Field Report: Tsuwano (06 April 2013)

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Where Diego gets soaking wet, hikes up a hill to visit a church, and has a quiet conversation with a nun.

The day dawned bright and sunny . . .

. . . is what I’d like to say.

Though if I did, I’d be lying.

Truth be told, this may well have been the wettest day of my entire journey. It certainly felt like the entire region – perhaps even much of the country – was being run under an open atmospheric tap, given that the weather seemed just as foul at my origin station of Shin-Yamaguchi as it later did at my destination.

The strong rain also accounts for the very limited quantity of photographs I took on this day. A light drizzle I could have dealt with, but this downpour was heavy enough to put my camera at serious risk (I had no protective gear on hand) and I was forced to not only keep it in its case for much of the day, but wrap the case in another bag for added safety.

At the station, I hopped onto the first available Super Oki limited express train. No Green Car on this one-class service, but no major complaints either as the seating arrangements were more than satisfactory (if a little worn around the edges).

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The route taken by the Super Oki service.

A little over an hour later, we pulled into the station of the old castle town of Tsuwano. Billed as a “Little Kyōto” (not the only one in the country with that lofty claim, of course), this mountain community plays host to quite a large stream of tourists who are drawn to its various attractions: a picturesque central district filled with old wooden buildings, several small museums, the ruins of an ancient castle, and lovely canals filled with brightly coloured carp, amongst others. However, with a tight schedule and uncooperative weather, I had to bypass many of these sights and focus on just the two places I wanted to see the most.

With a little help from the tourist office near the train station, I plotted out a course for the day’s two prime targets. One was in the centre of town, right in the midst of the main tourist area, so I thought it best to tick that off my list first.

My target: the Catholic church in the old part of Tsuwano.

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Built in 1931, this peaceful place of worship serves not only the local community, but also the pilgrims seeking the intercession of the Japanese Christians who were martyred in the area during the persecutions of the 19th century. This was the reason why I embarked on the long detour to Tsuwano, rather than spending more time in Okayama or elsewhere: to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, and to learn more about the men, women, and children who, with their courageous sacrifice, hallowed for all time this little corner of Japan.

The building and its furnishings are of a mainly Western design, though the tatami mats on the floor add a distinctively native touch. Even with the heavily overcast skies, what little sunlight survived the filtering clouds eventually managed to shine through the simple stained glass windows and lend a blush of unearthly beauty to the interior. One might well imagine that on a brighter day, the effect could be even more stunning, although the slightly muted and diffused colours of that rainy morning had a certain charm of their own.

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A small museum right next to the church offers more information on the martyrs and the history of the parish. There’s also a small shop on the premises where one might purchase some excellent books (several titles are available in English), religious articles, postcards, and other mementos.

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The area around the church is known as Tonomachi, and it’s to this district, perhaps more than any other in town, that Tsuwano owes its “Little Kyōto” designation. The stone-flagged street right outside the church is lined with old houses that lend the place an air of genteel sophistication, and adding a further touch of elegance is a stone-walled canal filled with carp running along one side of the road. The fish were once intended for use as an emergency food supply, or so I’ve read – though in this day and age, I suspect they’re more likely to end up in tourists’ photo albums (and perhaps their dinner plates).

My apologies for not snapping more pictures here; as I’ve mentioned earlier, even with an umbrella I found it a hard struggle to keep both clothes and camera dry. (It may not be obvious from the photographs but the rain was really coming down hard, and appeared to gain strength as the day wore on.) A quick online search will no doubt yield images taken by other visitors in better conditions, which together with my own pathetic haul below should help give some idea of what the area looks like.

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In spite of the downpour, groups of determined tourists (or possibly too-late-I’ve-paid-might-as-well-go-anyway tourists) were still being led around the area. I counted at least two decent-sized groups of mostly elderly Japanese visitors, and more could have joined them later in the day, if the large sightseeing buses roaring along the road from the station were anything to go by.

From here, I retraced my steps back to the vicinity of the station, though I wasn’t planning on going all the way. Eyes peeled for the little signposts mounted on the town’s street lamps, I eventually followed the arrows into a side street leading towards my second destination of the day – a sacred place central to the story of the Tsuwano martyrs.

With the lead-grey skies above me determined to shed every trace of their heavy burden of moisture, even my umbrella proved an inadequate shelter from the rain that now threatened to soak everything I wore or carried. The fact that it had sprung a leak didn’t help; much of the rain was still being kept out but I was now pestered by the occasional drip of cold water splashing onto the top of my head.

There were a couple of times along the way when I seriously considered turning back and heading for the safety of the first available train, but an unusual sense of determination kept me going. I say “unusual”, because under those conditions I’d have probably swung around and made for the station without a second thought. I was cold, tired, hungry, dripping wet, and alone: apart from a couple of youngsters (probably locals) and one or two other passers-by, there was no sign of the tour groups who were busy laying siege to Tonomachi.

Worst of all was the discouraging sense of uncertainty. It wasn’t clear from the map I’d consulted whether the road ahead would be a short stroll or yet another unpredictably long hike (like the one that nearly wore me down to desperation in the Hikone area a couple of years ago). Nevertheless, something impelled me to go further on; not exactly a voice in my head but more a steely resolve of the will. One more step, one more after that, and another, and yet another. “Just a little more, and then you can go back and tell yourself you’ve tried,” I’d think, over and over again, until eventually I found myself standing at the start of the trail that led up into the side of the forested mountain.

Here was a small grassy clearing; a concrete ramp on the right, a rutted and muddy track on the left, a small building with washrooms between them. The ramp probably marked the normal route but had been roped off (perhaps due to reconstruction work), so I was forced to use the unpaved track – no issue in drier conditions but presently overflowing with pooled rainwater and crushed vegetation. Shoes soaked and soiled with dirt, in due course I reached the trailhead and began my journey uphill.

