At the foot of Yahiko mountain soaring high in the middle of the Chikugo plain in Niigata pref. stands the Yahiko(Iyahiko) Shrine. The grounds are covered by a dense grove of aged trees, such as cedars and Japanese cypresses. Though the exact year of construction is not known, the shrine is referenced in Manyoshu, an old poetic anthology dating back to 750 AD, so it certainly predates that time. The shrine is devoted to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto. Ordered by Emperor Jinmu (the legendary first emperor), Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto taught the people of Echigo region of Niigata pref. various agricultural methods of fishing, salt making, rice farming, and sericulture amongst others, and contributed greatly to the development of the region. The shrine was once affectionately called Iyahiko-sama and flourished as a spiritual home of the mind and the soul for people in Echigo. In its museum, shrine treasures such as Shidano-Ootachi, a prominent long Japanese Katana and designated as an Important National Property, and armors that are said to have once belonged to Yoshiie Minamto and Yoshitsune Minamoto, both being legendary warriors from 12th century, are exhibited. The hall was rebuilt in 1961after being destroyed in a large fire.
Shinran was a Japanese Buddhist monk of the early Kamakura period (1192-1333) and the founder of the Jodo Shinshu of japanese Buddhism. Born in Hino (now a part of Fushimi, Kyoto) in 1173, Shinran had been a monk of the Tendai school of Buddhism at Mt. Hiei, where he studied for 20 years since he was at the age of nine. In 1201, Shinran met Honen and became his disciple. He arrived at the conviction that “Tariki Nenbutsu (reciting Buddhist invocation to takes refuge in the other power of Amida Buddha)” is the only way to lead us to the Pure Land.
Shinran together with the desciples of Honen spread this new doctorine in the streets of Kyoto, but their movement was banned by the Imperial court. Eight monks including Honen and Shinran were exiled. Shinran was sent to Echigo province (present-day Niigata Prefecture) and was stripped of his religious name.
After Shinran was pardoned, he left for Hitachi province (present-day Ibaraki Prefecture), where he spent 20 years being engaged in missionary works. He took a stand that he was neither a monk nor a layman.
In 1224, he authored his most significant text, “Kyogyoshinsho,” which is a series of selections and commentaries on Buddhist sutras pertinent to Pure Land Buddhism. The sayings of Shinran, “the Tannisho (the Lamentations of Divergences)” is still read by many people today.
In 1234, Shinran returned to Kyoto, where he died in 1263 at the age of 90. The Japanese imperial court awarded Shinran the honorific designations “Kenshin Daishi (Great Teacher Kenshin)” in 1876.
Blade forging industry in Yoita area in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture, has a history of about 400 year. The products are well known for being sharp and trouble-free.
The making of Echigo Yoita forged blades dates back to 1578, when a retainer of Uesugi Kenshin invited wordsmiths from Kasugayama to the area and asked them to make various kinds of forged blades. In the Kyoto era (1716-1736), carpentry tools from Yoita became known as Tohi-nomi and Hyobu-nomi. At the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the wordsmiths in Yoita turned their hand to making plane blades, which soon became famous all over the country.
In 1986, chisels, planes, axes and chona (a Japanese ancient hand ax) were designated as a Traditional Craft Product, Echigo Yoita Forged Blades by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (present METI).
Yoita forged blades are made by traditional hand forging even today, in which the hard steel being laid on the soft metal is heated, and then it is taken out of the forge and beaten with a spring hammer. Careful and hard-working efforts are made in these repeated tempering processes, which result in creating such reliable tools.
Ryokan was a Soto Zen Buddhist monk in the late Edo period (1603-1868). He is also known as a calligrapher and poet, who wrote both Japanese waka poems and Chinese classic poems.
He was born in in the village of Izumozaki in Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture) in 1758. He was much influenced by his father, who was a Nanushi (village officer) and poet. Ryokan studied under Omori Shiyo, a scholar of Chinese classics and became his father’s assistant.
Later he visited and stayed at Entsuji Temple (in present-day Okayama Prefecture), where he was ordained priest by the Zen master Kokusen. It was around this time that Ryokan also took interested in writing poems and deepened exchanges with many poets of the time.
Ryokan attained enlightment and was presented with an Inka (a formal acknowledgement of a student’s completion of Zen training) by Kokusen at the age of 33. He left Entsuji Temple to set for a long pilgrimage and necer returned to the monastery life. He lived the rest of his life as a hermit and taught Buddhism to common people in easy words instead of difficult sermons.
