Eerie tomb of noses amidst Kyoto`s splendor

2010-04-05 22:11

Who goes to Kyoto to see a place the Japanese call Mimizuka -- the Hill of Ears that is really a hill of noses cut off by Hideyoshi`s troops during their vicious campaign against Korea in 1597 and `98? It is the darkest and creepiest place in this city of wonders. I managed to avoid it each time I came here before.
I knew about it, vaguely, and stayed away. Before now, it was the gardens that I came for. The most subtle, soothing, and pretty ones I`ve ever seen: Saihoji, with over 200 kinds of moss; Katsura Rikyu, a little detached palace; Sanzen-in and Jakko-in north of the city in Ohara; Tenryuji; the lake at Heian shrine; Nanzenji, Ryoanji -- the karesansui, or dry landscape creations of gravel and sand, stones and bonsai. Imitations of a sea, islands, river currents, a patch of forest. You sit in front of these, and if there is no one around, you can get lost in it; you can stay a long time. Troubled souls must have made these idylls. I am always looking for a sanctuary.
<**1>The central worship hall of a Buddhist temple called Chion-in is one of the most beautiful interior spaces I`ve ever seen. And there is a little brook that runs into Heian Lake; I have walked off the main path, gotten away from everyone else, and sat down close to where the water runs over rocks, and makes a tiny waterfall. The calm I`ve felt here is what has led me to ask friends to scatter my ashes at this place.
Kyoto is like this: You come into it through the cruddy postmodern train station, and you know, that, for all your efforts, the money you`ve spent, the studying you may have done, the stories you plan to tell, you`re still quite like the rest of the horde. You will see what they see, stand in lines with them, take buses to find some of the magic. You will go to the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera, the tea ceremony and geisha show in Gion; you`ll buy some delicious sweets and other Kyoto stuff because guidebooks and acquaintances have urged you to. Mementos are crucial. I have made many wonderful photo albums that have yet to earn the acclaim -- or even the passing interest -- they deserve.
Best of all are what Japanese call niwa -- the gardens. Any of us who are smart enough as tourists find some places of tranquility that make all the cash (bye-bye), the lugging of bags, the sweat, the crowds (philistines, for sure), the outrageously high prices, the whole exhausting experience of traveling afar -- all of this will finally have been worth it. The garden at Shisendo, a little piece of paradise is just up the hill from where the legendary swordsman, Musashi cut down a bunch of samurai from the Yoshioka clan under a big old pine tree. Or this: Sitting down on the porch facing the garden at Shodenji, with Mount Hiei in the distance. Walking through the bamboo grove in Sagano. Having some strawberry-flavored kakigori (shaved ice) with condensed milk pored over it, after you`ve just gotten some healing in a place like Tofukuji.
But Kyoto is not all about the pretty and the sublime. It was a very bloody place during the 1860`s revolution against the Tokugawa dynasty that ruled Japan for over 250 years. Assassinations, beheadings, surprise attacks in alleys, bars, homes. Heads stuck on poles on the banks of the Kamo River. Blood and bloodied walls and floors drenched and the howls of the killers and the killed.
And then there is Mimizuka. At the end of the 16th century, the dictator Hideyoshi, the one who succeeded in unifying Japan under his ruthless and brilliant authority, had a notion of conquering China. Korea was en route -- a road to the big prize, a nation along the way that itself had to be brought under foot.
But Koreans didn`t cooperate, didn`t roll over. They fought like the blazes, and had military leaders like Yi Sun-Shin and Kwon Yul, plus a lot of support from Chinese troops, who made a mess of the Japanese invaders. Sent them back to their native land twice. The Japanese ruined as much of this land as they could. Destroyed about 95% of Korea`s palaces. Laid waste to the farmland. Kidnapped some of the best potters, forcing them to work and teach in Japan. Wrecked so much because they said they were superior, and destroyed all evidence to the contrary. From his base in Osaka, Hideyoshi let his generals know that they would be rewarded based on the number of Koreans killed by units under their command. Individual soldiers were told that they should kill at least three apiece. And there had to be proof. Severed heads were best. But there wasn`t room on the returning ships for tens of thousands of heads. Ears were another option, but proving that two came from the same victim was harder than just having one nose.
So, noses it was, mainly. The Japanese didn`t get anywhere close to grabbing China. Admiral Yi and his navy thrashed their foes near Hansan-do, Okpo, Noryang. General Kwon Yul, with the help of monks and aproned, stone-throwing ladies and assorted militia, whipped the much-larger assembly of Japanese at Haengjusanseong. They couldn`t take Seoul. In time, they had to leave.
