, I happened upon my first forest friend of the trip, and of a kind I haven’t seen in a while.
! Defined as a goat-antelope called a serow. I’m not sure how prevalent they are around the rest of Japan, but there’s quite a lot in Toyama, and I think that’s rare. Aside from monkeys, these are the second most frequent animals I see in the mountains. This is just the kind place I would expect to see one. This one was very strange though, standing on the side of the road. I saw him coming from a ways off and stopped to take a picture. It was dead frozen. I waited for a bit just hanging out with it from a distance, but it didn’t budge at all. When I continued down the hill in it’s direction he remained the same. I went down the other road from the fork, keeping us about 20 meters apart, but he just watched me. I thought this was really weird. It certainly didn’t look like it was standing its ground in defense, but it also didn’t look frozen with fear. It seemed like it was just watching me like I was watching it and completely forgot what it was doing. Maybe I have some deep connection with kamoshika, I like them better than the stinky thieving monkeys.
I thought it strange and looked back periodically to the frozen kamoshika, who remained frozen, while I rode up to the ruins just up the other side of the hill. I think this is the more “popular” of the two main castle ruins, and has been turned into a park with grass lawns and some monkey bars (that maybe the monkeys use???). There’s an interesting wooden tower platform which was roped off and climbed by me. Further down there was a covered area, and if I remember right, there’s a cheesy life-size wooden samurai figure with the face cut out so you could pose with it and take a picture. This seemed like a cruel joke a year earlier when I anticipated a great mysterious castle and found this campy display instead. It made me laugh now, and I didn’t even bother to make the 50 yard walk to find out if my memory was right.
The road continued past the castle ruins, which made two potential ways further into the mystery of the mountains, but which one should I take? Going in opposite directions they’d surely take me to two very different places. Ah-ha! A map! There was a convenient looking illustrated map just behind me I bounded to for a look. It indicated exactly where I had been wanting to go … but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out which of the roads it was indicating. I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself in this situation. Slightly lost and provided with a giant public map, but still having no idea how to get where I want. Well, actually I had two ideas, but they led in complete opposite directions along those roads. I wonder what’s more to blame, my sense of direction or Japanese maps. Well, I gathered one road took me back to Kitayama from where I had came, though the road I thought it indicated was in the opposited direction from which I came. The other road, would lead me up to further mountains, but seemed like it would head in the valleys.
I looked back to find the kamoshika in exactly the same position it had been when I first saw it.
I gave up on the map and made an intuitive guess to follow the road that the map seemed to show going to Kitayama. What initially went up, turned to down quickly. I followed it a bit further, and saw it curling back to where Kitayama could be and continue down for a long while. This was definitely not the road I want. I pushed the bike back up the hill back to the castle ruins. The kamoshika had made it across the road where it was slowly grazing. At the time I was thoroughly convinced he was there to signal the way. I began my descent with great speed in order to power me up the hill across the way where the kamoshika was standing. I rang my bike bell so as not to scare the animal, and he very slowly crawled up the hill to the left while watching me, seemingly without fear or need of defense. I waved goodbye to him and headed on my way.
According the pictures on the map, I was going to ascend a bit so that I could follow a ridge of about 4 different peaks, and then eventually descend to the river I planned to return along. I pushed my bike for a while through winding uphill roads. I realized how long it had been since I ate and fantasized about a beer and plate of chahan (fried rice). The whole day had gone faster than I felt, and so I was still making very good time. Remember, I was still trying to make it to aikido later. Two weeks earlier I had the same plan after my Kareisawa trip, and showed up to aikido just in time after I crammed a plate of chahan in my stomach. So I was in class happily, but dehydrated, stinking, and with a stomach ache. This time I thought I could plan so I would get down back to civilization early enough to gorge on a huge meal with a beer and get clean and rested in onsen before I went to the dojo. But I still had further to go.
I got to the first of the four peaks indicated on the map, and found a small wooden sign on the side of the road that pointed towards an overgrown path in the woods. I contemplated just continuing along the road without stopping, but then settled to go on foot. First there were wooden steps, and for some reason I felt a burst of energy and started bounding up the steps in a run. Combined memories of running up “the Hill” in football practice as a boy and feelings of adventure exploring mysterious worlds in Zelda video games came together in some kind of amazing synergy, and this caused a huge smile with my tongue hanging out in the wind and sweat. I got to the top and found a slightly flattened and cleared area. It looked like a prime spot for a campground, but there was essentially nothing there. I ran to the second peak in the same fashion which didn’t require me getting on my bike. I was taking the overgrown wooden stairs two at a time on my upward bound to find a larger but similarly cleared area. Perhaps this one was used as a campsite sometimes. There were many trees in the way, but I was able to find a spectacular view of the mountains behind.
Ahhhh, absolutley amazing to look one way and find the small world of civilized human life in the towns, and look back the other to see snow capped moutains and wilderness forever. I think the mountain in this picture is Dainichi. I could also pick out a taller mountain whose summit was covered in clouds. I recognized its jagged peaks and new instantly what it was: Tsurugi-Dake! AKA Sword Mountain. AKA Hell Mountain. A mountain I had climbed almost exactly a year before with my brother. If the kamoshika is my spirit animal, then Tsurugi is my mountain. Everytime I get into the mountains, it is Tsurugi that somehow catches my glance and I pick it out right away, though it is usually less than obvious. It reminds me of when I climbed Shirouma-Dake and looked out across the mountainscape at sunrise. I was standing next to a guy who looked like a very experienced hiker, and pointed to a mountain asking him if it was Tsurugi. He said, nope, it was something something something mountain instead. I believed him at first, but for hours as the day went on I became absolutley 100% sure it was Tsurugi. He was full of shit. I wonder if he doubted himself when he told me. Well, I was 95% sure that that mountain hidden by clouds I saw on that bike trip was in fact Tsurugi. I had great feelings welling inside of me.
