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Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003


A warrior's hometown goes prime-time

Staff writer

Ohara, a tiny village nestled in the mountainous region of northern Okayama Prefecture, is usually pervaded by a sense of tranquillity. Its landscape is one of rice fields punctuated by gently rising hills and the infrequent sound of a passing train.

Its peaceful provincial atmosphere, though, has been somewhat disrupted by a Sunday-night NHK TV drama -- which debuted this month -- about a fascinating historical figure whose life was rooted in this region.

That figure was Miyamoto Musashi, a 17-century master swordsman who developed the style of fighting with two swords, one in each hand. Legend has it that the mighty warrior took part in more than 60 duels and he never lost.

Although scant information about Musashi's life has been gleaned from his writings, as well as those of his contemporaries, the record is incomplete. Many questions about his life remain unanswered, including his origins. While Musashi himself briefly mentioned in his guide to fighting "Gorinnosho (The Book of Five Rings)," that he was from southern Hyogo Prefecture, another influential record says he spent his childhood in Mimasaka, or today's northern Okayama.

In any case, his lifelong pursuit of the ideals of a warrior has inspired many fictional accounts and won him innumerable fans. Among the literary works based on Musashi's life, the most well-received has been Eiji Yoshikawa's "Miyamoto Musashi," first published from 1935 to 1939 in serial form in the Asahi Shimbun. Yoshikawa's account, like many others, traces the hero's roots to northern Okayama. While this rural backwater has been the backdrop for TV programs and books about Musashi in the past, the recent NHK production has brought the region into a prime-time slot.

For the 4,800 locals of Ohara, this is a blessing. "We've always had Musashi fans visiting here from different parts of the country , but because of the TV drama, I think we are having more visitors than usual," said 80-year-old Mitsue Inami. She lives near the Miyamoto Musashi station on the Chizu Express Railway Line and keeps the station clean. (There is no one else on duty there.)

Indeed, various cultural properties related to Musashi await visitors in what has been conveniently christened "Musashi's hometown." They include the house where Musashi is said to have been born, now occupied by a descendant of Musashi's older brother. The original house burned down in 1942 and was replaced by the building that stands today.

Nearby is the Sanomo Shrine, which is believed to have been little Musashi's playground. Legend has it that the drumming technique of the shrine's priest inspired Musashi to fight with two swords.

Musashi wasn't just a warrior, as a visit to the Miyamoto Musashi Museum will reveal. Among the exhibits related to this hero is an original ink-drawing scroll executed by the swordsman himself.

Tracing Musashi's footsteps, however, is not the only attraction in northern Okayama. An hour's drive westward from Ohara is the city of Tsuyama, which was a post town on the Izumo Kaido, the old traveling road from Himeji, in Hyogo Prefecture, to Matsue, in Shimane Prefecture. A part of Tsuyama still maintains the nostalgic look of a wayside town. Some of the houses here have been used for film shoots, including the popular movie series "Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man)."

The main attraction here has little to do with Musashi, at least ostensibly. The Tsuyama Museum of Science Education is a private museum showcasing about 24,000 stuffed specimens of birds and animals and preserved insects. Included are more than 200 endangered species listed in the Red Data Book compiled by the World Conservation Union, such as the Amur leopard, the Malayan sun bear and a a pair of stuffed Sichuan snub-nosed monkeys from China.

The import and export of such endangered species -- including their taxidermic counterparts -- are banned today under the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which Japan joined in 1980). But the ones at this museum, established in 1963, entered Japan in pre-agreement days.

A walk through this old school building feels decidedly creepy, like a field trip to a morgue. But the range of animals you encounter here is so overwhelming that you can't help but be in awe of the immensity of this planet's natural diversity.

It is for the sake of education that the museum founder, Keizo Morimoto, established this odd museum, now inherited by his grandson. As one of Tsuyama's most successful businessmen, Morimoto, a kimono dealer, had wanted to use his fortune for the good of his hometown. What he had in mind was to build a museum of natural history, and this museum is the culmination of his efforts since around 1940 to collect specimens from all over Japan and the world.

The animal specimens are not the only proof of Moromoto's enthusiasm. There are examples of preserved human organs on display, too -- including the lungs and liver of none other than Morimoto himself. Upon his death in 1964, Morimoto bequeathed his viscera to be part of the exhibit.

While some of the region's attractions may be unorthodox, there's always the familiar comfort of the many hot spring resorts here. Among them is Yubara, which boasts one of the best openair hot springs in western Japan. Visitors can stay and relax at one of the more than 20 hotels in the area, which offer natural alkaline hot baths, or take in the waters at Sunayu, an open-air hot spring that surfaces from beneath the Asahi River running right through the village.

Sunayu is open round the clock, and entrance is free. But while this is a place where you might safely shed your inhibitions -- it is a mixed bath -- you need not shed your towel if you don't want to.

If you've come this far, closing your trip by venturing a little further, to Katsuyama City, may add some more color to your northern Okayama experience.

Located about 30-minute drive southward from Yubara is the Kanbara Waterfall, cited as one of Japan's 100 most scenic falls. On your visit there, chances are you might be greeted by wild Japanese monkeys.

Entering Katsuyama and walking along the old Izumo Highway, where some of the houses still preserve their old character, visitors will pass by the liquor store Dan. This is where writer Junichiro Tanizaki had lived for about a year just before the end of World War II, after fleeing with his family from his home in Hyogo. Here, Tanizaki continued writing "Sasameyuki (The Makioka Sisters)," whose serialization began in 1943 but was halted during wartime. A few pages of his original can be seen at the local history museum.

It's easy to see that Okayama has much more to offer than just Musashi. But even if it's the warrior legend that draws you there, go. Who knows, you might meet the man himself; not Yoshikawa's Musashi, nor even NHK's TV hero, but the Musashi of your own imagination.

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