The would-be conqueror of Asia was near his death when the defeat of his army and navy was assured and approaching fast. He wrote in his will that all his forces should return. At the tail end of this doomed campaign, his soldiers became more bloodthirsty. Korean soldiers and civilians were mutilated. No one knows how many. The estimates range from about 40,000 - 200,000 people.
The noses were tossed into big barrels of salt water, then put on the ships as the humiliated losers sailed back to the Land of the Rising Sun. They returned to Japan with these trophies. In Kyoto, the things were on display for a time, signifying the terrifying power of Japan, sending a message to the Chinese and Koreans that resistance came at this price. But the Japanese had lost the war; Hideyoshi`s dream of Asian conquest came to this: the deaths of a few hundred thousand people, the razing of most of Korea`s royal complexes, infrastructure, and agriculture.
One warrior clan alone, the Nabeshima, brought back 29,251 noses from Korea. The leaders of that group must have gotten a fine piece of land as a sign of the dictator`s pleasure.
But what to do with so many thousands of cut-off body parts? Hideyoshi did something quite rare for autocrats of his time: He ordered that the noses be given a proper burial in front of the Great Buddha Hall at Hokoji, a temple that was later ravaged by fire twice, and is not now in sight of the tomb, but just north of the nearby shrine to this despot whose simian mug earned him the nickname -- "the monkey."
Why did he command that these victims of his damned drive be honored in death? We don`t really know, but it is likely that there were at least three motives -- to accentuate the fact that his armies could slay so many; to show that he could be compassionate, that he was human enough to pay his respects to the souls of any dead; and perhaps to do what he could to ward off the threat of furious, vengeful ghosts.
The burial mound was first called Hanazuka -- a much more accurate name, since hana means nose and zuka means hill. The chief priest of Hokoji, Saisho Jotai, being a fine lackey, exclaimed how the nine-meter-high memorial was a sign of Hideyoshi`s great mercy. Saisho and his fellow monks were to pray for the spirits of the horribly cut-up-and-killed Koreans.
Sometime in the early 1600`s, an official in the new regime of the Tokugawa shogun in Edo decided that Hanazuka was too crass, too disturbing as a name and an image. The Hill of Noses became Mimizuka. More gentle-sounding. Not quite as gross. For Koreans, it has always been Gwi Mudum, the Tomb of Ears, though, here, too, there is the same error: The name should be Ko Mudum, since ko means noses.
So, this time in Kyoto -- it may be my seventh visit, and it may be my last; one never knows, so we tour as if there will never be another chance -- I will make this rarely-visited site a priority. I have come to Kansai to get a new visa at the South Korean consulate in Osaka. We foreigners don`t quite know why we have to travel to Japan to get a working visa for Korea, but it`s a good opportunity for us to do some sightseeing, to get away for a short time.
I`m an architecture and history buff, so I`ve decided to see as many buildings designed by Ando Tadao as I can, to spend time in a few really nice museums, and to finally make my own pilgrimage to the misnamed Hill or Tomb of Ears.
At Kyoto station, I take the #206 bus heading toward the Kyoto National Museum and Sanjusangendo, the temple with 1001 statues of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. In India, she is Avalokitesvara. Japanese like to say that each member of their tribe can find his or her own face on one of those statues, since every one is a bit different. A few years back, I went there with my best friend, Shin, but he couldn`t find his face. I didn`t look for mine.
I say "Mimizuka" to the driver. Off we go. Oddball foreigner on the bus going to this grim place. 15 minutes pass, and out I get. Toyokuni shrine is across the street on the right. It`s a Shinto sanctum where Hideyoshi is revered as a god. And somewhere very close to here is a hill packed with the noses of perhaps a hundred thousand of his victims.
Just to the left of the sidewalk I am standing on is a cute little playground with a bright light-blue concrete baby hippo which three young kids pretend to feed grass to. I cannot see what I know I am close to, and do not know exactly what the thing looks like. A lady walks toward me, so I ask her where Mimizuka is. She gives me a gentle Japanese smile, and points just past the park.
Set back a ways from the road is this steep and bulging hill with a stupa on top of it. The grass covering the mound is a deep green. I try but I cannot imagine noses in there. What happens to noses or ears that were buried 410 years ago? How do the neighbors feel about this place?
There is a shiny silver sign with text in Japanese and Korean only. No English for people like me. I immediately assume that this is another example of the Japanese penchant for trying to keep outsiders ignorant of their nation`s sins. But, to be fair, that`s hardly unique to this people. I want a good text in my language that lays out the awful truth. I want a grand exception to the rule of silence, denial, cover-up. I want to take some good pictures, to absorb the horror of this place, and then go.
