Aikido training in Japan

In Search of Castles

Could I call my conscious return, which was made as quickly as possible to the last place I visited in the mountains, a kind of revenge? No. Just honest obsessive curiousity. There were too many unkown side roads branching off from that seemingly dead end I found last week. What I did last time was take a road straight in one direction to my goal and return just the same. This time I would knock out both sides of the curiousity by making a loop with Kitayama, the last destination, somewhere in the beginning half of the middle. Yes. That looked pretty good from my maps.

I started just before 12pm and had to account for aikido at 7:30. Ideally, I’d have time for a meal and hour onsen just before practice which left 5-6 hours of hard riding. Perfect considering a bit of a sleep-in and going to aikido. Yosh. At full speed I made the 45 minute ride to where I consider the real begin of the journey. That initial period of avoiding careless drivers on flat exposed land in the sun is almost unbearable. Actually, “careless drivers” does not accurately describe the situation at all. I hate to borrow a cliche from the American masses, but the asian female drivers here are a natural wonder. It’s unbelievable how many near-accidents happen here compared to the actual accidents. It’s like people are constantly bracing for the collision or taking full advantage of it’s seeming non-presence.

There’s a sign that I’m headed in the right direction. You see what I’m seeing going on on the right side of that house? At the top there’s a chimney fueled by stacks of wood on the second porch as well as on the base level. Who knows how much they got stowed out back in another shed and indoors as will. Whoever owns this is the coolest Japanese I’ve never met. The winters here are so harsh, a fire place would change everything for the better. I know Japan has a bad history with fires, and for everyone in the country to use firewood every winter would easily rob the whole forested country of its green … but I still want a fireplace more than anything. Communism would not work here, at least for gaijin. There is not enough space or resources in this country for everyone to enjoy everything to its fullest, and yet one person can do it very easily. That violates a lot of morals in my head, and yet my only material dream for the future is having a fireplace to fill every winter and that will happen no matter what. I guess I probably won’t be in Japan forever then.

The journey beckons. This picture was taken at the top of the giant hill which I pushed my bike up for what felt like two hours. However, I had left my apartment only and hour and a half earlier, and spent 45 minutes getting to the point where I could start pushing my bike … so something isn’t adding up here. Apparently, I spent about 45 of those minutes leaking sweat pushing my bike up the hill. I was feeling especially good this day, and despite my own personal gauge, I was making incredible time. At the time of this picture, I had completed the first side of the loop and made it to Kitayama, the town I had visited before. In fact, the first sight I had of the town was the abandoned building which was the focus of my last journey and post in this blog. I felt like I had visited a new friend, like a charming acquaintance I met by chance at the bar last Tuesday. I laughed and took a generous amount of water from the spring located conveniently on the side of the road. I marvelled at the wonderful views of the ocean below as well as my good time, and yet it was a good sign I would be going much further than I expected today. There are no easy ways out when you’re fueled by genuine curiousity.
As soon as I descended through the town and found that side road which begged my curiousity a week earlier, the partly blue skies of blaring heat became darkeningly grey and thunderous. At that very time, there was a barbecue happening on a beach with my friends, and I remember them saying that it would be in the early afternoon because of such changes in the weather. Oh yeah, it still very much is the rainy season. For better or for worse that’s really not something that passes through my head on a free sunny morning. Well, it’s not like I’m going to turn back. What’s the worst that could happen? I get sick from being stuck in the rain? What’s up with that belief anyway? It’s not like I would be cold. Through the rain I still sweat through all my pours in this temperature. In fact, how would it be any different than me swimming in the ocean? Thunder and lightning are another factor though. I should probably research riding bikes in lightning storms since it seems to come up often in my line of fun.
Here’s me before any lightning strikes. I imagine there may be some mystique to remaining anonymous on the blog, so many stories and yet not a trace of the protagonist, but being personal is a lot more fun I think, so here I am. A gaijin about a third of the way around the globe from where he calls home. Funny enough, only a couple hundred years earlier, all of my ancestors were probably just as far away in an equally different kind of place. Since a long time ago it seemed irrelevant to talk about “homelands” and such, maybe seeing too many red-headed Americans touting “Kiss Me I’m Irish” shirts on St. Patty’s … and yet I feel some kind of connection with Northern Europe through my ancestors, and will damn well say any day that Orcas Island, Washington is my home. Funny how we can find some solid ground in the existential void.
You should never use strength against strength, but sometimes you need to.”

