On Shikoku Island, villagers keep alive the legend of their ancestors who sought refuge in these forests in the 12th century. Writer Alexandre Kauffmann investigates.
Somewhere in the wilderness of the archipelago is stashed the armor of an illustrious clan of samurai warriors. Purple trimmed breastplates, gold ornamented sabers, arrows fletched with eagle feathers. The treasure has been slumbering for eight centuries in the heart of Shikoku, a remote island in southern Japan. “I know the name of the mountain where these weapons are buried, not far away, in the Iya Valley,” confides Michiniko Asa. “But I won’t go and hunt for them. A mystery is always greater than what it conceals.” Michiniko Asa, who’s in his 70s and receives guests in an old cedar dwelling, is a descendant of the Heike clan, one of the great medieval warrior clans. In the late 12th century, after falling out of favor with the imperial family, the Heike were decimated by the rival Genji. Many sought refuge in the mountains of Shikoku, frequented only by the wind in the pines. “My ancestors are lost to the world and are mingling with the dust at the crossroads,” adds our host, a retired postman. “I have evidence of this heritage at home: a centuries-old Heike banner, marked with a black butterfly.” In 1185, the morning after a decisive battle, the banners were drifting on the waters of the Inland Sea. The clan “forever left the city,” according to The Tale of the Heike, a classic of Japanese literature that recounts the fierce struggle between the two families.
Stones with no name
The owner of the kominka (traditional house) takes us down into the valley, where the air is filled with the sweet smell of warm straw. The slopes of the Iya gorge, an emerald mesh pierced by azalea blossoms, are so ravishing in their beauty that, as a medieval saying goes, “the painter wants to lay down his brush.” “This is my ancestors’ anonymous dwelling,” says the old man, pointing to tombs beneath the blue shade of the cypresses. A few shale stones, no headstone. Nothing engraved. “You’ll go to your grave which will bear no name” were Michiniko Asa’s ancestor’s last words before dying, in the early 13th century. The command has been respected from one generation to the next. “I won’t engrave any name on these stones either,” says the former postman. Following their defeat, the Heikes were pursued “wherever their horses’ hooves found purchase.” To disguise themselves, the samurai lopped off the traditional topknot. They survived by picking berries, inscribing their sorrows on mulberry leaves, trembling whenever a deer strode past over the pine needles. The clan’s wives, bereft of their damask ornaments and the smoke from their incense-burners, warmed themselves near bonfires made from reeds. Their faces were all swollen, gone were their “peach and damson beauty.” For the Heike clan, each day of exile lasted three autumns.
Dream within a dream Night closes in on the gorges. A loudspeaker on a ridge tells the time for the valley’s inhabitants, echoing the bells that open The Tale of the Heike, symbols “of the impermanence of all things.” The greatest popular narrative in Japanese literature suggests over the course of its adventures that honors and riches are nothing but dust in the wind: “All things considered, the magnificence of this world is a dream within a dream.” Iya’s hills reinforce this feeling of unreality: in the evening, the light seems as soft as morning light; by the roadside, discreet aquariums give the impression that fish have the power to fly; and as the hypnotic ribbon unfurls on the slopes of the mountain, you lose all sense of direction.
As the hypnotic ribbon unfurls on the slopes of the mountain, you lose all sense of direction.
Dice in backgammon
At daybreak, the song of the white- bellied green pigeon gently pricks the consciousness and awakens it. The aroma of green tea wafts over the futons. Breakfast consists of a hirarayaki, an assortment of fresh grilled trout, then we head down toward the vine suspension bridges straddling the Iya gorge. The vanquished samurai cut the vine tresses in two when their enemies were following too closely. Below, clear waters flow beneath the foliage of dwarf maples. In The Tale of the Heike, it is specified that the streams, “like the dice in backgammon and the faith of monks, lie outside our control.”
A stole of tears
At the end of the largest vine suspension bridge, the white tangle of Biwa Falls blossoms out onto the brown rocks. In the past, blind men dressed as monks recited The Tale of the Heike here to the music of a four-stringed lute (biwa). The crowd trembled as they listened to the story of the samurai crushed by fate. To hide their emotions, people in the audience hid their faces with their sleeves, stoles or the brim of a straw hat. The public wept out of sight. The “monks with the biwa” continued to sing, reaffirming that “all who are born must die, all who are together must surely part.”
Clearing the mist
In the Middle Ages, only hermits and defeated samurai ventured into the forests of Shikoku. Some members of the nobility also retired there in the latter part of their lives, renouncing court intrigue and the vicissitudes of the world. Kenjiro Kondo, 58, keeps up the tradition of the ascetic hermits. Dressed in white, with a raccoon skin at his waist and cap on his head, he guides us beneath the wild trees of Mount Ishizuchi. From time to time, he blows a conch shell that has the power to “purify the path and clear away the mists,” reviving the tradition of the monks of The Tale of the Heike, who had the power “by their chanting to cause birds to fall in mid-flight.” As we make our way to the top, in the midst of fragrant wild mint, black butterflies fall asleep on our shoulders.
Tip of a leaf
We walk through the silence of the forests. A cool breeze slips between the foliage. “Descendants of the Heike clan still live in the midst of these mountains,” says the hermit in a subdued voice.“But they never speak about the past.” The Spartan ideal of Kenjiro Kondo is similar to that of the ancient warriors: composure, the cult of nature, ascetic discipline. Impoverished samurai pushed stoicism to extremes to mask their hunger: they pretended to be satiated by cleaning their teeth. A proverb reminds us that “little birds squawk to be fed, whereas the samurai wields a toothpick.” We reached the top of Mount Ishizuchi by nightfall. A stone wing dominating the mists, a platoon of maple trees and the Inland Sea. From these heights, the ascetic gazes out over the men wearing themselves out in the pointlessness of the plains. Can he abandon the world without renouncing existence? Life is “a dewdrop on the tip of a leaf.” It nevertheless remains the joy of the universe.
A place to write
In Japan, the ancestral shinto religion worships nature and the present moment. The mountains, more than any other place, embody the land of the kami (spirits). Their presence can be felt on the steep paths climbing Mount Ishizuchi. Everything here is imbued with mystery: the song of the cicadas, the sweet fragrance of osmanthus and the roots of the maples that wrap themselves around the scaly rocks. The shinto deities are not hidden in another world: they officiate here and now. All that is created is sacred and is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. There* is a kami of the clouds, of thunder, of the clam and even of trades, like distilling and spying.
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Le Dit des Heiké Verdier Poche.
Histoire du Japon médiéval Pierre-François Souyri, Perrin.
Les Évaporés du Japon Léna Mauger et Stéphane Remael, Les Arènes.
Japon Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque du voyageur.
Japon Lonely Planet.
Japon Hachette, coll. Guides bleus.
Le Goût du Japon Mercure de France, coll. Le Petit Mercure.
Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only