Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Kyoto Echos Samurai Swordplay

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   Samurai and ninja

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Story and photo by

Sandy Katz

Mature Life Features

KYOTO, Japan — However difficult it is to envision today, legendary samurai warriors once waged bloody battles on the streets of this former Japanese capital. In the museum of Kyoto, you can see painted scrolls depicting courageous sword fights and bands of costumed  crusaders proudly parading through the city’s Sanjo-dori district displaying, for all to
heed, the freshly severed heads of traitors.

The history of this nation’s seventh-largest city stretches back more than a thousand years as a renaissance city, spiritual center and battlefield. Most of the temples and landmarks have survived unscathed to present visitors a rare insight into Japanese  culture.

The Hollywood film, The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise, was  filmed here. It focuses attention on this near-mythical hero whose prime duty was to give faithful service to his feudal lord. The origin of the term samurai is closely linked to a word meaning “to serve” and the samurai a code of conduct drawn from Confucianism, Shintoism and Buddhism came to be known as the way of the warrior.

Confucianism requires the samurai “to show absolute loyalty to the lord, (and) toward oppressed to show benevolence and exercise justice.” From Buddhism, the samurai learned the lesson that life is impermanent, enabling him to face death with serenity. Shintoism provided him with patriotic belief in the divine status of both the emperor and Japan, the abode of the gods.

A true samurai had endless endurance, exhibited total self-control, spoke only the truth, and displayed no emotion. Since his honor was his life, disgrace and shame were to be avoided above all else, and all insults were to be avenged. Ritual suicide was an accepted means of avoiding dishonor. One reason for this was the requirement that a samurai should never surrender but always go down fighting. Thus, as depicted in The Last Samurai, if wounded and having lost the battle, the only way to retain his honor is by sacrificing himself.

Whether at war or during peacetime, a samurai would try to find peace within himself through meditation, seeking out tranquility in his private garden or his tea house or in other serenity-producing pastimes.

The tea ceremony, with its strict rules for preparing and serving the beverage to a guest, was one such pastime. The task required great calm and concentration.The ritual’s elements of respect, purity, and tranquility were clearly apparent as our tea master prepared the hot water and then ceremonially made the beverage from green, finely powdered tea
served in small ceramic bowls. One sweet treat accompanied the tea.

Sipping is done in a prescribed manner. One turns the bowl just so while making little bows of thanks.

At Kyoto Studio Park Toe Movie Land, we met our samurai. Lee Murayama, an actor in the Last Samurai, dressed in the costume he wears in Japanese films and television shows. This studio is the only theme park in Japan where visitors can observe the filming of period dramas.

Chief among the activities visitors to Kyoto pursue is exploring the grounds of some of the city’s 1,600 temples and 400 shrines. One of the most interesting of the former was Chion-In Temple. Our priest guide, whose children live in the United States, pointed out that the shrine’s attractions tend toward the oversize. Its Sanmon Gate is the biggest in Japan, the huge Hoki hall can seat 3,000, and the bronze bell requires the muscle power of 17 monks to ring it.

Spring in Kyoto is celebrated with a dramatic ceremony called Setsubun. At Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine, men in demon masks run about the stage as cast members throw soybeans at them and shout, “Demons out, good luck in!,” symbolizing Japanese people chasing demons from their homes. Following the show, the cast hurls peanuts into the audience for people to toss them out from their own homes and giggling children scamper about gathering up the peanuts.

Our last night was spent in the Tawaraya of Kyoto, a 19-room ryokan (traditional Japanese country inn) that’s a Japanese wonderland of winding passageways, magical sliding doors, and private gardens.  It’s steps away from the bustling city streets and close to the Nishiki open-air market district. For nearly 300 years its guests have slept on futon bedding on floor mats and been served by smiling maidservants in neat kimonos. A samurai would have liked it — a place of serenity within urban chaos.

Mature Life Features, Copyright 2004

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

April 8, 2013 at 12:05 am

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