|“How did you sleep?”, I stayed the night at a simple Japanese style ryokan and the older lady in charge kindly offered to drive me back to the station and, while keeping her eyes firmly on the road, manages her first English since I arrived yesterday morning. “Eh”, I need a split second to think, because after I laid out the futon and the bedding on the tatami matting when I came back late last night, I slept badly and the paper sliding doors provided precious little protection when the sun started to rise at 4.29 a.m. “Yes, I slept OK“, letting another: “I slept OK”, trail. I can’t bring myself to tell her the truth. Ever since I arrived she has been very friendly. As just now. At first I had politely refused her offer to drive me, assuming that to be proper, but she insisted and since it is a 20 minute walk and I don‘t want to seem rude, I accepted and this is maybe the small price to pay.
I had not planned to stay another night in Aizu at all, but all hotels in Sendai had been fully booked for the weekend, i.e. the Saturday, when I tried on-line. ‘No problem’, I thought, the Washington hotel where I am staying for two nights is half full at best, and on my way to the samurai sites I stopped at the desk to book one more night. “Sorry sir , we’re fully booked, “Fully booked?”. They try two other hotels: nothing. Then at the tourist information at the station, they kindly call all other ‘western style’ hotels for me and, they are as surprised as I am: nothing available. “I could try this ryokan ,but is a 20 minute walk from here”, the girl hesitates to see my reaction: “Well, I have to stay somewhere”, I say, sounding more negative than I feel, because I actually like the idea of trying a Japanese style hotel.
It is Matsushima Bay and the archipelago of small pine covered islands, 30 minutes from Sendai, that makes Sendai (itself a city of 1 million +) such a popular weekend destination. Matsushima is one of the Nihon Sankei (Three Great Sights) of Japan and the reason I came here in the first place.
The wind lifts my umbrella as I walk around the corner of Matsushima-kaigan station towards the park along the bay. I try to maneuver the umbrella out of the updraft before it flips back and I get the full force of the driving wind and rain in my face. I checked the weather yesterday and, both for today and tomorrow, rain was forecast, and since today is Monday with most sights in Sendai closed, Matsushima was the logical choice.
The Kantan-tei tea house, a present from Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the one who first united Japan in 1590) to Manasume Date (whom we will meet below), and the adjoining museum bring temporary relief, but after that the wind gusts and lashing rain make that: a) taking one-handed pictures while the other hand holds the umbrella to keep the camera dry, hardly works, b) there is little to see of the Great View anyway and c) walking around with dripping wet trouser and soaking shoes does not add to the fun. So d) after an hour and a half I decide I have seen all I want today and I join a group of similarly dripping wet people sheltering on the stairs up to the platform, waiting for the train that will bring us back to Sendai and dry clothes.
I walk over the Chou-Dori, Sendai’s covered shopping street, this is the nicer route from my hotel to the station, and while I wait for the pedestrian traffic lights to cross the wide Atago-Kamisugi-Dori, I notice it has stopped raining and the sky lights up behind the clouds; we may even have some sun later and I consider if I still would have time to go back to Matsushima after my programme for the day in Sendai. A chirpy sound indicates we can go and I continue on the Hapina Nakakecho and then turn right and into the station.
I pass a row of ATM’s, each with a few people waiting and on the spur I join the short queue for the Japan Post ATM. ‘Probably not’, I am still thinking about Matsushima. Tomorrow, before I move on to Morioka? It is my turn. I have tried other ATM’s but the JP’s are the only ones with a button for ‘English’. ‘Please select your desired transaction’, it is voice operated and I push ‘Withdrawal’, ’Please insert your passbook or card’, State owned Japan Post is by far the largest holder of savings (€2.7 trillion) because they pay an above market interest rate, I put in my debit card. ‘Enter your personal identification number’. They have a ‘Visitor Withdrawal’ option with a maximum of Y10.000.‘Please wait while your transaction is being processed’ So it was easy to follow how the € did; my first withdrawal on 11/4 was at €81.07 and the last on 26/5 at €92.69, i.e. -14.3%, partly because the Yen appreciated as a ‘safe haven‘. Which is surprising since the level Japanese debt is in fact considerably higher at twice the yearly and shrinking GDP and 33% of that debt is held by Japan Post as a proxy to the Bank of Japan. Where the ECB buying some of the Greek debt is criticized for loosing its credibility. ‘Please take all your items’, I get my Y10.000 bill and card. ‘Please be careful not to leave anything behind’. Normally it takes two or three days before I can see what my bank charges: my guess, the same or a little bit better than €92.69. But then again, who am I second guessing the 'wisdom' of the currency markets. ‘Thank yo..’, the last syllable is invariably cut off just before the end. Remarkable, normally their 'kaizen' philosophy of continuous improvement would take care of such a detail.
“Where do I find the Sendai Loop bus?”, I have moved on to the tourist information in the hall and they point me in the right direction.
As I walk up the hill on the Hirose river banks in the Sendai outskirts, I realise I know little about Masamune Date (MD) who founded Sendai in 1601, beyond his name and the fact he was called 'dokunganryu', One-Eyed-Dragon, but that is about to change when I get to the top of the cedar trees lined stairs to the Zuihoden mausoleum.
