Kashihara- History in Layers

Over a long period of time covering 2013, I stopped posting here, and just put photos up for a smaller contingent of friends and family on Facebook.  Eventually, I got tired of the site’s lossy image re-sizing and photo ownership policy, and wanted to share things with more people (I keep my FB profile private).

I saw and photographed some cool stuff in 2013, so it would be a shame not to put it up here.


From reading my posts, you may have gathered Nara Prefecture is a place where a lot has happened, the traditional heartland of Japan.
The city of Kashihara, on the other hand, is a very modern invention.  An unremarkable semi-rural suburb of Osaka on the south end of the Nara plains, it was created by merger in the 1950s from older towns.  The area, however, has a significance in Japanese history that goes back thousands of years.

For one, this is the place where the Age of Gods ended and Japan was founded.

Well…in the annals of mythology, that is.
The 8th century CE creation myths Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the two earliest known pieces of Japanese writing, tell of a man named Kamu Yamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto (people had very long names in early ancient Japan).  He was a mortal man born of the gods in the 8th century BCE, the direct heir to the sun goddess Amaterasu.  He sailed with his people from southern Kyushu to find a new home, made landfall in the Kinki area, and conquered it.  With this he became Japan’s first emperor.  This marked the end of the Age of Gods and dawn of the Age of Men.  He was posthumously named Jinmu, the name by which he is known nowadays.

This all was very important to the 19th century Meiji government, who were promulgating a Shintoist nation-state centered around the emperor.  They established February 11th, the supposed date of Jinmu’s ascension as a major national holiday celebrating the foundation of Japan, and built Kashihara Shrine to enshrine him in 1890, at the base of Mt. Unebi where Jinmu is said to have died.





With its connection to the mythos of the imperial state, the holiday was abolished after World War II.  It was reinstated in 1966 as Foundation Day, only with vastly reduced significance, festivities, and overt political-religious tones.  Nowadays, it’s mostly only hard-right nationalist groups who make a big deal about tying Kashihara, Jinmu, and Foundation Day together.

Of course, Jinmu’s very existence is unproven, and the account of his life is pure myth.  Even if he actually existed and was a seminal leader of his people, calling him the first emperor would be a bit of a stretch, since the ancient conception of a chief or ruler of the Yamato tribe was undoubtedly very different from even the 8th-century CE concept of an Emperor of Japan, let alone the 19th-century interpretation.

Certain elements of the myth do ring true however, such as the likely migration of the Yamato clan from Kyushu, and the vital significance of the Nara region as the foundational cradle of the imperial state.


This early imperial state was semi-nomadic, with the emperor’s palace and thus the center of power burned down and moved around Yamato every time the emperor died, or omens and signs suggested it was time to change location.
When the Japanese state transitioned to a more Chinese-inspired administrative model in the 7th century, their first attempt at a fixed capital city wasn’t Kyoto or even Nara.  It was here in Kashihara.  Of course it wasn’t called that yet.


Fujiwara-kyo, founded 694 CE.  You are now looking at one of Japan’s Lost Cities.


Fujiwara-kyo was the great capital city only briefly, however.  A series of fires and illnesses was blamed on a vengeful spirit, and the site was completely abandoned for Heijo-kyo (Nara) in 710.  Archaeological excavations still continue at the site, as its largely incomplete history is slowly filled in.

Think about it, though. If it weren’t for one angry ghost, Kashihara might have been the grand city, and Kyoto might have been a big grassy plain.


This copse of trees is all that remains of the imperial palace…


…and this is the view from the “throne”, south across the proud city of ages past.


A thousand years later, Kashihara became significant in a rather different way.  It was the site of Imai, a wealthy town of traders and merchants that served as a hub for traffic on the inland highways of Nara.

As foot and horse traffic through Nara lost its importance for the Japanese economy after the Meiji era, Imai faded from the scene.  Perhaps because it was no longer significant, it was never developed or razed.  Now the entire former town is a cultural property, a rectangle-shaped historic district on the east side of central Kashihara.

A few people still actually live and ply their trades there, though I’m sure there are lots of rules and regulations that come with historic preservation.




Even the visitors’ center is a gorgeous old building.



Nara- Lost to History

A pleasant autumn day back in Nara, heart of the Japanese polity in the 8th century, when Kyoto was just an open plain!


I always walk through Kofukuji when I’m in Nara.  One of the grand original temples of the Heijo Capital, it retains many of its renowned national treasures despite losing some of its ground to the fires of war over the centuries.




But on this particular day, I wanted to seek out some of the fainter traces of history, places where only a little is left.

