Japanese Version

You say, “Yamato”


You say, "Yamato" 

by Lauren Deutsch





I'm just not much of a history buff. Things are "now" or "not now." Growing up in Philadelphia, I had my share of the spirit before The Spirit of '76, and it was alive and well before the Bicentennial hoopla. While I was not very Federalist, none-the-less I imagined myself part of the historical continuum. We were living history. We worked and lived in and around huge reminders of times before the national "first" this OI that. One has few choices as a kid when the snow-covered rolling hills of Valley Forge, with its tells of Revolutionary War burial ground, are your backyard, and you want-to go sledding… It seemed so heretical, so sacrificial. But great sledding none-the-less.


Like the Philadelphians, Japanese are frequent patrons of ~heir official historical landmarks. Visiting Kyoto-offers one a sense of structural history, Muromachi period this building, Momoyama period that garden. It's .a lesson from a book, but you get to touch the landmarks … They have a way of being talked about, of being remembered. And the ones we see' are truly masterpieces. Like New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, for example, huge –sample. of Japan's ancient history still lies for the most part buried underground a short distance from Kyoto, awaiting an official raison d'etre for today. I found it whispering in the autumn breezes, humming under drying-rice paddies on a two day wandering in the time and space of Yamato,! 'The Land of Great Peace."


The area around Nara Prefecture is famous for its ancient historical sites and natural beauty, both attributes virtually undisturbed by humans for centuries. My traveling partner, Junko, a Kyoto-born, professor of English and children's literature, and I were in need to put our frenzied freeway-paced, life back into quiet perspective. We traveled lightly, taking only an overnight's worth of essentials, and left her home in Fushimi one weekday morning by southbound train going towards Nara, less -than an hour away.


We decided to begin our journey at the Shoso-in, treasure repository of Todaiji Temple in the heart of the city, which was holding its ann1.1al exhibition of a selection of its very precious relics: In the modern museum complex, a sea of bodies swelled with the tide of curiosity before each-display case resplendent with swords, musical instruments, lacquered writing desks and other relics of courtly life, as well as, remnants of Silk Route trade items.


At a small, nearby cafe we rededicated ourselves to our mission of getting away from the crowds and enjoyed a quick seto lunch (a set lunch) of rice, vegies, tofu, pickles and tea. Refreshed, we made our way back to the train station, destined for the place and time in which many of those precious remnants of Japan's earliest imperial courts were first employed: Asuka, an area hardly mentioned in Western tourist books. We both breathed a sigh of relief as we saw the cityscape melt into farmland and soft, evergreen-carpeted mountain-sides through the window of our car on the Kinki· Nippon Railways during the half-hour ride.  


Yamato earth nurtures crops provoking to both taste buds and intellect. Holding fast to its rich soil are the roots of Japan's earliest days; the Jomon Period (7,000 – 300 BC), Kofun (3rd- 5th Centuries) and the relics of the Asuka Period (6th -8th Centuries,). What we saw "above" in the Shoso-in was truly connected "below" in Asuka and artifice melted into spiritual history.


A brief textbook review fits here, so here goes. During the Asuka Period, Buddhism came to Japan from China and Korea, and with it a new culture, complete with drastic changes in social and economic patterns: Japan emerged from an alliance of aristocrats into a constitutional state headed by an emperor… and in some cases an empress. As each successive ruler

moved the capital to a different spot (some say because the remains of the dead violated the essential rules of purity), there are ruins of several imperial palaces in proximity to one another. (The capital was ultimately moved to Nara in 710). But try as I would to remember the information, the land itself told me a more compelling story.


The Asuka Historical National Government Park visitors office near the train station provided us with maps and guidebooks in Japanese and English (They are ready for visitors!), and we set out on foot, passing golden stacks of rice straw standing sentinel above dormant, parched paddies 4t the crisp, cool air to find ourselves a tumulus or two.


This was ·ancient farmland, hard-worked from the earliest days when copper and iron tools brought into Japan from China inspired the development of farming equipment centuries before Japan had a written language. Passing one small farm after another, we clearly can understood why Japan is so sensitive about controlling its agricultural imports, particularly since the loss of -their domestic markets, though inefficient by U.S. standards, would cause these centuries old communities to greatly deteriorate, with no remnants left to view in the next treasure house exhibition.


Walking around farms little villages in their own right – jars one's sense of scale in· a country so noted for its compactness. But even in an afternoon's stroll, you can cover quite a distance and visit a number of unearthed burial-mounds, barely excavated tumuli and quizzical rock carvings, all of which are well marked and preserved with care. Inasmuch as these .are imperial sites, it was not until recently that the average Japanese citizen could have access to them, and there seems to be a great push for more visitors with the placement of picnic tables and other amenities nearby. Many of the largest mounds remain unexcavated and inaccessible. If only tori (Shinto gates) could talk!