His case demonstrates that being cruel and ruthless does not preclude being a successful ruler. MD killed his father, who was kidnapped by a neighboring family, and, when MD and his men caught up with them, his father urged him to kill them all even at the expense of his own life. Then he tracked down, tortured and killed all the other members of that family. His mother felt he was unfit to become Daimyo because he lost one eye to smallpox and tried to poison him to make way for his younger brother. That misfired upon which MD killed his younger brother, while his mother fled back to her own family. Then he went on to subjugate every other neighboring fiefdom. Small wonder he was called the ‘One Eyed Dragon‘.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu grabbed power after Toyotomi Hideyoshi died (pictures of both in #255 Nagoya), MD choose to support him and he was rewarded with the important, 620.000 koku, Sendai fiefdom. Under his rule Sendai’s industry, economy and culture prospered and he generally turned the backwater of Tohuko (northern Honshu) into one of Japan’s prominent regions. All that in itself is already more than most rulers can boast.
But it is in the Sendai City Museum, my next stop, that I find a gallery dedicated to a ‘National Treasure’ of items detailing a colourful and even more intriguing feat: the Keicho (Embassy) Mission to the ‘Southern Barbarians’, as the Europeans were called in Edo, from 1613 to 1620.
MD was open to foreign trade and techniques and interested in Christianity through the Franciscan priest Sotelo. He had a ship built after European examples and put Hasekura Tsunenaga, his chief retainer, in charge of the mission, totaling 180 men including Sotelo, leaving for Spain, to conclude a trade treaty and on to Rome, to ask the Pope to send missionaries to Kingdom of Oxu, as he called his fiefdom.
This was a delicate political balancing act, because even though MD was one of the most powerful Daimyos, he was also subject to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and problems with the converted Japanese Christians in Kyushu were making the Shogun circumspect of Christianity, as he was naturally suspicious of MD gaining too much power (and indeed many expected him to become Shogun). However with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s permission, the mission set off in 1613 for Mexico, arriving in grand style in Acapulco, continuing in 1614 from Vera Cruz via Cuba to Spain, where the embassy was received by the King and arriving in Rome in 1615 after a brief ‘weather stop‘ in Saint Tropez, France. Creating a wave of interest and excitement wherever it went.
‘…I learned about this faith and desired to become a Christian, but I still have not accomplished that desire due to some small issues. However, in order to encourage my subjects to become Christians, I wish that you send missionaries of the Franciscan order.. .and send a bishop as well…could you intervene so that we can discuss [trade] with the King of Spain…’. This is what Sotelo wrote in the letter Hasekura presented on MD’s behalf to Pope Paul V, who received the embassy and agreed to send missionaries, but left the trade agreement for the King of Spain to decide.
‘The Ambassador (Hasekura) strongly insisted that the power of his ruler was superior to that of many European countries..’; ‘…Franciscan fathers are explaining that the King of the Ambassador will soon become the supreme ruler of his country…’. That is what was whispered in the corridors.
On Hasekura’s way back in Spain in 1616, the King however declined to sign a trade agreement because the ambassador did not seem to represent the ruler of Japan Tokugawa Ieyasu, who, in the meantime in 1614, had ordered the expulsion of all missionaries and word of that had by now reached Europe.
A copy of Scipio Amati’s 1615 book “History of the Kingdom of Woxu” is on display, as is a German translation. The portrait of Hasekura after his conversion to Christianity in Spain, the portrait of Pope Paul V, Hasekura received to present to MD, rosaries and crosses he brought back; items that were lost from memory, as was the story of the Keicho mission itself. It was only when the next Japanese mission to Europe, in 1873, was shown the letters and documents, that it surfaced again.
The view over Sendai from high up on the Sendai Castle ramparts, my next stop, sweeps all the way to the Pacific in the distance and Matsushima beyond. The statue of MD on horseback stands behind me, his head half turned, looking in the same direction, this is how he must have pondered his predicament after the return of the mission in 1620.
Something in Hasekura’s rendering of his mission after its return to Sendai must have worried MD, because only days later he complied with the wishes of the Shogun, now the xenophobic Tokugawa Hidetada, and banned Christians in his fiefdom, something he had resisted to do before. One assumption is that Hasekura suggested him to topple the Shogun and Masamune, by showing his obedience wanted to dispel any suspicion of disloyalty.
I walk back down again along the steep incline and through the castle gate and look at my watch. All this has taken quite some time and it is too late now to go and revisit Matsushima. A pity, but in a way I have exchanged a magnificent view for a fascinating voyage, not such a bad deal.
Later that afternoon, back in the hotel, I look up Hasekura Tsunenaga over a nicely poured beer and find some of the quotes I mentioned above and reading the detail of the story it is easy to let your imagination run for a bit: Suppose MD and not Hidetada had become the next Shogun, as many expected. Japan could have traded under its own steam and on an equal footing with the Europeans and so in doing discover there was more to the ‘Southern Barbarians’ than the name implied and avoided the 260 years of Sakoku isolation and stagnation with its forceful awakening and painful aftermath, of which the consequences somehow still persist.
There is also a good thing to being a 'Southern Barbarian' though, your metabolism is different from a Japanese and you do not get drunk as quickly, so I can let the pouring machine do its cool trick one more time.