Gangoji, another of the original city temples, was a truly gigantic compound more at the southeast corner of the old capital.  The fires erased almost all of it.  One small priests’ dormitory on the east side of the temple survived to become the new main hall of a greatly diminished Gangoji in medieval Nara Town.


Despite its quieter, less-traveled nature, the humbler Gangoji is still a national treasure.






October’s flowers.

As my earlier comments suggested, there was a bit of discontinuity between the ancient capital of Heijo and the medieval town of Nara, even though the area was continuously populated throughout its history.  The old town of Nara is still the heart of the city, around the ancient temples and downtown area.  But the original capital was actually a bit further west, a little removed from the modern cityscape.


Now it’s mostly returned to farmland.


Recreation of the old imperial hall



Looking south from the hall, at the plot where was once Japan’s great city.


Sunset over a former throne

Oddly enough, it was Kofukuji that contributed to the end of the Heijo Capital.  Heijo was home to the main “Six Schools” of Buddhism, and Kofukuji was headquarters of the influential Hosso sect.  A priest named Dokyo got very close to the reigning empress after healing her, gathering power until he managed to get himself selected to be the new emperor.  The court managed to intervene and get him exiled, and it was decided that the imperial capital simply had to move away from the power center of the religious institutions to retain its independence.
It was this that lead to the founding of Heian (Kyoto), and the state approval of the emergence of Mt. Hiei‘s Tendai Buddhism and Mt. Koya’s Shingon Buddhism, as new religious sects that could take power away from the old temples.  With these shifts, Japan entered a new era in the 9th century.

Without the imperial court, the town of Nara re-centered around its temples, leaving the capital lands to the grasses and winds.

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.

The Black Gate that marks the old outer threshold of the precinct

The Black Gate that marks the old outer threshold of the town

Like Koya, Mt. Yoshino is a holy mountaintop community unto itself, only much smaller.



...the sort of place where even a small and unvisited temple on a dead-end street turns out to be a thousand-year-old cultural property.

…the sort of place where even a small and unvisited temple on a dead-end street turns out to be a thousand-year-old cultural property.


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.


The great hall is one of the larger wooden buildings in the world (third largest?), and dates back to the 16th century in its current iteration.


Yoshino is renowned for its sakura in bloom.  Me and my wife came about a month too late for the season, but caught these two distant trees still in bloom across the valley.

Yoshino is renowned for its sakura in bloom. Me and my wife came about a month too late for the season, but caught these two distant trees yet to scatter.

Then there’s Yoshimizu Shrine.  Originally a small Shugendo monastery, this place has seen some serious history.

The main building is considered the oldest example of Shoin architecture, the relatively simple and open style on which the traditional Japanese house is based.

The main building is considered the oldest example of Shoin architecture, the relatively simple and open style on which the traditional Japanese house is based.

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 came here.

He came here.

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.

Yes, this is his actual armor.

Yes, this is his actual armor.


Here, the room in which they sat, as they pondered fate slipping away from them.

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.

And by here I mean HERE.  This was his throne room.

And by here I mean HERE. This was his throne room.


Go-Daigo sat right here, in his last years estranged from his old home.

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.

One of the paintings commissioned for the restoration, by the renowned Kano school of artists.

One of the paintings commissioned for the restoration, by the renowned Kano school of artists.

The garden in which Hideyoshi sat.

The garden in which Hideyoshi sat, in his last years looking back on a lifetime of conquest.

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.

And Now for Something Completely Different!

I’ve been having a fair bit of free time on the job lately, so I brought a book of poetry to pass the time, and caught that old bug again.  So I present-



Epithets in Haiku to Seven Cities of Kinki

to Kyoto-
still benedictions
echoing soundless amidst
dark wooden pillars

to Nara-
buried in rich earth
dreams so faint and long ago
their dreamers forget

to Wakayama-
over our labors
and the fruits of ambition
evening shadows fall

to Sakai-
the freeman’s fire now
lies asleep in the kings’ dale
someone’s old pillow

to Osaka-
the true sign of life
our beautiful ugliness
gives us endurance

to Kobe-
under azure winds
arcs and threads of other shores
the common made rare

to Himeji-
a token of pride
and a life of green quiet
still ever youthful

City of Deer

My sister has left Japan for home.  We spent two weeks together, rambling around Kansai, exploring its great cities.  Now I get to sort through the photographic evidence.

Among our jaunts were into Nara, an ancient city that was the capital of Japan before Kyoto was even a notion in the emperor’s mind, now an eastmost span of Osaka metro.  In my last post about the city, I might not have emphasized the fact that it is full of deer.

lopsided deerloaf

The main gate of Todaiji, a temple dating back to the heyday of Nara as a capital city in the 8th century.

