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Fantastic legends surround mountaintop castle

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A reproduced section of wall at Kinojo Castle is about six meters tall. The castle had four gates, including the west gate seen in rear.

By Kenichi Sato / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKinojo Castle, steeped in legends about a person named Ura, looks so unusual that it left me wondering if it was really a Japanese castle at all.

The castle’s walls, with a total length of 2.8 kilometers, snake their way around the top of 400-meter high Mt. Kinojo. The view is so magnificent that I can’t help calling it a great wall.

The castle walls are made of stone that has been plastered over with hardened soil. Because they are vulnerable to water damage, there are openings for drainage, which I noticed as I walked around the ruins.

Mysteriously, the front of the castle’s south gate stands atop a perpendicular cliff. Is it because the gate was made to threaten enemies who might approach from the plains in the south or from the Seto Inland Sea?

Hirofumi Konma, 80, head of Kibiji Volunteer Kanko Guide Kyokai, a local association of volunteer tour guides, said, “Today, the scenic views are especially beautiful because it has just rained.” Then he guided me to the top of a high stone wall.

Below us was a superb panorama of the Kibiji district’s plains — including the city of Soja and Kita Ward of Okayama — and more distant locations such as Shodoshima island in the Seto Inland Sea and a mountain in the Shikoku region which is nicknamed Sanuki Fuji.

Legend has it that long ago a prince whose name was Ura came to the classical province of Kibi from overseas. Ura built a castle on the mountain and committed outrages.

The imperial court sent a prince whose name was Isaserihiko no Mikoto, also known as Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto, to get rid of Ura.

Konma said: “The prince set up a battle post on Mt. Kibi no Nakayama seen over there. The prince shot an arrow and Ura threw a rock from this castle, and they collided in the air.”

As I listened to his explanation, the scene of the collision of arrow and rock superimposed itself of the panoramic 21st-century view I was taking in.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A Shinto priest, front, conducts the Narukama Shinji ritual in Kibitsu Jinja shrine. This ritual has been famous since long ago, and is described in Ugetsu Monogatari, a collection of tales authored by Ueda Akinari during the Edo period.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

As a result of excavation research, it is thought that the legend may be related to ancient mountain castles that were built to defend Japan after armed forces of the nation, then called “Wa,” were defeated by allied forces of China’s Tang dynasty and Korea’s Silla kingdom in the Battle of Baekgang, which was fought on the Korean Peninsula in 663.

However, Kinojo Castle is not mentioned in any historical documents, and thus remains mysterious.

“It is fun to walk around while trying to solve mysteries like archaeologists by thinking, for example, this might be because of this and that might be because of that,” Konma said.

When we were going down the mountain slope in a car after strolling around the castle, a pheasant sped across the road.

The legend says that Ura’s eye was injured by an arrow shot by Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto, and Ura transformed into a pheasant and tried to flee. I imagined the bird I saw might be Ura.

On the now peaceful plains, there are many places related to Ura.

At Yagui-no-Miya shrine, there is a huge rock — said to be the very one that collided with the prince’s arrow in the air and fell to the site.

In the legend, Ura transformed again from the shape of a pheasant into that of carp, and fled into a river. Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto transformed into a cormorant and caught the pisciform Ura. Koikui Jinja shrine is said to be the site where it occurred.

In the shrine’s precincts, bamboo strips on which wishes were written swung in the breeze, making a dry sound.

Then I headed for the foot of Mt. Kibi no Nakayama, where the famous Kibitsu Jinja enshrines Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto.

Kensuke Uenishi, 43, who is the negi (senior priest) of the shrine, said, “The legend of Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto’s getting rid of a demon seems to be based on episodes of a conquest of the Kibi province which are depicted in Kojiki [Record of Ancient Matters]. Also, it seems that when kanjincho [documents issued by shrines and temples] seeking donations were made in the Sengoku period [the late 15th century to the late 16th century], the legend began to acquire more dramatic factors.”

I experienced Narukama Shinji, a Shinto religious ritual which has been passed on to the shrine. Service fees to receive the ritual, called hatsuhoryo, start from ¥3,000.

The legend says that Ura’s head, even after it had become a skull and was buried in the ground under a pot, continued growling, causing Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto to worry.

Ura appeared in the prince’s dream and told how to resolve it. In line with the words, the prince had Ura’s wife cook a meal in a pot and the growling voice ceased. The ritual is based on the episode in the legend.

I passed through a long corridor and reached Okamaden hall, where the head of Ura is said to be buried, while feeling solemn.

While a Shinto priest read out norito prayers, a woman with the title of azome shook a container containing brown rice inside a steamer, which was placed over the pot.

Priests of the shrine said that if the pot rattles, the prayers of people who received the ritual will be answered. Not everyone hears the sounds.

I waited for my own result, feeling nervous and excited. I initially did not hear any sounds, and began to feel disheartened.

But then, fantastical sounds, like those of a horn, began ringing out. The sounds were like a growling of a demon’s soul deep under the ground.

Large burial mounds

It is believed that there were powerful rulers in ancient times in the Kibi area. Many small and large ancient burial mounds remain there.

Among them, one called Tsukuriyama Kofun is especially large. It is a keyhole-shaped burial mound which is about 350 meters long. It is the fourth-largest in Japan.

Visitors can sense just how large it is by walking over the burial mound hill.

At Komorizuka Kofun burial mound near Bitchu Kokubunji temple, which has a beautiful five-story tower, visitors can enter its mysterious stone chamber through a horizontal passage.

Access

From JR Tokyo Station, it takes about three hours and 20 minutes by Shinkansen to Okayama Station. Then it is about 30 minutes on the Hakubi Line from Okayama Station to Soja Station. From Okayama Station to Kibitsu Station, it takes about 15 minutes on the Kibi Line, nicknamed the Momotaro Line.

Inquiries: (0866) 92-8277 at the secretariat of the Kibiji Kanko Renraku Kyogikai local tourism authority in Soja

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&dSpeech

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