The Shadow of the Samurai

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After the morning rain, the afternoon sun struggles to push its way out of the thick fog covering the mountains. My sister and I, umbrella in hand, walk side by side, jumping occasionally to dodge the puddles in the road. 

On the Nakasendo Trail, Japan. From The Shadow of the Samurai

Aside from our occasional laughter, it’s eerily quiet. The only other people around are various shopkeepers in their old wooden storefronts. One Japanese man uses a small broom to sweep water off his porch. He smiles kindly as we pass. 

We are walking the Nakasendo Trail. During the Edo period in Japan, this was one of the five routes to connect Edo (today’s Tokyo) to Kyoto. Its height during the 17th century would have looked like the polar opposite of how it does now. The streets were crowded with travelers, merchants and traders, feudal lords, and of course, samurai warriors… all on a 27 day trek across Japan. During the Edo period, this was the most developed road in the country, making it a very popular travel route. There were 69 station towns in which to rest, enjoy a bath in an onsen, or have a nice cup of green tea. 

The 17th century was a period of Isolation in Japan. Closed borders allowed for native culture to flourish and travel throughout the country, via roads like the Nakasendo. 

My family stops for a cup of tea at an old cafe, not unlike our fellow travelers hundreds of years ago. An elderly woman hands me a steaming porcelain teacup. With a wink, she mixes some odd herbs into my drink. I’m too entranced by my surroundings to question her. 

It’s so beautiful here. Blanketed in thick evergreen forest, mountains encompass the town. The dark wood buildings stand almost untouched by history. My fingers trace the delicate blue pattern on my cup as I gaze out the window. I sip my tea slowly, daydreaming and slipping  further out of reality.  

Crash!

I jump, startled with a start at the sound of a gong ringing in the street. I intuitively scan the teahouse for my family. They aren’t there. I start to panic. Why would they leave me here alone? Then, I realize I am not alone. The teahouse is full to bursting with people. There is even more activity outside, too. 

I start to get up from my seat, but am stopped by a man in a strange outfit. He is clad in a suit of leather and metal armor and a long curved blade. I am face to face with a samurai. 

“Hello…” I say cautiously. He starts speaking quickly to me in Japanese, but to my surprise, it makes perfect sense. 

“ Hello. Are you lost?” He watches me observantly, waiting for a reply. 

“Um, I’m not sure,” I say. 

He thinks for a moment, and then gestures for me to follow him. I rise from my seat, then walk out the door and into the street. Like my family, who are nowhere to be found, my phone and camera have disappeared… as has my normal clothing. I am wearing a kimono and straw sandals. The straw in the sandals pricks my feet as I walk down the street, truly in the footsteps of the samurai. 

We navigate our way through the busy streets. Everyone is dressed like me, in kimonos. However, some of them are made from plain cotton cloth, others made of expensive silk. A group of three women pass us. They carry colorful umbrellas and wear even more colorful silk kimonos. I know them to be geishas; their outfits symbols of their wealth. Merchants talk amongst themselves. Some travelers, looking tired from their long trek, eat bowls of rice in cafes. I see a few small shrines with offerings of food and flowers beside them. A man and his young son perform a ritual of adoration, or bowing to the altar, a very important Shinto tradition. When they finish praying, they leave a small offering of fish at the shrine. They are probably seeking good luck on their travels along the Nakasendo.

Courtesans in front of the Great Gate (Ōmon) of the Shin-Yoshiwara pleasure district. Katsukawa Shunchō (Japanese, active ca. 1783-1821) . From The Shadow of the Samurai
Courtesans in front of the Great Gate (Ōmon) of the Shin-Yoshiwara pleasure district. Katsukawa Shunchō (Japanese, active ca. 1783-1821) 

“Where did all these people come from?” I finally say to the samurai, who has been as quiet as...a samurai. 

“Same as you, from Edo. They’re on the road to Kyoto.” 

The samurai stops at a shrine similar to the one I just saw. It is decorated with flowers and small wooden gates. 
 
“This is very important to me. It is a place to give offerings to kami Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. She is the leader of all of our gods.” The samurai hands me a small piece of wood wrapped in silk cloth. “This is an omamori - which means ‘to protect’. It absorbs bad luck. I’m giving it to you to wish good you good health on your travels.” 

“Thank you. It is a great honor to receive something so special from a samurai. I won’t take it for granted,” I say. 

“Yes. Now let’s keep walking. You must be hungry,” he replies. 

The samurai leads me into a busy cafe. A bowl of rice and fish almost instantly appears in front of me. 

The samurai starts to speak, “I realize that I have not yet introduced myself. My name is Toyotomi Hideyoshi.”

Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 1601. Wikimedia Commons: samurai-archives.com. From The Shadow of the Samurai
Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 1601. Wikimedia Commons: samurai-archives.com

I recognize this name from history class. This man lived during the 1500’s. Everything makes sense all at once. I am no longer in the 21st century.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born in 1537, during the warring states period, to peasant parents. Both of his parents died, so he was sent to study at a temple. He was a very smart but adventurous boy so instead staying in school, he ran off seeking adventure. He joined the military and eventually became a very successful leader of the Oda army, fighting many battles and claiming large amounts of territory.

His rise power in Japan came after the assassination of Oda Nobunaga, the leader of his army, in 1582 by Akechi Mitsuhide. Hideyoshi was a very strong warrior. Seeking revenge for the death of his friend and lord, Hideyoshi defeated Akechi Mitsuhide and his army at the battle of Yamazaki. Then he defeated the new commander of the Oda army, securing his place as the leader of the Oda clan. By the end of his life Hideyoshi had a very large influence on life in Japan. He is most well known for his creation of a solid social class structure and for his unification the nation. This unification ended the warring states period. 

“I know that you are not from around here,” he says. “Would you like to go home?”

I nod. He hands me a cup of green tea. I notice the familiar herbs floating around my teacup while I take a sip. 

“Izabel! Let’s go!” My sister says loudly. The cafe is empty. 

“What happened?” I ask, still groggy. I look down at my hand to realize that the good luck charm the samurai gave me is gone. However, my camera and usual clothes are back. 

“You fell asleep…must have been all that walking finally getting to you.” 

I walk out of the cafe for a second time this afternoon. The town is quiet; nothing has changed except me. Out of the corner of my eye, I swear I can almost see the shadow of the samurai, and I wonder if it was really all a dream. 

The Shadow of the Samurai. On the Nakasendo Trail, Japan

 

 

 

 

Izabel Antle is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program. She's traveling the world with her family - follow her adventures at https://wheremycarryontakesme.wordpress.com/

 

Photos courtesy and copyright Izabel Antle, except where noted

 

 

 

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