A Thousand Years in the Telling
In the last few centuries, cities have been places where Stuff Happens. This is possibly because cities are places where there is a lot of Stuff, a lot of people to make something Happen, and a few influential people to order something to Happen. This was the case in Edo-period Japan, when each fiefdom and domain had a central castle town in which lords were required to keep all their Stuff. This was also the case of Kyoto, the ancient planned capital where all sorts of people from emperors to priests put their best Stuff in order to make something Happen.
In ancient Japan outside Kyoto, though, things were rather different. Kyoto was known as The City because people generally didn’t live in cities back then, so much as scattered settlements in a landscape imbued with semi-mythical history. In such an environment Stuff could Happen anywhere, especially if someone wanted to circumvent all the Stuff Happening in the capital city.
Enter Mount Yoshino.
A mountain at the end of a little valley in the southeast of Nara Prefecture, far up the river Kinokawa that flows past Hashimoto (gateway to Koya) and eventually empties into the ocean at Wakayama City. An outpost in the vast, very sparsely populated mountain country that refutes Japan’s reputation as one big city. The Stuff that has happened here, in this place considered remote even by our 21st-century cyborg standards, is the Stuff of Legends. And because Yoshino is remote enough to have escaped turmoil and development, but admired enough to remain cared for, it’s all still there.
Like Koya, Mt. Yoshino is a holy mountaintop community unto itself, only much smaller.
This torii gate of bronze has long been considered one of the three great and distinctive torii of Japan, along with the stone gate of Shitennoji, and the wooden gate of Miyajima. Now I have laid eyes on all three.
From roughly the 7th century Mt. Yoshino became an important site for Shugendo, an eclectic and arcane religion associated with Shinto and Buddhism, known to this day for its ascetic mountain men, tests of fortitude, and secretive rituals. Yoshino became (and still is) the first station on the winding pilgrimage to Mt. Omine, the great center of Shugendo.
The main site on Mt. Yoshino is Kinpusenji, a Buddhist temple whose Shugendo significance shows in its dedication not to an aspect of Buddha or a typical bodhisattva like Kannon or Jizo, but to a bodhisattva called Zao- a fierce-looking divinity of obscure and unclear Japanese origin particular to Shugendo.
Then there’s Yoshimizu Shrine. Originally a small Shugendo monastery, this place has seen some serious history.
Now turn the clock back to the year 1185 CE. The House Minamoto had defeated its foes the House Taira in the Genpei Civil War, the legendary struggle that ended the old imperial order and gave rise to the age of shoguns and samurai. Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the celebrated warrior and hero of the war, as recorded in the epic chronicle Heike Monogatari, but his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo was the leader. It would seem Yoritomo turned against his brother in order to rule unchallenged, and Yoshitsune was forced to flee.
He took refuge in Yoshimizu with his comrade Benkei, warrior monk of legendary strength, and his lover Shizuka Gozen. Soon he and Benkei would be forced to flee far north to Mutsu, now known as Tohoku, leaving her behind along with all they could not take.
Yoshitsune and Benkei are certainly figures veiled in a thick haze of myth and embellishment, but they were real people. When Yoshitsune left this place, he left behind his armor.
Fast forward to 1333 CE. The Kamakura Shogunate established by the Minamotos had been slowly weakening, while the imperial throne had long been agitating against them. Emperor Go-Daigo fomented the final rebellion that swept the Minamoto from power, aided by Ashikaga Takauji, a former general of the Shogunate. Go-Daigo’s goal was to restore the old imperial order, but Ashikaga, believing in warrior rule, turned against him, establishing the Muromachi Shogunate and setting up a puppet emperor in Kyoto in 1336. Go-Daigo and his loyalists regrouped, though, and set up their own imperial court here, the so-called Southern Court.
Although the court moved around somewhat, it was so associated with this place it was sometimes just referred to as “Yoshino” in the same way the US federal government gets referred to as “Washington.” The Southern Court remained independent until 1392, when its last emperor simply abdicated in order to peaceably unify the throne again.
200 years later, Yoshino had another eminent visitor. In the interim, the Muromachi Shogunate fell, warring factions struggled in an anarchic power vacuum, Oda Nobunaga defeated them all before being betrayed, and his rags-to-riches loyalist general Toyotomi Hideyoshi avenged and succeeded him and now controlled the country. In 1594, Hideyoshi came to Yoshino in the last years of his life to relax and experience nature. He and his entourage stayed at Yoshimizu, in this building already redolent of history. He had the building renovated and restored for his stay, which contributed to its high standard of preservation.
Mt. Yoshino is the sort of place it will take me multiple visits to “digest.” This place has meant so much to so many people for centuries, tied up in the history of the nation itself. I wonder what sort of ghosts wander here at night.