I don’t want to make this seem like an epic journey, nor overstate the efforts I undertook – and I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting the same place I was heading for (especially in better conditions). Let’s be clear, it was not a hard route or an unduly long one. Even children and elderly pilgrims could make the journey with ease; more so in decent weather. The path had been smoothed over somewhat with a layer of concrete, and rose at a very manageable incline. A handrail running along the middle offered further assistance. Not a torturous ordeal by any means. In fact, every year on the 3rd of May, a procession in honour of the martyrs makes its way uphill and ends with a Mass at the top. The pictures I’ve seen show children not only walking the path, but walking the path bearing a platform upon which stands a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

In more clement weather, I have no doubt that I’d find the uphill stroll a very pleasant experience. For one thing, the setting was serenely beautiful. On either side of me lay the densely wooded hillside; to my left ran a small mountain stream overhung by trees and vegetation. Nothing disturbed the peaceful silence, save for the rushing water and the gentle sound of raindrops falling upon the forest all around me. Again, with the rain I didn’t judge it prudent to bring out my camera, but fortunately another visitor took an image of the scene; it’s the last image on this linked post. The view that confronted me was somewhat less welcoming, with darker skies and unceasing rain, but it was all rather picturesque even then.

I tried to imagine what the martyrs might have thought as they made their own way up this path. Narrower and harder to walk upon in their day, perhaps, with no smooth pavement or solid handhold to aid them in their ascent. And looming darkly ahead, the prospect of torture and death. I really had no excuses for turning back; others have had it far worse than I could even contemplate.

In due course, I emerged into a clearing and saw my destination: a small tile-roofed chapel crowned with a little cross-topped spire. Even now, with my hard-won goal in sight, I didn’t dare pull out my camera for a snapshot, but here’s a link to a picture taken by another traveller (and the blog post I linked to earlier has a few additional images).

This area was the site of a temple in which 153 Japanese Catholics were imprisoned by the Meiji regime, shortly after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1860s. The objective was to “re-educate” these Christians and force them to abandon their faith in favour of the newly resurgent Shintō religion being promoted by the state. By the time the last survivors were allowed to return home in 1873 – after the government came under pressure to do so – 36 of the prisoners had died due to exposure, hunger, and other causes. A full account of their ordeal can be found here.

In due course, the site of their martyrdom became a place of pilgrimage, and in 1951 the chapel we see today was built within the area where the temple compound once stood.

The chapel roof finally gave me the shelter I needed to bring my camera back out of its case. Here’s a shot of the building’s simple interior.

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I’d arrived late in the morning, and I thought it would be nice to stay on at least until noon so that I could pray the Regina Coeli in the chapel. As I stood by the edge of the veranda, I heard a noise behind me. It was an elderly nun, dressed in a simple habit and armed with a small rag with which she was wiping rainwater off the benches that stood outside the chapel door.

We started to converse with each other. At one point I apologised for my poor Japanese, but she brushed it aside with a gentle smile and assured me that I was speaking quite well. In the course of our chat, I learned that she was the chapel’s caretaker (though I probably gathered as much from seeing her wipe the benches earlier). When I mentioned that I was from the Philippines, she said that the person in town who prepares her breakfast (perhaps another nun) was from my corner of the world.

Searching for a memento of my visit, I eventually settled on purchasing some cards from the small spread of souvenirs laid out in the veranda. When I looked at some postcards depicting the Tonomachi church, I remarked to the caretaker that I’d just been there. To my surprise, she took a whole set off the rack and offered it to me as a gift!

As the time drew closer to noon, I invited her to pray with me inside the chapel. She declined, saying that she’ll be praying in her room later on – no surprise as the religious order to which she belongs will likely have its own traditional course of prayers and set times at which these are said – but made it clear that I was more than welcome to use the chapel if I so wished. I lingered on the veranda for a while, waiting for the appointed hour, looking out across the grassy clearing and quietly reflecting on various personal matters.

When noon arrived I returned to the chapel, approached the altar and prayed the Regina Coeli, after which I sang the Salve Regina. It was still raining heavily when I finished, but with my spirits restored, I had little trouble persuading my feet to endure one more short slog through the sodden grass for a brief walk around the clearing. There was a memorial to one of the martyrs who had been locked in a cage and left to die of exposure. Further on, a small pool marked the site of what was once a large pond on the former temple grounds, in which some of the prisoners had been tortured by being forced into the freezing water during winter. Beyond that stood a large monument depicting the Tsuwano martyrs. Thanks (or rather no thanks) to the rain, I have no photographs of any of these, save for what I could find in books and whatever else I might be able to dig up online to relive my memories of the day.

And with that, my visit to Tsuwano was at an end. Back to the station . . .

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. . . back on the express bound for Shin-Yamaguchi . . .

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. . . and from there, onwards to Nagasaki for the next stage of my journey.

5 responses to “Field Report: Tsuwano (06 April 2013)

  1. Nice to read about your trip. I taught for a year in this area. I also lived in Okayama-ken for 9 years so it’s a nice trip down memory lane.

    • Hi Mark, thanks for the feedback. Great little town, Tsuwano (foul weather notwithstanding). The Okayama area as a whole made for quite a memorable visit, and I think it deserves another go on one of my future trips – hardly scratched the surface in my short time there.

  2. And for an even further odd convergence of common experiences I was just in that CX lounge in NAIA on Apr. 11th, hehe.

  3. Pingback: Field Report: Nagasaki (08 April 2013) – Part 3/3 | Within striking distance·

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