Japan-Insights is a site where leading experts in Japanese studies present a broad range of historical and contemporary topics, encouraging visitors to engage with the real Japan through immersive experiences.

August 11, 2019

Back in Tohoku

by Dr Nadine Willems

Japan-Insights Expert Dr Nadine Willems  from the University of East Anglia's School of History sent us a short account from her recent trip to Tohoku. At Japan-Insights.jp she published a detailed portrait of Miyazawa Kenji , a social visionary, ecological activist, teacher - and poet from Tohoku in the early 20th century.

I was happy to return to Tohoku for a short trip in July. I headed straight to Osorezan , the fear mountain, which I had heard about but never visited before. This sacred site on the remote Shimokita peninsula, mixes Buddhism with earlier folk beliefs, symbolized by the itako  spirit mediums who offer communication with the dead.

View of the Osorezan land
Osorezan, which is thought to represent the entrance to the afterlife, is accessible via a narrow road that meanders through the mountains of Shimokita. Once there, I walked through the volcanic landscape, with its grey stony ground and puffs of sulfuric steam. The wavelets on the shore of Lake Usori made an eerie sound. Jizo statues, the protectors of the souls of dead and unborn children, seemed to inhabit the place. As I explored Osorezan, a strange sense of quietness overwhelmed me.

The Five Gods of Wisdom

I also traveled to Akita, on the trail of Leonard Foujita, known in Japan as Fujita Tsuguharu . A painter of immense talent, he spent most of his adult life in France but never forgot his Japanese roots. Some of Foujita’s paintings, in particular the large-scale Akita gyōji are hosted by the Akita Museum of Art , a splendid building designed by architect Tadao Ando . Photographing the artwork was prohibited, but I came back with a few shots of the museum itself, with its clear lines and expanse of water soothing the concrete blocs of the building: another haven of peace and reflection in northern Japan.

Akita Museum of Art

© all photos Nadine Willems

August 01, 2019

The Water and Temples of the Shimane Prefecture

by Clara Kumagai

Japan-Insights Expert Clara Kumagai a a writer, editor, and lecturer living in Tokyo. On Japan-Insights.jp she published a very personal portrait of Lafcadio Hearn, a prolific 19th century writer known for his collections of Japanese legends and ghost stories.

Matsue is known as the City of Water because of the canals and rivers that intersect the city and run alongside the streets. One particularly fun way of experiencing this is to take a boat ride around Matsue castle. The boats are specially designed for the long bridges that traverse the water: the boatman will give a warning and the entire roof of the boat slides down—as you may have to, too, to avoid bumping your head. There are audio guides in various languages—the English language guide narrated by a woman with a nice Irish accent, which is particularly fitting when passing the Lafcadio Hearn Museum. The boatman may also sing some songs, if you’re lucky.
As Matsue is famous as a city for its waterways, so is Shimane Prefecture famous for spirituality: it is called the Land of the Gods. The most renowned example is Izumo Taisha , rivaling Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture as one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. This is where, in October, the gods of Japan meet for their annual conferences. Amid the beautiful shrine buildings, there are also many statues of rabbits, illustrating the famous story The Rabbit of Inaba. If you walk down to the beach and you can see a single torii gate perched atop a rocky outcrop, marking the end of the path walked by gods and people. Inland, and amongst the mountains, another temple worth a visit is Ichibata Temple — especially if your eyesight isn’t 20/20. It’s famous for healing the eyes, and every year there is a ceremony with the used glasses that are left at the temple in gratitude. The temple has beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, and you can freely taste the tea grown on the temple grounds. But what I loved was visiting the more remote sites, the shrines among the fields or in the trees. Kamosu-Jinja is one of these, which Lafcadio Hearn wrote about in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, citing it as predating Izumo Taisha by 400 years. For me, the idea of the ancient and the other worlds are most felt in these smaller shrines. There’s a kind of stillness and the sense not that these sacred places are unchanged, but rather that they have endured. It’s an atmosphere and feeling that is difficult to convey in words or show in pictures—like many of the places I visited and experiences I had in Shimane and the Oki Islands. What is easier to express is the encouragement to simply go to these fascinating places, have these experiences and find new ones. You’ve got to float on the waters or walk under the torii gates of a shrine yourself—after all, that’s how we pass through one world and enter.

© all photos Clara Kumagai