The gate guardians of Todaiji. They're rather immense.

The great hall, formerly destroyed by war and lightning, rebuilt in the 18th century. It is reputedly the largest wooden building in the world.

The giant Buddha of Todaiji. When the great hall burned, the statue partially melted, but the core was salvageable. Thus, the statue contains pieces from various eras of Japanese history spanning the 8th to 18th centuries.





Ancient statue of a sage who was among the living Buddha's friends. He was reputedly an arcane sorceror, and it really shows in this image.


This unassuming log cabin-y building is actually of prime cultural and historical importance. It is the Shosoin, built in the 8th century as the emperor's treasure vault. It has survived intact, and so have its riches. Some historians refer to it as the eastmost end of the Silk Road, such were the various treasures that made their way here through China from as far as Persia and Samarkand. No, you can't just visit it. I took this through a tall fence.


Todaiji from behind



After having my sister around to buddy with, I’ve come to feel a lingering loneliness in my empty apartment.  Such is the life of the wandering expat.  Next month, though, I’m going to land back in the land of my upbringing, to meet my family again.

Holy Days 3- Capital of Good Fortune

I rounded things out during my New Year’s by visiting Nara, a city I had only seen briefly during my student days, and with a dead camera to boot.

In a landscape of historical cities, Nara is one of the most ancient, founded in the year 704 as the capital of what grew into Japan, before Kyoto was anything more than a few farms and the odd mountainside shrine.  It lies on the other side of the mountain ridge that defines the eastern edge of Osaka, in a land once known as Yamato- a name that has almost become synonymous for Japan itself.  Nara faded into obscurity after the imperial house moved to Kyoto in 794, but grew back up into a modest but significant city in the 1600s as Japan urbanized under the Tokugawa rule.  Now it finds itself with some 360,000 or so people, a small city but one with a reputation beyond its size.

The last great destruction to visit Nara occurred during the medieval struggles of warlords, so Nara is a city of history and artifacts.  The whole east side of downtown has become something of a vast holy park, where ancient temples and shrines abut each other amidst greenery, and deer freely roam in public.  How they keep them from disrupting traffic, I don’t know.  Considering how much is here, I decided to choose places I hadn’t seen before.

Kofukuji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the early days of the city. The current buildings come from the 14th-15th centuries. The tower might have been the tallest building in Japan at one time.


In Japan, the past is always being rediscovered. The main hall of Kofukuji was destroyed centuries ago, and only recently has been definitively uncovered. Now they are trying to rebuild it to 8th-century standards. They expect to be done in another decade.


The road through the old-growth woods to Kasuga Shrine, former family shrine of the Fujiwara, ancient regents to the emperor.


People come to shrines on the first days of the new year to pray, burn last year's talismans, obtain new ones, and get their fortune. I had no old charms to dispose of, but I returned with a demon-slaying arrow and a fortune good enough to keep as a talisman.


The old moors of Yamato



Gangoji, once a powerful institution in Nara, now something of a neighborhood temple. The hall dates to the 1100s.


But I didn’t just come for ancient temples.  I have an interest in cities, and wanted to see just a little of the place that had grown up around these old precincts.  I was especially interested in Nara because I think of it as a counterpart to Wakayama, which I had visited earlier.  They both have around the same population, and are both well-known regional cities in rural, mountainous areas neighboring Osaka.

Wakayama, as I mentioned in an older post, is a city with a strange feeling of emptiness.  The streets are massively broad, the spaces between the buildings are wider than most Japanese cities, and in a city with only 360,000 people it made me feel as if the city had been built for a much larger populace than can fill all the space.

Nara is a much different place.  Downtown is a little more “traditional” Japanese in that the streets are narrow and the buildings smaller but densely packed.  Nara has enjoyed an upswing in status over the past century, while Wakayama has steadily declined from its former place as one of Japan’s greatest cities.  These factors combined made Nara feel like a far more lively…and urban city.  I’m starting to judge a city by how much I could enjoy moving there, and living in Nara wouldn’t be bad.  Small, but busy enough and full of history and nature.




Speaking of cities…

The Japanese don’t really have the notion of a skyline the way we Americans do.  Their big cities are all surrounded by other dense cities, so there’s no moment of open highway where one gets to see the whole city from a distance, a la Chicago or New York.  Besides, their skyscrapers have never been quite as big, possibly because of the threat of earthquake.

And yet, as the train to Nara ascended into the mountains on the edge of Osaka Prefecture, I caught a rare glimpse.  Yes, the skyline of Osaka, captured.

One going out...


...and one coming back.