I continued down to resaddle the mamachari, and barely stopped at the next path up as I parked my bike and resumed my savage pace. A higher more expansive hilltop revealed itself, and continued to what would be the forth and final peak.
After all this wandering in what I thought were unknown mountains, I found information!
Sweet wonderful informational boards and maps! I couldn’t read the Japanese on any of them, but began investigating them with all of my curiousity. On this map, I was at the top of the farthest right point on the ridge in the back. On the flat plains next to the ocean are where the main towns are located, and you can see where rivers cut inland, which are my usual gateways to the mountains. I’d say where I was was maybe the 2nd of 5 tiers that go up to the highest peaks. On bike rides like these, I usually don’t get quite as high as this.
The Japanese on such informational boards and maps is particularly difficult to read because of the amount of kanji, perhaps to give it an educated and sophisticated touch. I don’t appreciate it much, but it’s the main reason why I want to learn Japanese. Anyway, on this map were many tiny little colored dots indicating specific locations of import. At the top of the list were the two castle ruins of Matsukura and Kusunaguma, but then there were a list of about ten other locations, with the suffix of “castle”!!! What? The four peaks I had just visited were also noted as “castles”. I felt as though while I stood there in front of the map on top of the mountain, a huge curtain of Japanese confusion was pulled aside to reveal Truth! I believe these were not castles like those most famous in Japan, but were large temples that acted as castles during the battles between Maeda and Kenshin! (Despite the cartoony castle image you see on all the signs in town in Uozu, tricky bastards.) Also, this place was known as “Castle Town”, not just because of one or two of them, but because there were upwards of ten or twenty of them! Being on top of this ridge, it was an epic feeling to imagine myself 500 years ago standing here surrounded by castles and soldiers.
And nobody knows about this place. What amazing and mysterious history there is laying in the hills underneath the ground, but the hive down below could care less. Less than a few kilometers away, convenience stores by the hundreds were being filled with the exact same products as you could find anywhere in Japan, and I was standing upon Toyama history. It was a long time ago I stopped looking down condescendingly on Japanese for their lack of knowledge of local history. It’s just a fact of life here. People are too busy working, studying, shopping. WAY too busy. When I first started finding such places, I would tell my coworkers and students at school and they would marvel at my enthusiasm for such adventures. But after months of telling such stories every weekend, it was no longer interesting, and rather frustrating to others.
I would show up to school on Monday morning and begin class by telling the students I went on a great bike trip to find interesting places in the mountains.
“Has anybody heard of this place before?”
Nothing but blank stares focused on my sunburnt face and blonde hair, from which a mouth was spewing this strange barbaric language; one they have studied for maybe 5 years now, but the shock of hearing it in real life seems too much for them when it can’t be checked in a textbook or immediately translated into Japanese by the teacher.
“Well, what did you do this weekend?” I pointed at a particular student in the front row. They become immediately flushed with red and point at their own nose trying to confirm whether it was them I was asking.
“Yes, you. What did you do this weekend?”
“Test?! You had tests on Saturday?”
“What about Sunday, what did you do Sunday?”
I looked at the teacher who said, “Zac-san, didn’t you know they had tests all weekend?”
I looked back at the class. Half of the students had their heads down and hair covering their face to conceal sleeping in class. A quarter of the class were picking at their hands or spinning their pencils. The other quarter were staring at me as intently as their tired eyes could. I wonder how many knew what we were talking about. I felt horrible as I handed out a worksheet for them.
“Here is a … special … uhhh … very fun English assignment I have for you! Yaaaaay!” I had a huge sincere but forced smile on my face, hoping that it might cause a chain reaction with some of the students.
On the mountain I went to a small shrine at the highest point I could find and made a few claps and bows in accordance with Shinto tradition. Then it was time to descend and find food and onsen.
I’m not sure when it was that the switch happened, but somewhere along the past two years, the return trips from my mountain voyages have become extremely conflicted. Sunsets and downhill cruises are undeniable pleasures, and yet returning back to society brings a lot of ill feelings. I’m not talking about some generalized battle or discontent with society. I’m talking about more specific and indirect thoughts. I miss Jolene incredibly much. What have I sacrificed to be here? I miss friends who have big beards, wear carharts, and drink large amounts of dark beer. I think about the hakama (dress-like garb that goes with a blackbelt in aikido) that I dream about so often. Either I marvel at staying here for 10+ years, becoming an uchi-deshi and a high ranking aikidoka, to return home as a teacher fulfilling what may be the clearest semblance of a goal. Or I become frustrated with the dreams that cage so many years of my future and just want to give it up and travel somewhere new. I just want a double blue cheese bacon burger.
I have no idea what’s happening to me.
At least in the form of abstractions. I only know I’m on a bike, and making incredible time to eat a big meal, have an hour for onsen, and go to aikido. This aikido is not the aikido fantasize about, with all its epic quests of slaying dragons. This is the aikido I do, with real people that make me happy. There is a big difference between these two.
There’s something going on between living my daily routine in Japan, riding my chari to the mountains, and practicing aikido. I don’t know what it is, but there is some unnameable force linking them all together for some collective experience of something.
I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s definitely not my daily life, aikido, biking, or writing, but something more interesting.