Nestled in the hills in the north of Okayama prefecture close to the border with Tottori prefecture is the small town of Mimasaka. It is here, around 1584, that the Miyamoto Musashi was said to have been born. From there Musashi embarked on his study of swordsmanship, with a narrative well known to all students of the Japanese sword arts: Kyoto and duels with the Yoshioka clan, Ganryu-jima and his famous ﬁght with Sasaki Kojiro, and ﬁnally to a cave in Kumamoto called Reigando where he wrote his treatise on swordsmanship, the Gorin-no-sho.
The reality of Musashi’s life is clouded in mystery. Since his introduction to the Japanese public via Yoshikawa Eiji’s bestselling book (originally serialised in the Asahi Shinbun in the 1930s), truth-legend-ﬁction have all become wound into one. TV dramas, ﬁlms, manga, anime, etc etc the popular “Miyamoto Musashi” of today is almost certainly a work of ﬁction rather than of reality. Its only been relatively recently that series research on him has been started, the conclusions of which seem far from concrete.
A few weeks ago I joined a 2-day gasshuku held in Okayama prefecture at Mimasaka, the supposed birthplace of the legend. I took some time out to wander around the sites and ponder about the man, probably the ﬁrst time I had done so in years.
Things to see
Mimasaka town is very small. Apart from the Musashi-budokan (easily identiﬁable in the town as it sticks out like a sore thumb), all the Musashi related places are grouped together in a single area about 10mins walk from the station. Flags saying “Musashi no sato” in Japanese will guide you there from the station.
Musashi-no-haka (Musashi’s grave)
Next to Musashi-jinja (Musashi Temple) there is whats supposed to be the graves of Musashi and his parents. It was quiet and peaceful when I went there.
See the caveat below.
Miyamoto Musashi seika ato (The remains of Musashi’s parents home)
Not really anything to see here. Where the house was said to have been is long gone, and the current house on the property is private, so you cannot enter.
Musashi Shiryokan (Musashi archive)
The archive is a very small (one room!) museum with various artefacts related to Musashi or to the period he lived in. There are also a number of his paintings on view (not sure if they are the originals, but I doubt it).
A small place with no English information at all, I’m not sure its worth checking out unless you are a hardcore Musashi fan. Its also 500 yen to enter, which I think is a bit pricey.
It was here my gasshuku was held. Its a very nicely designed dojo, that you can enter and walk around in (when not in use). Its quite large and has a nice ﬂoor. On the walls are some pictures but apart from that, there is really nothing to see. It seems to be used mainly for Karate practise, with some niten-ichi-ryu group using it from time to time. I’m not sure about other groups use of the space.
What is great is that the dojo is not only hireable, but its dirt cheap: 700 yen/day!! If you want to stay overnight in the dojo, then its an extra 100 yen/person.
Behind the dojo there is a small “resort.” This is a small ryokan-type place where you can spend the night and eat. Next to it is a larger, more modern building where you can stay too. There is also at least a couple of public baths/onsen in the vicinity which you can use.
I didn’t see any izakaya or beer vending machines in the area however.
Miyamoto Musashi kensho, Musashi budokan
Built in 2000, this “Musashi Budokan” was built to honour Miyamoto Musashi. It is designed to look like the tsuba he used on his sword (Namakosukashi tsuba). Its main area can hold up to 6 full size kendo shiai-jo’s, and has a seating capacity of 838. It also has a budo-jo and various ofﬁces inside.
In the Go-rin-no-sho Musashi wrote* that he was born in a part of what is now Okayama prefecture. Where exactly he was born and spent his childhood is assumed to be Mimasaka town, but in reality there is scant evidence to prove it. This hasn’t stopped the town developing Musashi related businesses as they capitlise on his popularity. This has been ongoing since Yoshikawa Eiji spurred him into the popular light and I assumed has increased since the popular NHK year-long dram called “Musashi” was aired in 2003.
The biggest question mark in the area is Musashi’s grave. There are in fact 3 places in Japan that claim to have his remains. In all probability, its Kokura, in Kyushu, where Musashi lies, and not in Mimasaka.
* Its thought that he himself didn’t write the book, but that his student(s) did after his death, or at least compiled his teachings. Like everything to do with Musashi, there is little proof either way.
Mimasaka is a small Japanese town like thousands of others all over the country. Its capitalised on its (perhaps dubious) Musashi connection to create a small “Musashi theme park” probably for ﬁnancial beneﬁt (this capitalising on historical ﬁgures, whether goes on all over Japan). If you are a die-hard Musashi fan, then perhaps its worth a day trip to check out, but not much more.
What is good, however, is the dojo facilities. If you are looking to hire a dojo for your group cheaply, and want to get away from the bustle of the city, then it might be worth considering.
How to get there
Getting there from anywhere in the Kansai region takes time, but is relatively simple.
- Take the shin-kaisoku (express) train heading to Banshu-ako from Osaka, Shin-Osaka, or
Kyoto station. (JR Rail Pass holders can take the shinkansen to Himeji then change to same shin- kaisoku above)
- At AIOI station change to the local train heading towards Okayama or Kamagori (this train will be waiting on the opposite side of the platform).
- At KAMAGORI get of the train and change to the CHIZU EXPRESS.
- The Chizu-express is a small one-carriage train that departs from Kamagori. Its not posted in English, but when you get of at Kamigori station, and pointing the same way as the train is heading, walk towards the end of the platform. There will be a small tunnel-like area that connects you with the station for the Chizu-express. They are no ticket machines here, but a manned gate. Simply hand over your ticket (or show your JR rail-pass) then buy a ticket to “Miyamoto Musashi.”
- Get on the train, relax, and enjoy the 50min ride into the country towards Miyamoto Musashi station.
Please note that Miyamoto Musashi station is unmanned. On your return journey, you must enter the train from the rear and pull a ticket from the machine. When you get off at Kamagori, hand this ticket to the train station employee and pay in cash. He/she will also give you a paper ticket that you can use to show the JR staff as evidence of which station you got on.
Musashi no sato “resort” : http://www2.city.mimasaka.lg.jp/musashi/