It was about noon when we came upon the Ishibutai Barrow, considered the burial chamber of Soga-no-Umako a ruler in the later half of the 6th Century. Its huge stone chamber lay exposed from the topsoil on a manicured grassy area about 50 square yards. The classic question, "How'd they move that huge rock exactly there?" which one hears at the Great Pyramid of Giza, ancient Mayan temples in Guatemala and Anasazi ruins of the Southwest USA seemed apropos The mystery was satisfying enough.


During our visit the site was living up to its nickname, "stage", as a Shinto priest was creating an altar space for a 'ritual later that afternoon. The three-tired wooden table, covered in white cloth, was resplendent with pyramids of mikan (Mandarin oranges), a prolific local crop, and rice crackers. Fabric banners waived in the breeze from long bamboo poles: green to the north, red to the east, white· the south and purple to the west around the perimeter of the area. That was the only time in the trip when· I dearly wanted to be able to speak Nihongo (Japanese), so I could inquire more about the occasion.


Circling back to the visitors' office after rambling for 3 hours we were referred to a minshuku (a typle of inn) in the heart of the village for the night. En route we visited some of the curious carved stones near the train station, conjecturing about why there was one with a monkey face situated near the mausoleum of a princess.


The Kishida family minshuku was just a local bus ride, away, and we were ready to get off our feet, to enjoy a hot, home-cooked meal and a, soothing ofuro (bath). Two other women were guests in the nondescript two-story family home, and we joined them in the downstairs sitting room for a magnificent Asuka nabe, sort of a sukiyaki made with milk instead of water.


Well-feed and tired, we went to our room which was outfitted with a much-welcomed kotatsu (a table low to the floor with a heating element underneath), pump-pot of hot water and basket of tea-making implements. We chatted and read until informed by the owner of the house that it was our tum for the ofuro. A great night's rest behind us, the morning brought forth a hearty breakfast and warm sunshine, perfect for our next stop: a walk along the rustic Yamanobenomichi hiking course.


We took the Kintetsu (train line) back north to Sakurai, the southernmost point of this 4mile well-marked trail which stretches up to Tenri. You don't need hiking boots to enjoy this path, a combination of dirt road and macadam which winds through more farm fields,- and ·as the course parallels the railroad tracks for about a mile to the west, one could walk even a little bit and hop on the next local densha (train) bound for home.


On one particular turn, we encountered a simply constructed pottery-cooperative gallery literally in the middle of the fields which offered for sale some excellent well-priced works by young local craftswomen. The weight of our overnight carrying bags discouraged our purchasing, so we moved on. On many turns, however, enterprising farmers placed upon upturned wooden crates red plastic net bags containing 5 small mikan for 100 yen. There was another box with a slot for the coins, a honor system which was welcome in so many ways. Popping our coins in the cashbox, we hung the bags from our belts and wandered off again.


About 5,000 families live in the area, and we occasionally encountered a pack of senior citizens dressed in a variety of hiking outfits and requisite jaunty hats, posing for the requisite group portraits, as well as groups of giggling and whispering teenagers in matching athletic suits on a jog from the local high school. It seems that hakujin (caucasians) continue to fascinate the locals.


The main "attraction" in this area on the southeast comer of the Yamato

plain is the Omiwa Jinja, the great shrine to the Miwa-san, home to Omononushi-no-kami, the Shin deity of cultivation and guardian of human life. (Again, an English language pamphlet was helpful.) His other attributes include contriving "to augment every social welfare such as curing disease, charming, brewing, medicine manufacturing, and marriage, etc. Etc. As we needed a 'big- dose of the latter, we petitioned him accordingly. Mt. Miwa has I been the destination of pilgrims for• the past 2,000 years, says a pamphlet. Its lure is absolutely unpretentious and ethereal. The front shrine building is an important cultural asset and architecturally very imposing, but not as imposing as the mountain itself. The uniqueness of cedar-blanketed Miwa-myojin, its formal name, is that the mountain itself is the object of worship. There really isn't a deity enshrined in a building. Further, as no one dares trespass on the mountain, its cypress forest is virgin, first-growth. Commanding the landscape for miles, it is 16km in girth and about 4 million sq.km. I have only seen forests like this one in Sequoia National Park in California. Ancient trees with new greenery.


At a stone's throw from Yanagimoto we calculated the amount of remaining daylight and decided to tum toward the train tracks and home, stopping for a late lunch at a very simple somen (a kind of noodles) restaurant. Back outside, we chose some day-glow orange colored noodles as our requisite omiyage (a souvenir, often of food). Junko said the water, which is especially pure in this town, is responsible for its noodle notoriety.


The JR train was a welcome site, and we napped all the way back to Fushimi, arriving in time to enjoy dinner with her family. After two days of enormous casual pleasure in Japan's historic, sacred, rural environment, I experienced~ "great peace." It didn't seem so old. I didn't seem so new. Just now.

Author: stevebeimel

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