autumn swordsman

06Nov09

Hachidai shrine (八大神社) is right next to Shisendo, and is most famous because of it’s association with Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan’s most famous swordsmasters. Supposedly he came here to pray before the epic battle with the Yoshioka school in which he single-handedly consigned an entire branch of the school to oblivion.  Here’s how Wikipedia tells the tale:

Musashi challenged Yoshioka Seijūrō, master of the Yoshioka School, to a duel. Seijūrō accepted, and they agreed to a duel outside Rendaiji in Rakuhoku, in the northern part of Kyoto on 8 March 1604. Musashi arrived late, greatly irritating Seijūrō. They faced off, and Musashi struck a single blow, per their agreement. This blow struck Seijūrō on the left shoulder, knocking him out, and crippling his left arm. He apparently passed on the headship of the school to his equally accomplished brother, Yoshioka Denshichirō, who promptly challenged Musashi for revenge. The duel variously took place in Kyoto outside a temple, Sanjūsangen-dō. Denshichirō wielded a staff reinforced with steel rings (or possibly with a ball-and-chain attached), while Musashi arrived late a second time. Musashi disarmed Denshichirō and defeated him. This second victory outraged the Yoshioka clan, whose head was now the 12-year old Yoshioka Matashichiro. They assembled a force of archers, musketeers and swordsmen, and challenged Musashi to a duel outside Kyoto, near Ichijoji Temple. Musashi broke his previous habit of arriving late, and came to the temple hours early. Hidden, Musashi assaulted the force, killing Matashichiro, and escaping while being attacked by dozens of his victim’s supporters. With the death of Matashichiro, this branch of the Yoshioka School was destroyed.

Because of the association with Musashi, Hachidai has — in addition to a very prominent statue of Musashi — a variety of Musashi-related paraphernalia on offer, including a special goshiun stamp that features Musashi in full attack mode with both katanas blazing.

In any case, Musashi aside, Hachidai is a small but beautiful shrine and is well worth a side trip on a visit to the more famous temple sites of Shisendo and Enkoji; the autumn colors are lovely and it’s a good place to take a break from the aesthetic purity of Buddhist gardens for a moment and take in a bit of swordsman-style kitsch.  Hachidai itself is dedicated to Susano-o no Mikoto, god of storms and the sea, though it really does emphasize the Musashi connection above all else.  Here’s the English text of the sign out in front of the shrine:

This shrine was established in 1294, with “SUSANOHNO-MIKOTO” as the main diety.  Known as “Northern Gion,” people pray here for Happiness, Success in business, studies and marriage etc.  Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest Swordsmaster defeated the Yoshioka school nearby at “Sagarimatsu” after praying at this shrine.  Preserved here is a section of the famous “Sagarimatsu” pine, under which they fought.

You can see Musashi standing under the Sagarimatsu here, in this dashing portrait of the swordsman in all his youthful vigor.

On a trip to Kyushu several years ago I also had the opportunity to visit Reigando, the cave where Musashi completed the famous Book of Five Rings just before his death.  It’s a much more solemn spot than Hachidai, and also well worth a visit.

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