Escaping the Slopes for a tour of Japan’s Samurai Past

February 15th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Sightseeing

Matsushiro’s white plaster walls and thatch roofs are reminiscent of a former Japan.

During Nagano’s Lantern Festival, I visited Matsushiro with a group of tourists from Hakuba to enjoy some of the area’s traditional activities. We walked through the streets of this quiet castle town to learn more about its samurai past.

First we visited the town’s military academy, the Bunbu Gakko. Established in 1855, it educated young men in the Matsushiro Clan until the Meiji Restoration. The gravel campus is home to seven main buildings in which students were instructed in literature, military strategy, western medicine, and a variety of martial arts. We stepped into the school’s spear-training hall and watched a performance of Iaido, a type of swordsmanship turned art form. Unlike Kendo or other sword disciplines, Iaido doesn’t have opponents or duels—which is for the best, because in Iaido, the swords are real.

The Iaido master demonstrates several powerful strikes with his sword.

We picked up some wooden ones and followed the master’s instructions, learning several of the movements he showed us in his performance. We learned a downward cut, an upward block, the correct way to sheathe the sword, as well as a swing designed to shake blood of the blade. Despite the gruesome history of swordsmanship, the movements involved are incredibly elegant.

After our training in the dojo, we made our way to another relic of Matsushiro’s past: Teramachi Shoka, a beautifully restored merchant house that operated during the Edo Period. The complex’s warm, earthern walls surround a courtyard with pond and manicured pine trees. The dark, shingled roof is crowned with the merchant family’s crest. After crossing the threshold, we were whisked into the main lounge, a series of traditional Japanese tatami rooms separated by shoji sliding doors. Each room was set up with different activities: in one, a bright-red floor mat covered in large paper fans; in another, small looms arranged with colorful string; and in the last, several sets of paper samurai armor.

Trying on a set of paper samurai armor.

Posing with Asahi-san, one of Matsushiro’s history-loving samurai.

We took turns trying on armor, making colorful braids, and playing a surprisingly entertaining fan-throwing game. Each harkened back to Matsushiro’s history as a castle town. The armor was made by local history enthusiasts in the style of samurai from the Sanada family, each piece emblazoned with the rokumonsen crest (two rows of three coins, representing the fare needed to cross into the afterlife). The braids, called Sanada Himo, were used to tie together pieces of armor, secure sheathed swords, and carry heavy loads. They were named after the Sanada due to a rumor that members of the family who found themselves on the wrong side of the Tokugawa spent their later years making such braids to earn a living. Finally, the fan-throwing game Tosenkyo, while not directly related to the Sanada, was a popular pastime during the Edo and early Meiji throughout Japan. Despite being terrible at fan-throwing, I thought the game was great fun, and some of the other guests even bought sets to play it at home!

Learning how to make Sanada Himo braids using a small handloom.

My intense concentration while playing Tosenkyo doesn’t pay off.

Our last, but not least, stop for the evening was Nagano City’s lantern festival. The street to Zenkoji was packed with visitors admiring the colorful paper lanterns designed by local students and craftsmen. Some of the designs featured popular characters or sightseeing spots in Nagano, while others were simpler motifs featuring cherry blossoms and flowers. The temple itself was illuminated in the five colors of the Olympic Games, changing slowly over the course of the evening. With free sake, music, and beautiful sights, the festival was a great way to enjoy a winter night.

Zenkoji illuminated in red.

A prize-winning design featuring intricate floral motifs and a dog.

Huge crowds weaved through the rows of lanterns covering Chuo Doori.

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Thanks for reading! If you are interested in Matsushiro’s history, the Nagano Lantern Festival, or other similar events, you may want to check some of the links below:

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