Japan (April 2019): Tsuwano

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At a distance of 23km from the Sea of Japan, Tsuwano (pop. ~7,500) is a small castle town nestled in the valley of the Tsuwano river and surrounded by high hills. Despite its low elevation (~160m) it almost feels like a mountain town. It is pretty and peaceful, but its center is clearly geared toward tourism, with several fancy shops selling delicacies and locally-made artefacts. During the two weekdays I spent there I saw few visitors, but I guess that weekends are much busier with people coming from Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, and other cities of southwestern Honshu, attracted by the religiously important Taikodani Inari shrine and the quiet atmosphere of the old samurai quarter.

 

Views of Tsuwano:

 

From the Taikodani Inari shrine.

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From the top of the chairlift leading to the castle.

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Streets of Tsuwano:

 

White walls and water canals (home of big carps) bordering the former samurai quarter on Tonomachi street.

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Catholic church on Tonomachi street. Tatamis rather than pews! This churh is dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier, who visited Japan in 1549-50.

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These two statues at the end of Tonomachi street celebrate Sagimai, the heron dance. This dance, which originated in Kyoto in the 14th century, spread into other parts of Japan. It has been very popular in Tsuwano for hundreds of years. It is performed here every July during a week-long festival. The two main dancers represent a male and a female heron performing a mating dance, with other dancers playing music around them.

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Old Sake breweries along Honmachi street.

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Some interesting houses on other streets.

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[Meigetsu ryokan (my home in Tsuwano), a beautiful one-hundred-year-old house.]

 

Castle:

 

The castle was built in the late 13th century, extended in the 17th, and demolished in 1878 during the Meiji era. Only the impressive foundations walls remain on top of a ridge 200m above town. I visited them on a foggy afternoon. The combination of the mist and the colorful fresh tree leaves made the place particularly beautiful.

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Babasaki Yagura (″yagura″ means ″turret″), a remnant of the Tsuwano castle located next to the Tsuwano river on the valley floor and used as a watchtower.

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Taikodani Inari shrine:

 

Built in 1773 to pray for the safety of the castle, it is one of the five greatest Inari shrines in Japan, hence attracting many religious visitors from southwestern Honshu. But the eye-catching ″tunnel″ of several hundred vermilion torii is also a major lure for religious and non-religious visitors. Although it is by far the most visited religious site in Tsuwano, I found this shrine too flashy and commercial, definitively much less interesting than the Buddhist Yomei-ji temple (see further down in this page).

 

The tunnel of torii seen from the opposite side of the Tsuwano river. This tunnel covers the foot ascent path to the shrine.

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Inside the tunnel.

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Main plaza reached at the end of the tunnel of torii. The prayer hall is on the left. The first floor of the building on the right is filled with shops selling memorabilia and delicacies.

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Main prayer hall: exterior and interior.

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[Note the two foxes on the sides of the altar. They are the messengers and guardians of the god Inari.]

 

Ema (wooden prayer tablets) board.

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Shinto priest performing exorcism and purification rituals (harai) for a new car in the basement of the shrine. After saying prayers in front of an altar, the priest shakes a haraigushi, a wooden wand to which are attached folds of paper, over the car (both its exterior and its interior). During the ceremony the two owners (not visible in the photos) sit on a bench on the right side of the car.

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Yasaka shrine:

 

This Shinto shrine was originally built in 1660 and rebuilt after a fire in 1853. It is located close to the entrance of foot path to the Taikodani Inari shrine. A 600-year-old selkova tree (that does not look in great shape) stands on its right.

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Yomei-ji:

 

Originally established in 1420 this Zen Buddhist temple was the family temple of the successive lords of Tsuwano. During the Edo period (1603-1868) it was one of the two great temples of the Soto Zen sect, along with the Daijo-ji in Kanazawa. With its superb shoro (bell tower), old thatched roof, lord chambers, gardens, treasure room, and mystical atmosphere, I consider it the most interesting place to visit in Tsuwano. Yet, it gets almost no visitors.

 

Roofs of the temple seen from the cemetery.

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Main hall with its thatched roof.

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The shoro.

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View of the main hall from within the shoro.

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Interior of the main praying hall.

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Garden outside the main hall.

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Wall decorations and paintings inside the audience and resting rooms of the lord chambers (located on the right side of the main hall).

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[The above scroll calligraphy represents Bodhidharma, known as Daruma in Japan, an Indian sage who lived during the 5th or 6th century and is considered the founder of Zen Buddhism.]

 

The lord chambers open into a beautiful, peaceful garden.

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Paintings and sculpture in the treasure room (located on the left side of the main hall).

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Great onigawara at a temple next to Yomei-ji

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Chapel of Saint Maria:

 

This chapel was built in 1951 as a memorial for Japanese Christians persecuted and tortured in Tsuwano by the government during the Edo and early Meiji periods. A group of Christians were imprisoned in a Buddhist temple on this site. Several of them died before freedom of religion was established in 1873.

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Former residence of Nishi Amane:

 

Nishi Amane (1829-97) was a philosopher born in Tsuwano during the Meiji era. Following a two-year stay in the Netherlands, he contributed to introducing Western-style philosophy into Japan.

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