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Thursday, 26 August 2010

Japan: the Last Samurai of Aomori

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The first thing I noticed as we pulled up outside a suburban Japanese home in Aomori, was what seemed like extreme security measures for an ordinary Japanese home. Serious all-weather day/night cameras in tamper proof housings covered all angles of the perimeter of the place. An extremely high and very solid looking wall encircled the property. The entry gate was a cross between an ancient Japanese castle gate and a maximum security door from Boggo Road Jail. A video intercom system, in an equally tamper proof housing as the cameras, was mounted beside the gate. Whatever this place was, nobody was going to get in here without a lot of effort. But why? Why would this seemingly ordinary house in a non descript suburb of a non descript city have more security than a Hells Angels Club House?

Aomori City sits at the top of the main Japanese Island of Honshu, and is the capital city of the prefecture with the same name. With a population of just over 300,000 people it’s a comfortable size as far as Japanese cities go. My gracious hosts from the Aomori Port Internationalisation Conference were out to show me the essence of Aomori. We weren’t looking for mainstream “tourist” displays, we wanted the real deal, we were in search of the soul of Aomori.

Map picture
Aomori, Northern Honshu

That’s not to say Aomori doesn’t have mainstream attractions that are good attractions. The region is famous for Nebuta, a festival where giant floats of a warrior figure made of Japanese paper stretched over a wooden frame and illuminated from within are carried in a parade accompanied by taiko drums and flutes. Nebuta’s warrior figure has become the defacto symbol of Aomori.

wdsc_0018 a Nebuta float made of Japanese paper

wdsc_0019Our old friend Anpanman makes an appearance in Aomori, Nebuta style 

Aomori has a giant Buddha at the Seiryu temple. Of course Aomori’s Buddha is claimed to be bigger than any of the other giant Buddha's in Japan at just over 21 metres, and I believe there are a few! The  Seiryu temple also housed a special kannon, the Bokeyoke Kannon for the elderly to pray to ward off the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's. The temple had a stunning selection of colourful Hydrangeas in full flower when I was there.

Untitled-TrueColor-04 Aomori’s Giant Buddha, just over 21m high

zzdsc_0951Beautiful Hydrangeas in the temples garden 

zzdsc_0957 the Bokeyoke Kannon to help prevent dementia

Another popular land mark in Aomori prefecture is the artistic rice fields of  Hirosaki. Here locals design artistic works which are then laid out by farmers planting different coloured rice. A large viewing platform, 8 stories high has been constructed next to the rice fields so viewers can take in the whole scene from a high enough vantage point to appreciate the artistic rice plantings. Every year a new design is planted out in the fields. Hirosaki Castle stands nearby the rice fields. Completed originally in 1611 and subsequently burnt to the ground, the current castle tower was completed 200 years later in 1811.

wdsc_0100 Viewed from several stories above the ground, one of the artistic rice fields

wdsc_0099 another part of the amazing rice art

dsc_0180Hirosaki Castle

dsc_0170 More conventional view of the castle

dsc_0160 the castle’s moat

dsc_0151 one of the hundreds of crows inhabiting the castle grounds

But back to the search for the soul of Aomori that had led me to be standing outside this mini-fortress in the suburbs. As with a lot of my time in Japan I didn’t really know what was going on in any great detail. I knew the basics of why I had been brought there, and that was something to do with a man and some swords. It had been described to me that I was to see some traditional “sword play”, but that's about all I had been able to comprehend. We announced our arrival via the sophisticated security intercom on the gate.

Not speaking Japanese, I still didn’t have much clue what was going on, but the response from the security intercom seemed not what my Japanese accomplices were expecting. Confused looks spread amongst them and they began looking around, It seemed we were in the wrong place. About 50m along the security wall another door opened and two serious looking figures in traditional dress appeared beckoning us to come towards them. The man standing forward of his compatriot was wearing black traditional clothing. His age was hard to determine. He was obviously fit, his beard showing some signs of grey. He had an intense stare in his eyes, not directed at anything, but a power that existed and seemed to launch from his eyes. Behind him an apparently older man, in simpler brown clothing, had a much more humbler almost subservient appearance. We were ushered inside, formally welcomed and introduced.

