A Visit to the Shirakawa Barrier
The following is a continuation of Robert Garrity’s story describing his walk across Japan; a journey replicating haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s 1,500-mile journey from Fukagawa, Tokyo to Japan’s northern wilderness, as detailed in Basho’s world-famous travel diary, “Oku no Hosomichi.” Garrity began the first leg of his journey in the summer of 1994, and he continues walking different segments each time he returns to Japan.
Shortly after my military assignment to Japan in late 1957, I developed an interest in Japanese history. I have had an interest in history most of my life, so my newly developed interest in Japanese history was not a surprise. In the late ‘50s, however, the availability of books on Japanese history in English was rather limited. I read every book I could beg, borrow, or even steal. Occasionally in my reading, I would come across a geographical location called the Shirakawa Barrier.
Built around the fourth or fifth century, the barrier was a “checkpoint” designed to protect Japanese travelers on their passage to the Mutsu region (Tohoku region today) from the onslaughts of the local inhabitants. Generally, such inhabitants consisted of cadres of Ainu or descendants of immigrants from Korea and Siberia. In all probability, travelers had to “pay” for that protection as they crossed into Mutsu. Later on, as the Japanese government extended its influence into the Tohoku region, the Barrier declined in importance and fell into disrepair.
The Shirakawa Barrier is located about ten kilometers south of Shirakawa City in Fukushima Prefecture. It stands alone in the countryside, a high mound surrounded by many old trees, the abandoned site left looking rather dark and gloomy. I was alone on the highway, looking for a touristy site when I came upon it by chance. Here there are no tawdry signs or souvenir shops one finds at tourist stops around Japan - or the world for that matter.
In the past, the Shirakawa Barrier loomed large in the writings of poets. Saigyo, one of Basho’s heroes passed this way, along with Basho himself. From his journal, Basho did not record his impressions. He indicated he was physically tired and only caught himself after he passed the Barrier. He wrote the following verse in his Journal:
Furyu no The first taste of refinement Hajime ya oku no on this rustic journey Taue uta Farmers rice-planting songs
I visited the Barrier during my recreation of Basho’s “Oku no Hosomichi” journey. I had high expectations of finding a touristy atmosphere with many little stands selling films, cameras, wooden carvings, ashtrays, sweaters etc. But as I walked from Shirakawa City into the countryside, I found myself delving deeper into the wilderness. The Barrier stands alone on a hill without any visitors or employees in attendance. There was no indication of a tourist atmosphere for miles.
As I walked onto the property, I heard the wind blowing through the trees. They stood high and were thick in numbers. While at the base of the trees I noticed little rocks, some partially hidden, with carvings and perhaps prayers etched onto their surface. The shrines were aged and some in disrepair. I am not a religious person, but hearing the wind sift through the leaves of the trees rooted a sense of spirituality in my mind. It was as if I was listening to all the travelers of the past thousand years giving thanks or lamenting as they passed through the Barrier. I spent about an hour or so just observing; no other person was evident, so I decided to move on to my next stop: Sendai. tj
To be continued in the 2014 Next Issue of Tokyo Journal