Thu, Nov 19, 2020
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
If you ask any local from the city of Asago what is their most famous sightseeing spot, they will most likely say Takeda Castle Ruins. These ruins, otherwise known as “Castle in the sky,” are the pride and joy of the city, and were even used several times as film location, including for two famous productions “Heaven and Earth” (directed by Haruki Kadokawa, 1990) and “Anata e (To you)” (directed by Yasuo Furuhata, 2012). They were recognized as a National Historical Site in 1943.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists come in the fall to observe this dream-like scenery of the ruins, seemingly floating in the sky as a thick layer of clouds surrounds the valley, covering the town of Takeda entirely.
But to get to see this, you have to time your trip to Asago precisely, as this meteorological phenomenon does not happen every morning. Ideal conditions include to come late September to November to Asago, to wake up early in the morning to climb the opposite mountain by sunrise on a day with calm to no wind, and for the minimal and maximal temperatures of the day to have at least a 10 C difference.
The viewpoint for the sea of clouds is called Ritsuunkyo – the gorge where the clouds rise – and is located across Takeda Castle’s mountain. For the most courageous, you can walk 2.3 kilometers from JR Takeda Station to Ritsuunkyo’s parking lot with a torch. But even for those who decide to drive up there, you will have to wake up early as people start to secure a parking spot as early as 4 a.m. during peak season!
From then on, equipped with a torch, you will start climbing your way up the 756-meter-high mountain, following the eerie trail of light left by the people marching in front of you. After 40 minutes, you will reach the first observation deck – there are two mores decks at lower levels – where you will settle down to wait for the magic to happen. As the sun slowly rises from behind the mountains, the sky’s color goes through all shades of blue, occasionally accompanied by orange and pink. As the day starts to get warmer, the sea of clouds progressively goes down, revealing Wadayama town and the valleys underneath.
Ritsuunkyo can actually be climbed all year round, so even if you missed the sea of clouds, you can always enjoy the view on Takeda Castle Ruins, for instance during spring as the 300-year-old cherry trees are in full blossom.
If taking the perfect shot of Takeda Castle Ruins from Ritsuunkyo is a must, you should not miss out on Takeda’s Old Town and Takeda Castle Ruins themselves. From JR Takeda Station, you have several options to reach the ruins:
But let us take the trail that passes through Hyomai Jinja. The temple is a Shinto sanctuary a little bit peculiar as it beholds sumo sajiki. Made out of six rows of stone seats facing an empty space, historians believe they must have been viewing seats for sumo wrestling and other local events back in the day. Some seat charts from the Edo period and Meiji era have even been found, supporting that theory. Such an installation is quite rare in all Japan, and these sumo sajiki have been recognized as prefectural tangible cultural assets of folk customs since 1970.
You may have noticed from the photos, but Takeda Castle’s mountain is lower than the mountains surrounding it. This is because the castle itself was built by cleverly using the mountain relief. It was built between 1431 and 1443 by leveling the mountain and building earthworks, the different lords adding to its original shape. For instance, the stone walls of Takeda Castle, now the only part of the castle remaining, were only built around the end of the 16th century, presumably by Lord Hirohide Akamatsu.
The current ruins cover a distance of 400 meters from north to south and 100 meters from east to west. Now that only the foundations remain, the ruins have a singular shape, gaining the nickname of “Machu Picchu of Japan.”
On your way to Takeda Castle Ruins, you will encounter a big boulder with shimenawa (a ceremonial rope) wrapped around it; this is the “boulder that doesn’t fall.” This rock has been here for centuries, perched at the edge of the mountain as if about to fall but has (luckily for Takeda inhabitants) always remained in place. Because of that, it has been considered sacred, and students come there before an exam and leave a coin, praying for success.
Takeda Castle Ruins may only consist of foundations, but these stones alone tell a story: that of a scrupulously considered defense mechanism for the castle.
One thing that strikes first when you look at those foundations is the fact that the stones are not caved; instead, they are cleverly piled upon each other, smaller stones filling the gaps when needed. This technique is called Ano ryu ishi-tsumi (stone piling technique of the Ano Clan), after the gifted clan Ano that realized it.
While this technique can be criticized for creating steps and grips for enemies that would help them climb the walls and therefore help them assault the castle, it was also praised for being robust and helping with drainage.
And Takeda is a neighborhood that could use all the help possible when it came to drainage. Indeed, one of the reason why we have so little documents on this part of town comes from the fact that Takeda went through three natural disasters in the span of two centuries (17th-19th), including several floods that caused significant damage to the Old Town.
If you stroll down Takeda’s Old Town, you may find the buildings to be quite recent in comparison to the castle’s age. One thing that stayed as it was is the layout of the town, full of cranks and sharp turns, very different to the check-board layout of modern Japanese cities.
Another original feature of the town is a street called Teramachi-doori (Temples’ street) which runs along the railroad behind Takeda station. It features charming Japanese houses in front of which runs a drainage gutter. This gutter is called Kinuya-ko after Mr. Jizaemon Kinuya who had financed its construction in 1824 to help provide water to the town and help prevent fires. Up to this day, it still supports Takeda inhabitants’ daily life and participate to the charm of this little street.
The town of Takeda, despite losing its castle, still takes pride in its history and appearance. The castle’s ruins “floating” in a thick fog have become part of the fall scenery for the region. There is so much history and picturesque scenes to discover in this little town: all you have to do is go beyond the clouds.
(Photos courtesy of Asago city unless otherwise indicated)
(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)
Laetitia is 27 and comes from France where she grew up in the Normandy region. She studied Japanese language and culture for 3 years and international relations for 2 years at the University of Strasbourg. After working in France for a while, she decided to settle down in Japan and applied to the JET Programme. She now works as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) for Asago City Hall where she helps manage the city’s relations with France and promoting this charming countryside. She likes eating good things, singing everywhere and learning new languages. She dislikes goya (an awfully bitter cousin of cucumber), negativity and natto (fermented soy beans).
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