“Welcome to my dojo”, the man with the intense eyes said in unique tone. This imposing man, this serious figure that almost commanded respect without me knowing a scrap about him, demanding respect just by his presence. But the whole picture was offset by this tiny little yap-yap type dog he was holding in one hand that looked more like it belonged in Paris Hilton’s handbag! The man was Hayakawa Naohiko, as I was about to find out, the Last Samurai of Aomori, Master 8th Dan of Sekiguchi Martial Arts and 17th generation instructor and practitioner of a particularly unique form of Iai – the drawing of ones sword. In the dojo, Hayakawa-san explained briefly he was the last samurai in a long line of samurais. He lives strictly by the Bushido code, the code of honour that true samurais live by. He explained that samurais you may see at castles dressed for the tourists, samurais in movies, basically any other samurai you may come across in the 21st century would almost inevitably be fakes. Actors or role players, wearing plastic armour and wielding swords made for the occasion. But here he was, the real deal, with a soul of a true samurai, skills and knowledge handed down through the ages along his blood line. His dojo was filled with artefacts and memorabilia. Taiko drums, swords and various training tools  The Sekiguchi martial arts has various elements contained within, grappling unarmed, sword fighting, and Hayakawa-san was no doubt expert in all, but his specialty was the drawing (and subsequent use of course) of his sword. We were now invited to enter his home, a matter of metres across a small lawn from his large dojo.
 dsc_0051 Hayakawa-san blows his horn in the dojo

Having taken my shoes off to enter the dojo, it was now time to put my shoes back on to cross the lawn. Looking for some support while struggling to replace my shoes I decided to support myself on a small pedestal that now held the previously mentioned yap-yap dog. I had just noticed this midget dog had almost the same intense stare in it’s eyes as the bushido master when Hayakawa-san said “Don’t touch the dog” in his haunting tone. No worries there Mr Samurai, I ain’t touchin’ your dog!

dsc_0048  Ever wondered what a samurai dog looks like?

We passed through the kitchen led by the Samurai, who was always followed one step behind by his assistant in brown robes. All of a sudden through a sliding panel wall we were in what you could call a treasure room. And all of a sudden the extreme security of the building made sense. The room was full of Japanese classic artefacts. Swords and other weapons, armour and helmets, artworks and folding screens, vases and lacquer ware, the room was full of priceless antiquities. We sat at a traditional table and consumed our green tea as one does in Japan whilst Hayakawa-san explained his blood line, producing ancient rice paper scrolls that had family trees and bloodlines explained, even giving me a photocopy should I dare to not believe his ancestral lineage so I could look it up later. I had numerous gifts showered upon me, art works, lacquer ware, calligraphy pencils decorated with gold leaf, and a DVD movie of the samurai in action.

p7270032 Inside the “treasure room”

p7270036 Part of the priceless collection

p7270033Ancient samurai armour 

And then it was time for the swords. The assistant seemed to produce this sword from nowhere. An amazing piece of work, the sword was said to be nearly 700 years old. The particular speciality of sword drawing that the samurai and this master used allowed the sword to be drawn and re-sheathed whilst seated. The advantage to this is obvious if you are on horseback. This sword was a Tachi, a predecessor to the more well known Katana sword. The Tachi is longer than the Katana and is carried in a different position and is favoured for horse back fighting. The Tachi being quite long is quite difficult to draw and re-sheath particularly one handed while seated.

wdsc_0052 the ancient warrior sword

But the best was still to come, it was time for the actual demonstration. We returned to the garden and the explanations continued. The demonstration would take place against bundles of straw and rolled up tatami mats. The master explained due the bushido code and the nature of the sword drawing art the adversaries, even though not real people, must be treated with respect and honour. The master ran through various techniques including single handed attacks. Each “attack” followed a ritual form, with the master drawing the sword, completing the attack, wiping the “blood” from the sword and re-sheathing. The swords used in the demonstrations were around 300 years old each and I shown battle-scars on the sword blades from times when the swords were used in real battles. The master also explained how much care must be taken to maintain the swords to keep them corrosion free hundreds of years after they were first crafted.






As we left the house after an amazing introduction to the sacred sword drawing and fighting art forms of the samurai we noticed a late model top end Mercedes in the driveway with personalised plates “1”. I made the comment “that's what a samurai drives” to which one of the locals replied, that’s more like the head of the Yakuza’s ride…….

The following is a short movie made in 2009 with a Sword Drawing Ceremony at Daizenji Temple in Shinshiro to commemorate the fallen in the Battle of Nagashino (1575), featuring the Iai by Hayakawa-san. The sword and armour are the originals mentioned above. The sword (tachi) is more than 700 years old. Filmed and edited by Roger Walch/rowemusefilms .

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