Takeda-jo, castle in the clouds.
Ian D. Robinson.
I seem to spend half my life on trains in Japan, rushing from one class to the next, but there is a great bliss in being on a train to somewhere that isn’t work! At Himeji I change to the Bantan Line, an old school train of just two carriages where tickets can be purchased on board like a local bus as some of the tiny stations it stops at have no ticket machines. The rackety-clack trains seems to travel surprisingly fast as it heads north through forests and mountains to Asago ‘City’ I figure the speed is probably an illusion caused by the unfamiliar iron roughness of the ride.
On arrival at Wadayama Station I hand my ticket to the station staff at the manually manned gates, the young attendant looks startled to see a foreigner ahhh, yes, I don’t think we’re in Osaka now! The town has a strange natsukashi (nostalgic) feeling for me; at 5pm the deserted main street is just like my hometown in New Zealand. Obediently waiting for the crossing signal to change on the street seems pointless as there is not a single moving car in sight.
After checking in at the minshuku the kindly and keen oba-san who runs the guesthouse pressgangs her husband into taking me out to show me the local temple and shrine. Wadayama holds the delights of small-town Japan; on the way down the street we stop in at the local school where the kids are practicing their taiko drumming, my new friend knows the teacher, and the temple’s obo-san is an old school mate, he invites us in and serves tea, then on the way back to my lodgings school kids returning home wave and practice their juku-learnt (cram-school) English, “Do you like soccer?”
The next station back from Wadayama is Takeda, and above the humble stop stand the ruins of a once great fortress; Takeda-jo. Oft described as Japan’s answer to Machu Picchu the castle was begun in 1441 by Ohtagaki Mitsukage, a retainer and fifth generation military man of the local Yamana clan. Takeda was conquered by the warrior/ politician and all-round history-maker Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1577 with the last lord of the castle being one Akamatsu Hirohide, he came to that rather sticky end of ritual suicide after a shameful defeat and Takeda was abandoned not long after.
I’m hoping to see that iconic and very Japanese-ey scene of the ruins floating above a sea of cloud in the early morning light. However, I wake in the early morning light in my futon to one of the season’s first typhoons. Heavy, incessant rain drenches the garden my room looks out on and yesterday’s rather sedate Maruyama River is now a raging torrent of café-au-lait. I spend most of the day trying to develop a Zen-like contemplation of the sodden garden in which only the singing frogs seem content. Again another, but less amusing, natsukashi reminiscence that of being stuck in the tent on a rainy camping holiday.
“Ashita no denki e-desho!” I’m reassured, though not very reassuringly, that tomorrow’s weather will be good by the inn keepers. Luckily I’ve bought plenty to read and the water heater in my room doesn’t seem to mind being worked overtime. A nap in the afternoon pleasantly breaks up the day that rare combination in Japan of not having much to do and not having to do much. Oh, and there’s also a beer vending machine in the hall.
As promised by morning the rain has passed. I am driven back to Takeda along the minor roads through rice paddies and vege patches shared by old ladies, bonneted and bent, and white, long-legged, frog-hunting herons. Takeda town, the castle’s town, is just a few narrow streets lined with old handed-down wooden buildings, some in various states of tumble-down, and here there is the seldom seen sight in Japan of front doors unlocked and open.
Beyond the tracks and above the fields a trail leads through a gate and into the ruins. The forest is still steamy and the skies broody from yesterday’s typhoon tantrum. If I ignore the rushing highway on the other side of the valley (which is easy to do as the river is still in full throat) I’m reminded of Nepal, or perhaps more appropriately Peru.
On the summit of the flat-top mountain the ruins spread out, crumbly rock walls, buttressed ramparts, big stone steps that make me wonder if the Japanese of yore had really long legs. Takeda-jo lies as it must have been left, the site has been cleared of undergrowth and neatly grassed with the few trees nicely adding to the aesthetics, but there is nothing fenced off, no barriers, only a few quiet signs and a couple of benches, little that intrudes on the history of the place or on the essence of the original surroundings. Mid-week the ruins are almost empty, just the occasional retiree hiker appearing on the parapets.
Views stretch from the village below up and down the valleys in all directions; the vantages offered by the mountain make the choice to build a fortress on top of it obvious.
Standing on the flat of the main keep I imagine Japanese warriors on watch duty on a winter’s night pikes in hand and swords on their belts, kitted out in that cool and very bad-ass Last Samurai Japanese armour, signal fires burning. And all the while Hirohide-san amuses himself indoors with warm sake and warmer maidens.
As I head back down the trail Takede-jo makes its final stand and yet falls to an invading army in identical uniforms; elementary school pupils on a field trip to where their ancestors once stood in defence and defeat. At the station the master sells me a ticket back to reality and kindly enquires about the state of my feet after my climb, he personally escorts me to the platform, the only passenger, and then bows courteously as the little train pulls away. After the slow paced charms of Takeda’s rural Japan I’m not looking forward to being flung back into the hurly-burly of Umeda.