He disclosed his own humble life, for which people felt sympathy, and placed their confidence in him. A lot of artists and scholars also visited his small hut, Gogo-an, where he talked with them over a drink of Hannya-yu (enlightening hot water, namely Japanese hot sake). He died in 1831. His only disciple, Teishin-ni published a collection of Ryokan’s poems titled “Hasu no Tsuyu (Dewdrops on a lotus leaf).”
This temple is Bekkaku Honzan (a special headquarters) of Jodo-Shinshu. The Buddhist priest Shinran, who had been exiled to Echigo (present Niigata Pref.), was given absolution and invited to this place. He stayed here and promulgated his faith from 1214 to 1232 before going back to Kyoto. The temple is known as the place where Shinran wrote his famous “Kyogyo Shinsho (A Collection of Passages Revealing the True and Real Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way).” There is a unique gingko tree planted by Shinran himself in the precinct, which is called “Ohatsuki Icho (seeds grow on the leaves).” This Ohatsuki gingko tree was designated as a cultural property by the prefecture on November 15 in 2000. A gingko tree is a known example of a living fossil and is thought to have existed for more than one million years. Though Ohatsuki is not confined to old trees, visitors are glad to pick up a nut and bring it home to plant as a token of their visit. Thinking that the tree was planted by the holy man, they may find a special meaning in the nut.
Hirai Castle was located on top of the cliff on the left bank of the Ayu River, which runs through Fujioka City, Gunma Pref. It is said to have been built in 1438 by Uesugi Norizane, the Kanto Kanrei (the responsible head of the shogun’s executive office in the Kanto region). It was captured by Hojo Ujizane of Odawara and then regained by Uesugi Kenshin, who, however, removed his base to Maebashi and dismantled Hirai Castle. The excavation researches have been carried out since 1997 and relics of the mid-15th century to the late 16th century were dug out. Earthworks, moats, virtical moats, and the ruins of the bases for bridge retainers, hottate-bashira (earthfast post) strucures, pit dwelling, and toilet were excavated. Recognized its historical value, the castle ruin is designated as a prefecture’s historic site.
This mountain castle located in the east side of Mt. Iwabitsu in present-day Higashiagatsuma-cho, Gunma Pref. was built in the early 15th century by Azuma Taro Sukefusa. It was counted as one of the 3 Fine Castles within the territory of the Takeda clan; the others are Iwadono Castle in Kai province (present-day Yamanashi Pref.) and Kuno Castle in Suruga province (present-day Shizuoka Pref.). The castle was enfeoffed later to the Saito clan, who served as a retainer of the Uesugi clan, the ruler of Echigo (present-day Niigata Pref.) district. Iwabitsu Castle was an important military bases in this region for the Uesugi clan. After the castle fell in the battle between the Uesugi clan and the Takeda clan during the Warring States period, Sanada Yukitaka, a retainer of Takeda Shingen, became the castellan. Later, when the Takeda clan became extinct, the Sanada clan managed to protect the family estate by drifting between stronger daimyo such as the Oda, the Hojo, the Tokugawa, and the Uesugi clans, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Eventually, they moved to Ueda Castle and Iwabitsu Castle was dismantled as per the Ikkoku-ichijo (One Castle per Province) Order in 1615. There are a lot of remains including Honmaru (the main castle) and Ninomaru (the second castle), all of which are must-see historic places for Sanada fans.
The area centering on Tatebayashi Castle located in Tatebayashi City, Gunma Pref. was a battle field from the Warring States period (1493-1573) to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). The castle is also called “Obiki (dragging tail) Castle,” which derives from a legend that Akai Terumitsu, the founder of the castle, once saved a young fox, and then a white fox, which was an embodiment of Inari, appeared in front of him and showed him where to build a castle by dragging its tail. The exact construction year is unknown but it is said to have been built some time during the 15th century. The castle was first referred to in the written record in 1471, when the Uesugi forces attacked this castle. After that the clans of Uesugi in Echigo (present-day Niigata Pref.), Takeda in Kai (Yamanashi Pref.), and Hojo in Sagami (Kanagawa Pref.) fought repeatedly in three way struggles to capture this castle. Finally in 1590, when Tokugawa Ieyasu marched in the Kanto region, the castle was given to Sakakibara Yasumasa, one of the 4 powerful retainers of Ieyasu. Since then, regarded as the traffic hinge that connected Edo and the Tohoku region and also as the place that produced Shogun, the castle had been resided alternately by the daimyos that were counted as one of the 7 powerful retainers of the Tokugawa Shogunate.