Yoshino – a love story

This is the stuff of blockbuster sword-fighting flicks – epic battles, betrayal, loyalty, brotherhood and tragic romance – all set in the sylvan setting of Yoshino and its famous cherry trees.

Like the ephemeral cherry, the tragic love story of Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Shizuka Gozen is perhaps what sums up Yoshino best for me.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a general and a warrior in his own class back in the late 12th century. A romantic figure that captures the imagination, he was a skilled swordsman who defeated the famous warrior monk Benkei, who thereafter swore loyalty to him and remained with him until their deaths. Yoshitsune was a decisive factor in the battles against the Taira clan. But as all powerful men did, he attracted envy and fear from his brother who turned against him and drove him into hiding. Brother against brother, they fought and withdrew into the northern reaches of Honshu where Yoshitsune was finally cornered in a siege and died, forced to commit seppuku.

As for his loyal friend, the fearsome warrior monk Benkei? He died outside the castle fiercely fighting to the very end, protecting Yoshitsune.  It was said that he died standing up. Such was his legend and the ferocity with which he fought that none dared to cross the bridge until the battle was over, only to find his arrow-riddled body long dead, but still in a standing position.

In a corner of Yoshino, up on a sliver of a ledge, valley falling to the sides, is the serene Yoshimizu shrine. Here it was, in the remote hills so many years ago, that Minamoto no Yoshitsune took refuge from his brother. He fled here with his lover Shizuka Gozen and his loyal friend Benkei and some servants.

For a time, it must have been idyllic, high up in the hills, surrounded by forests and in spring, thousands of cherry trees. But it was not to last. Before long Yoshitsune had to flee again, this time to the north where he met finally his end at the age of 40.

He left Shizuka behind in winter and in her loneliness, she wrote a poem:

“I’m so lonely, remembering my lover, entered into snowy mountain peak of Yoshinoyama.”

What became of Shizuka? She was eventually captured and forced to dance for her captors in another small shrine along the main street of Yoshino village. It was said that she was then pregnant with Yoshitsune’s child.

Yoshimizu shrine is not big. The house is built out over a valley with a pretty garden and unending views spreading over the valleys and hills of Yoshino. I walked the rooms of the house on the hill, the beams dark and low, the wooden corridor worn and creaking and I could imagine the lovers here. I can’t read Japanese but the rooms were ‘captioned’ as “the room where Yoshitsune hid” or “Where Benkei considered their destiny” and that lent a feeling of pensive solitude. Perhaps I am adding unnecessary, sentimental layers to history but something about that place spoke to me.

Getting to Yoshino took two hours by train from Osaka. Lesson learned was to stay alert: if the car starts to empty out, look sharp because the car you’re in could be uncoupled from the rest – as was the case with Koya-san as well. Luckily we asked the conductor who quickly told us we had to move upfront to the other cars.

In Yoshino, because it was peak season, there were shuttle buses which could ferry visitors to the middle section of Yoshino, called the Oku senbon. The plan we had – sensibly – was to take transport up as high as we could go and then walk down.

Because there are more than 30,000 cherry trees in the flanks and valleys of Yoshino, you could arrive anytime during the month of April and still get to see sakura as the bloom travelled from the lower reaches of the hills (the Shimo senbon or lower 1000 trees) right up to the  very top (the Oku senbon).

At least, that was the theory. I had planned my visit to hit the first week of April, traditionally when sakura would be at their peak. But alas it was not to be. My first glimpse from the train station already told me that the trees were mostly bare. And if they were bare right down at the station, there would be no hope further up of seeing any significant blooms. I was really tempted to just turn back. But after two hours on the train, I didn’t think KH would let me.

So up we went by bus to the middle section of the mountain, the Naka Senbon. The famous Chikurin-in, once a temple and now a very upmarket ryokan where the emperors of Japan (past and present) stayed is known for its beautiful garden. But even here, 300yen poorer from the entry fee, the sakura was not in bloom – except for one lone willow:

There were other shuttle buses to take visitors up even higher into Yoshino and madly, we decided to go for it. It cost 600yen person for a trip that hugged hairpin curves cutting into the side of the mountain. The views were fantastic but the speed left me feeling ready to barf.

Once up there, we trudged up a steep slope to Kimpu-senja. This was probably the highest point one could go unless you were prepared to go for a fuller hike across the ridges deeper into the surrounding hills. There is an ancient pilgrimage route that continues from here but to this day, certain portions leading to the sacred Ominesan are considered off-limits to women.

Don’t know why they cut the trees right at the top but the views from here, after a steep 300m trudge up, are breathtaking and worth a yahoo moment:

From here, it was a 3km hike back down to the Nakasenbon. We contemplated taking the shuttle but as we observed the situation, people seemed to be walking down rather than taking the shuttle. One by one they moved past us – old couples in hiking gear, a man in business attire and city shoes, a girl with a mini-skirt and four-inch platforms.

That did it. If she could do it, in her wedges, so could I in the Timberlands! Or so I thought.

The first kilometre was invigorating. We stopped to drink in the views of blue shadowed hills and for me, to have an onigiri – which never tasted better out there in the sun and the cool mountain air. KH felt that I was having my lunch (yes it was meant for lunch) too early at barely 11am but I didn’t care. I was ravenous.

