Tsuruoka is indeed a calm countryside city, but that doesn't mean it is boring! There's a lot of unusual things in the city or in its history. Let's discover some of them...
10 - The Monk who chopped his genitals off
Tetsumonkai 鉄門海 was born in 1768, from a father called Sunada Kinshichi 砂田金七 who worked in Daihôji Temple 大法寺. When he was 25 years old, he got a job of "security guard" of the river around Shôryûji Temple 青龍寺, which was known for being easily flooded during the rainy season. One day, as it was raining heavily, the river dike was about to break. Tetsu, helpless, ran inside the shelter dedicated to the river guards, to seek for help. But inside, he found two clan warriors, drinking alcohol and not paying attention to him. The warriors, heavily drunk, got upset at his distressed shouts which were disturbing their drinking party. They pulled their swords out but Tetsu, in a panic, decided to hit them with a wood hoe that was hanging on the wall to defend himself. But he was guilty of the murder of two clan warriors, which was one of the most serious crimes at the time.
To avoid death penalty, he became a monk at Chûrenji. He was totally devoted to his new life. So devoted that one day, as one of his female friends came to visit him and made sexual advances to him, he cut his genitals off and gave them to her into a little packet, to signify her he will never have sex again, because he chose the monk's way.
You can read Tetsumonkai's story in the manga called 鉄門海上人伝 Tetsumonkaishôninden (2 volumes) from the author Tomi Shinzô とみ新蔵. The genitals were long preserved in Nangakuji Temple, but not anymore (they are currently held in a secret place).
Sources: 畠山弘、「湯殿山と即身仏 」、 爐の会 、2001 NHK 「オレは即身仏になる！～“ミイラ仏”の不思議な世界～」
9 - Godzilla (1954)'s FILM director was born in Asahi Village
Godzilla (1954)'s director Honda Ishirô 本多猪四郎 was born in a small village called Ôami 大網 in Asahi Village 朝日村, which is very famous for its sokushinbutsu mummies in Chûrenji and Dainichibô Temples. By the way, Ishirô's father was a monk at Chûrenji Temple.
Who would have known in such a small remote land a cinema genius was going to create a masterpiece of the kaijû genre?
Source: 本多猪四郎『「ゴジラ」とわが映画人生』、 ワニブックスPLUS新書、2010
8 - Rokujurigoe kaidô's twisted CEDAR TREE
Nejiresugi ねじれ杉, "the twisted cedar tree", is a popular attraction along Rokujurigoe Kaidô's 六十里越街道 Ancient Road to Mt. Yudono. If you pay attention to its needles/leaves (whatever you call it), you can see they are not in normal condition. The needles are all twisted on themselves. But do you know the legend ?
As I have told you in my previous articles, Mt. Yudono is a mountain of Shingon buddhism practice. The founder of Shingon Buddhism: Kûkai 空海 (774–835), also called Kôbô Daishi 弘法大師 , was told to have come in person to Shônai Region, and implanted Shingon himself in Mt. Yudono.
On his way to Mt Yudono, he felt thirsty. He found a clear spring inside the forest, and took the opportunity to wash his face.
But his hands were wet and he had nothing to wipe them with.
That's when he spotted a cedar tree, with very low branches, as if they were inciting him to wipe his hands with it. He grabbed one and wiped his hands in a rolling motion.
People in the region say that this cedar tree has twisted branches because Kôbô Daishi's hands deformed the tree's leaves because of his superpowers.
7 - The "TITTIES Tree"
Chichi ichô 乳銀杏 ("titty gingko") is the name given to the tree which branches look like saggy breasts. Well, that's true that those long, with a pointed end branches kind of look like old saggy female breasts. There are two famous titty trees in Tsuruoka: one in Yutagawa village that is a Prefecture-designated Natural Monument, and one in Asahi's Sunagawa forest that is 500 years old. A lot of young women like to pray to the titty trees for larger breasts, women pray for the good growth of their children, pregnant women pray for an easy birth, and couples who want children pray for fertility. Those trees might have feminine attributes, don't let you get fooled. Those trees are actually males ;)
6- The Torch Festival
No, this picture is not about people running from a building in fire.
On July 5th, one month after Oyama's Dog Festival 大山犬祭り, the people of Oyama village organize a 20 minutes long festival, during which they lit up torches and run as fast as possible to Sugio Shrine 椙尾神社. Taimatsuri Matsuri 松明祭り is believed to purify the area from the demons that once haunted the village (I'll talk about Oyama's Dog Festival soon). This festival is very short: only 20 minutes long, but the ephemeral of it makes it even more magical.
5 - A Dialect sometimes strangely close to European Languages
Shônaiben 庄内弁 (the dialect of Shônai region) is often said that it sounds like French. As a French person myself, I tried to find out why that idea was so common here, because when I hear grandmas and grandpas talk together, French is the last language that comes to my mind.