My goal at the beginning of the trip was: Make it back to Kitayama by a side road and go down the mysterious path I had found before. From there, try and get to something-something-dam while bypassing old castle ruins. I made it to Kitayama and down the mysterious path, so anything from here on out was part of the fluffy plan which I didn’t really expect to follow anyway. However, those castles are an interesting bit, and what would guide me to the end of my journey. The town I was directly inland from, and technically within, was Uozu, the neighboring town just south of Kurobe. Japan is the best in the game at giving individual towns individual icons, and Uozu was famous for castles … though there wasn’t a single castle in the entire area. It reminded me of when I was driving through a town called Kamiichi elsewhere in Toyama. I was with one of my English teachers, and I noticed that on each of the signs for Kamiichi, there were pictures of the ferocious Buddhist icon (Fudou Myou). I asked him what was up with the signs and what may be famous about the town, and he replied that he had no idea. It shocked me at the time, but now it doesn’t at all. Precisely because there IS something to be famous about in the town: a temple in the mountains where monks sit under dragon-carved-stone-waterfalls in the deepest colds of winter. But he had no idea. Anyway, on all of the signs for Uozu, there were drawn pictures of castles, and Uozu is known as a castle town … and yet there are no castles. Any resident of the area will confirm that Uozo is the “town of castles”, but couldn’t tell you anymore. On a slightly disappointing bike trip a year earlier, I followed the signs in Uozu to the two different castle ruins that were labeled on signs. One brought me to the town of Kitayama which I had passed through, but no castles were ever found. The other I did find, but was nothing but a small wooden park structure and one of those cardboard foldouts of a samurai with the head cut out for a picture. It seemed that the ruins were in fact just the places themselves on top of hills were castles used to be. I reasoned that by following their trail some of the mystery may reveal itself to me on a second try. So, onward. Maybe castles, maybe something else, definitely sweating on my bike.
The thunder clouds began to produce rain as I emerged from the forest and found the giant image which is in the picture above. A giant goat with the square, circle, and triangle symbols often used in aikido. (OK, the geometric figures are commonly used outside of aikido, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.) The rain increased while I climbed higher up the hill following the signs for castle ruins. I thought little more of the giant goat until I saw small wooden signs for “Goat Woods” and “Goat Farm“. Then likely enough, I found goats. I found a small center with some information packets explaining that oftentimes there are small camps and schooltrips for kids to come and learn about farming, and goats.

I took this moment to rest from the rain and stare at the goats. I thought about how heavy my bag would become if the aikido gi (outfit used to train in aikido) that was in my bag got soaking wet. That’s not a pleasant thought. Lately when I’ve ridden to aikido on my bike with my gi, the pack is an average weight, but when I come back my bag feels like it weighs 20 pounds extra from the amount of my sweat that been soaked up by the gi. When I come home and dump my gi into my washing machine straight from the bag, it falls in with a thunder and I worry if it will ever drop through the floor. (Funny story, last time I just empty my bag into the wash, my aikido notes snuck in as well. They were thoroughly washed, emerging half illegible, and half torn to thousands of tiny pieces that acted like paper mache all over my clothes and kitchen. I’ll be sure to give my gi another few good shakings before I put it on tonight.)
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.


There was an abandoned looking building to the left (to the right in the picture). Nothing special really. Didn’t look like much more than a storage shed. Doors were locked. Things felt a little spooky, kind of like the abandoned “hotel” I found a week earlier. Perhaps another sign of past financial prosperity in Japan. I walked away from it. But then I noticed a very interesting design around one of the windows and a small symbol of sorts over it. I couldn’t get a very good picture of it, but it was certainly more ornamental than what you usually see on a shack in the woods. This really reminded me of some hippy psychic shack I’d find in the woods in my hometown. Maybe this was an energy “powerspot” of sorts, or a vortex. There plenty of Japanese around here that would be into that. Taken that into account, I myself deemed this a special spot for something, and decided I would bless it by practicing my tai chi chuan form; something that I do when I find extraordinary places from time to time. A lot of the times when I run through the form I’m very concerned and occupied by what goes on inside of my body, but isn’t the purpose of such arts to eventually be better in touch with your surroundings? I began having great revelations about the beauty of emptiness in tai chi chuan. That ideally, I want to be empty in my tai chi chuan in order to feel what is actually happening on the outside, free from my illusory judgements. I began to move through the form at an extremely slow pace investigating the area with all of my sensitive intuition. What kind of place was this?
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.

Kamoshika! 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.”
“Test?! You had tests on Saturday?”
Confirming nod.
“What about Sunday, what did you do Sunday?”
Test.”
“Test?!”
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.
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