Down down we went – by the end of the first kilometre, we were glad to stop at the Mikumari shrine (and the ubiquitous vending machine which we gladly fed, having omitted to carry water bottles for the walk!). The shrine’s deity is said to be the god of water – fitting since KH works in water treatment!

What caught my eye though, was the altar dedicated to Jizo. Instead of the conventional Jizo statue, there were photographs, sketches, baby items, baby shoes, knitwear, caps, bottles etc including handwritten notes of petition and thanks. In local dialect Mikamuri is corrupted to be “mikomori” which means ‘care of a baby’. Well something significant and meaningful at Mikamuri-jinja for both KH and me then!

From Mikamuri shrine, it was another two kilometres downhill, in some parts steep. From the Hanayagura viewpoint, the hills stretched for miles and we could see Yoshino village further down, spread over a ridge. Around it were thousands of cherry trees – frustratingly for me, mostly bald! But I guess you can imagine how beautiful it must be in full bloom when the brown patches give way to pink or white:

The last of my onigiri went at the Hanayaguri viewpoint. By then we had gone quite far and all this time I was looking out for the girl in platforms, smugly believing she would be nursing cracked ankles somewhere along the way, particularly since we had to trot down some stiff slopes – one of which left KH on his butt in the sand.

We never saw her. She must have just left us in the dust. A humiliating thought.

She was not the only one. An elderly monk who walked with KH part of the way at Kimpujinja right at the top of Yoshinoyama parted ways with him at a fork in the forest beyond the old shrine. We thought he’d be far behind us – until we saw him at Yoshimizu shrine. Ahead of us.

This was to be our experience during the trip. We thought we were moderately fit. An illusion of course. Grannies passed us. Children skipped by. I decided that the Japanese were well-trained from birth to hike. A friend later told us that his young children walked for half an hour everyday to school. Walked. I think if I had made my five kids walk even a fraction of what we covered in Yoshino that day, they would have reported me to Child Welfare.

Further down the valley, the Yoshimizu shrine was not just the scene of a doomed romance, but also a place visited by the Emperor Go-Daigo and later, the scene of a celebrated hanami party by the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Walking through the uncrowded streets of Yoshino village, KH and I also saw a house we both fell instantly in love with. It was a beautiful house, made of wood faded by time, a veranda running around it and facing the woods and valleys beyond. Stacks of firewood stood below. We stood for a while sketching a mental picture of us living there. Turned out the house was a cafe selling organic snacks with the sound of jazz floating out from its open doors and windows!

The Yoshino area is famed for shugendo (an austere, highly disciplined form of nature worship distilled from harsh and highly rigorous training in the mountains). In the mountains around Yoshino, from where we were up at Kimpu-senja, there was a path for serious hikers that would lead them to sacred Mt Omine and beyond, to Kumano – where we were headed!

This trip, for reasons I am not entirely sure of myself, was planned around the sacred ancient pilgrimage site of Kumano. Yoshino with Kumano, is part of the World Heritage Sites in the Kii mountain range awarded for this ancient pilgrimage. It was not deliberate to include Yoshino for this reason – I merely wanted to see the cherry blossoms and Yoshino was one the best places to do so. But call it serendipity, research later showed just how connected Yoshino was, in spiritual terms, to Kumano. I don’t believe in coincidences and I am always a happy believer in the Great Cosmic Plan where everything and every path has a meaning.

So as if in anticipation of our visit to Kumano, we visited Kimpu-senji, the birthplace of shugendo and mecca of the yamabushi, mystic mountain priests – who we would eventually see later at Kumano.

I first saw Kimpu-senji and its huge, magnificent unvarnished cedar pillars in… Hong Kong! Late one night in HK last year NHK was providing white noise in my hotel room when Kimpusenji and Yoshino came into view. It was grand in its simplicity and I knew I had to come see it:

This is Kimpusenji seen from a distance in the garden of Yoshimizu shrine.

Up close Kimpusenji is more impressive than I remembered from the NHK documentary. Built in 1592, this is one of the oldest wooden buildings in existence after Todaiji. The magnificent 68 pillars of wood holding up the huge roof made of hand-hewn cedar bark are each unique and glow a warm honey bronze in the late afternoon light. A monk who wrote my goshuin for me asked where we were from. When I said Singapore, he delightedly pantomimed the water-spouting merlion!

The rest of the afternoon passed in a pleasant stroll down towards the lower reaches of Yoshino village. While the blaze of sakura did not materialise, we did see:

This is a beautiful weeping cherry in the grounds of Katte jinja where a pregnant Shizuka Gozen was forced to dance in humiliation in front of her captors.

The rest of the walk down was an easy one punctuated with some interesting window shopping:

Dried persimmons, sweet ayu on a bamboo skewer and ice-cream!

By late evening, we finally reached the lower valley where the cable car took us the last few hundred metres down to the train station. We had to sprint to catch the train or risk waiting another hour for the next limited express. Consider it the last burst of energy for a day spent walking right from the top of Yoshino-yama.

While I expected to hike in the Kiso valley and in Kumano, I did not expect to hike Yoshino. But spread out over the whole day, it didn’t feel so tough. Sakura ice-cream helped!

We dozed as the train gently rocked us back to Osaka. I woke up in time to catch a glimpse of this tiny neighbourhood:

That pretty much sums up the flower-chasing this trip – no grand sequences just lots of quiet moments and blooms among the mundane and ordinary.

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