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Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2001

BICCHU-MATSUYAMA

Where conflict meets contemplation


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Special to The Japan Times

There is much to be said for Japan's provincial towns. As they rarely host more than a trickle of visitors, the spoils from tourism are never quite enough to disfigure them or completely vulgarize their heritage.

Stepping stones (far left) are creatively arranged at Raikyuji Temple in Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture.

The city of Takahashi in Okayama Prefecture, known until the Meiji Era as Bicchu-Matsuyama, is one such place that has benefited from obscurity.

The train journey to Bicchu-Takahashi Station -- much of which hugs the Takahashi River, a shallow, winding river well-stocked with ayu (sweet fish), a local specialty -- creates a favorable initial impression.

One of the main drawing cards is the town's well-appointed castle. Built into the higher reaches of Mount Gagyu, Bicchu-Matsuyama castle at 430 meters is Japan's highest -- a fact that the town has not been slow to exploit.

The construction of the original fort, an awesome engineering task given the altitude and terrain, was undertaken during the mid-13th century, when the town was enjoying great prosperity under warlord Akiba Shigenobu.

Extended during the 16th-century Sengoku (Warring States) Period, this near-impregnable castle is fortified at lower elevations by samurai villas and farmhouses strung along the foot of the mountain.

The temple's azalea bushes are said to represent undulating waves as they flow toward the garden's two "islands."

These acted, much as temples in Tokyo's Yanaka district did, as a first line of defense, one that was put to the test on several occasions.

The residences in this district, known as Ishibiya-cho, are raised above the lanes on stone platforms, and most of them are still occupied by descendants of Takahashi's old samurai families.

It's a stiff hike up to the castle. I did the hourlong climb at the height of summer, sharing the walk with swarms of mosquitoes and the occasional serpent.

The view from the castle terraces is well worth the hike. Descending the overgrown slopes, I was reminded of Basho's haiku about forgotten warriors: A mound of summer grass Are warriors' heroic deeds Only dreams that pass?

A lacquered umbrella contrasts with the plastered walls of a storehouse in the city.

In this once-martial valley town, now hibernating peacefully in the mountains of Bicchu, you do almost expect to come across a rusting helmet in the grass, a ruined yari (halberd) jammed between stones in the river.

More feudal estates face the Koya River, which runs through the center of Takahashi, its bridges mounted with miniature stone shrines.

The grand wood-and-plaster outer walls of these villas contrast with touches of Meiji Era occidental architecture.

Now serving as local history museums, Takahashi Church and the wooden Takahashi Elementary School, along with the Samurai House Museum back in Ishibiya-cho, are well-preserved examples of this style.

The museums are recommended for the glimpses they provide into the Meiji Era's infatuation with Western science and design, and testify to the Japanese desire to both own -- and reproduce -- these new inventions.

The exhibits include an old Morse code set, period clocks and a microscope, displayed alongside farm implements and a fine collection of monochrome photos of the town.

Although much is made of its castle, samurai dwellings and the cherry-lined Koya River, the town's finest offering is the stone garden attached to Raikyuji Temple, created by a local lord, Kobori Enshu, who was to become one of Japan's foremost designers of karesansui (dry landscape gardens) as well as an advocate of the tea ceremony.

No one seems quite certain of when the temple was founded, but judging from the fact that it was rebuilt as Ankokuji Temple on the orders of the Muromachi Shogunate's first shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, in 1339, its history is clearly a long one.

Enshu, a master of the placement of stone, gravel and rocks, finished the garden in 1609. Renowned for its zen'in-shiki, or Zen temple form, the garden is also known as Tsurukame Garden on account of its crane-and-turtle island configuration.

Mount Atago sits nicely in the distance over the garden's well-pruned azalea bushes, forming the classic shakkei ("borrowed view"), frequently incorporated into such designs.

The garden is said to follow the so-called Horai style, a form that emphasizes harmony and spiritual peace in both the composition of the garden and the consciousness of the onlooker.

Like all of the most accomplished dry landscape gardens, the tsurukame elicits a dual response: The casual visitor savors a moment of leisure, while the studious visitor is cast into a more pensive mood.

As I was pondering these moods, Raikyuji's resident abbot glided by in a white undervest, clearly engaged in some physical task about the grounds.

While his small daughter sat at the entrance to the temple, dispensing tickets to the occasional visitor -- only one other person came during the hour I spent there -- a faint smell of fried pork and tobacco wafted across the garden stones from the family quarters. This reminded me that head priests in Japan are obliged neither to take vows of celibacy nor of serious abstinence, and that their sphere is as firmly in the temporal as in the spiritual.

There at Raikyuji, I was reminded of an image by the 15th-century poet and holy man, Ikkyu: "We sit in the pavilion, a pleasure girl and this Zen monk."

Bicchu-Takahashi Station lies 40 km northwest of Okayama City on the JR Hakubi Line. The train from Okayama takes under an hour.


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