But shônaiben has indeed some strong "European" sounds to a Japanese ear. Here are the most "foreign" sounding words in shônaiben.
まま mama: meal. What it reminds of: Mama (mummy) in Spanish/Italian. Very easy to remember since traditionally in Japan, it is the mummy who cooks the meal. Example: ままざめさねばならねえmamazame saneba narane!! ("I have to cook the dinner!").
だだちゃ、だだ Dadacha or Dada: daddy What it reminds of: Dad, Daddy, Dada in English. Dadachamame だだちゃ豆, the local edamame bean, literally means: my father's beans
んま、なな、んまちゃ nma, nana, nmacha: Mummy What it reminds of: 'Man (French), Nana, 'Ma in European languages
かもんな kamonna: "don't mind him!" What it reminds of: "Come on now". The word is a deformation of 構うな kamau na! ("don't mind!")
"U" sounds The "u" sound is very similar to the French "u" in words like: -しょす～ shosu: "How embarrassing!!" What it reminds of: The word can sound like "chaussure" ("shoe") to an inexperienced ear. -～でゅう -dyû (suffix placed after a word that contains the same syllables twice, generally used in a negative context) Examples: Magu magu dyû まぐまぐでゅう～ ("that's upsetting!") Gabagaba dyû がばがばでゅう ("that's too baggy") Betobeto dyû べとべとでゅう ("that's sticky")
Atsumi region's pronunciation In some words like "eat" ku く, people in Atsumi pronounce the "k" like "f". Which is an unusual sound in standard Japanese, but very common in Latin languages. Examples: ままふぉー mama fô! ("let's eat") ままふぇー mama fê ("eat your meal")
That's pretty much it. All of those words and resemblances are pure coincidence. It is very unlikely that those words have received any foreign influence (there are very few studies led on Shônai dialect, so further research may still surprise us, who knows?). Still very funny to hear that dada means "daddy" or mama means "meal" though.
4- NO women ON MT. YUDONO
Women used to be forbidden in Dewa Sanzan. The reason to this? Jealous goddesses fiercely guarding their places for themselves. Women were strictly forbidden on Mt. Yudono until the ban was lifted in 1877. Before that, women had to practice their faith in Dainichibô Temple 大日坊, which main goal was to make it possible for women to show their love to Dewa Sanzan. Past that point, women could not go further.
For the same reasons, the yamabushi training was also limited to males only. It is in 1993 that the first miko 神子 ("daughter of the gods") training (female version of yamabushi training 山伏修行) was created. (Warning: even though the pronunciation is the same, yamabushi's miko 神子 is different from the shrines servants miko 巫女).
The ban lift has been decided by Dewa Sanzan's religious men, who thought it was contrary to Dewa Sanzan's founder: Prince Hachiko's beliefs to reject women from Dewa Sanzan, since Prince Hachiko always preached benevolence towards all humans without distinction all his life.
3- Grandma cedar
Grandpa cedar, Jijisugi 爺杉, is the big 1000 years old cedar tree next to the Five-Storied Pagoda.
But Grandpa has not always been alone.
Grandpa was long accompanied by his lover, Grandma cedar, Babasugi 婆杉, which was the same age as him (but she was a little smaller), alas, she was torn away by a typhoon in 1902.
2- Yamabushi's sushi eating ritual
Sushi is not a only a delicious "on-the-go" dish you can find in conveyor-belt restaurants all around the world. They are also a high-valued festival food.
In Yamabushi's culture, eating sushi has several meanings.
During Shôreisai Festival 松例祭 (held every year on the 31th of December), yamabushi "lift" the meat-consumption ban by a ritual called shôjin otoshi 精進落とし. During that ritual, they eat nishi no sushi にしの寿司 (herring sushi). The look of those sushis differ from what you're used to eating at the restaurant. The first sushi they eat is herring fish pickled in malted rice. Herring is a fish that announcing that spring is coming, by eating herring, yamabushi pray for spring to come early. They also eat herring roe sushi, because the eggs are thought to bring good health to one's descendants. The yamabushi then eat anchovies arranged in a symbol forming the letters: 五万米 ("50.000 units of rice") to pray for good harvests.
1- Tsuruoka, THE birthplace of school lunch in Japan
Did you know Tsuruoka was the birthplace of school lunch in Japan ?
It is in 1889 that the very first school lunch appeared in a Buddhist school. The region's parents were very poor, and the local monks couldn't bear the sight of all those starving children. The monks of Daitokuji Temple 大督寺 decided to open a school where the children could eat for free: Shiritsu chûai gakkô 私立忠愛学校 ("Private School for Devotion"). The menu was simple: a salted rice ball, a piece of fish, and pickles.
This was the very first school lunch menu that existed in Japan. America sent Japanese schools milk boxes in 1947 but we had to wait until 1952 to have a real complete meal like Tsuruoka's one on Japanaese schools' lunch menus.