I look at the tidy houses around here, the neat-and-clean neighborhood, the toddlers in their happy with the rhino, the macabre hill with the stone memorial on it. Have all the noses turned into dust? Parts of so many faces become part of the ground, like the Bible says it`s going to happen? Who were they?
A few minutes is enough, I think. If I stay more, I will not get more out of this, and now it`s starting to rain. Across the street near the entrance to the Hideyoshi-is-a-god shrine, I see a college-aged guy standing there looking at his tour book, and seeming a bit unsure where to go next, so I go up to him. His fine Fodor`s or Fromer`s tour book is in French. I tell him about where I just came from. Share with him the story because I`ve been a teacher for a long time. "Mimizuka" is not in his book, and he`s never heard of it. I encourage him to check it out. The rain starts coming down harder, so we go our ways.
On the bus back to Kyoto station, an American man close to my age, in his mid-40`s, starts chatting with me, as in: "What brings you here?" He`s a white man with a Japanese wife and a five-year-old child who stares at me as I tell her papa about the Mound of Noses. He is the head of the Japanese history program at a college in eastern Pennsylvania somewhere, and he has never heard of the place, either, though he speaks to me with the easy confidence of a seasoned Kyoto-explorer. A student and professor of Japanese history.
He is in the old capital of this country for a two-week training session in Noh theater. Every day, he tells me, he spends hours practicing the precise and difficult moves of performers of this ancient form of drama. He looks at me in a way that is part blank and part displeased as I tell him about my excursion to Ko Mudum.
Just to keep the conversation going, since he and his wife seem to be interested in talking with me, I tell them about two of the places in Japan that fascinate me the most. They are very small islands: Okunoshima in the Inland Sea in Hiroshima prefecture. From 1929-45, it was the site of the biggest chemical weapons facility in the nation. And Otsushima in Yamaguchi prefecture, home to a training base for kaiten suicide subs during World War II.
The face of my fellow American gets longer as I speak. He is an expert in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). He does not seem to know or care much about either the era of Hideyoshi or Hirohito. A certain tension seeps into our exchange. I like to think I`m a swell guy who`s just eager to swap stories. His brow creases, and he blurts this out: "Oh, we`ve got these people in my department. All they know is World War II. Japanese crimes. They don`t know this country`s very rich history. Nothing about Muromachi! They can`t speak Japanese. They could never survive here!"
Seems like he`s even upset with me. I`m one of them. I don`t speak Japanese. No Japanese wife. No interest in grueling Noh theater rituals. Kinda sad. I would`ve been happy to hear all about where his passions lie. Still and all, any head of any Japanese history department should know about the misnamed Mimizuka and those islands.
The bus arrives at the station. Another parting of strangers briefly brought into each other`s spheres. They will go to their somewhere, and I will go back to the J-Hoppers cheapo guest house a few blocks behind the station. One more full day in Japan, and then back to Korea.
With the help of some Korean and Japanese friends, I find out that the sign which excludes monolingual me is actually quite good, by Japanese standards. It says how Hideyoshi "tried to extend his power to the continent, and invaded the Korean peninsula," how his troops cut off the ears and noses of Korean soldiers "and people (even women) ... Hideyoshi was defeated ... by the tenacious resistance of Korean people. And Mimizuka/Hanazuka ... gives us an admonition of the suffering of Korean people in battle."
Though the Japanese government declared this site a "national cultural asset," thereby rejecting Korean attempts over the years to either have the Grave of Noses bulldozed or moved to Korea, Tokyo does not even provide the funds for upkeep of the grounds, so it is local folks who tend to it. Japanese people. The city of Kyoto commissioned the sign. The stupa on top of the hill has probably been there almost from the beginning, since there is a drawing of it on a 1643 map. My buddy Hide in Tokyo says the script engraved into it is unreadable -- something derived from India, and used long ago in Japan for Buddhist sutras. The dismal hill will remain in Kyoto.
During this visit, I have gone, as I always do when I am here in August, to one of the most calming and beautiful places in my world. It is a temple called Kodaiji in the low western hills -- the Higashiyama area, not so far from Hanazuka and the shrine to the tyrant who died in 1598. His wife, following tradition, became a nun after his death, and she had this temple made in his honor.
In the summertime for a few weeks, it is softly illuminated by electric lanterns. The gardens and wooden buildings are all serenity. A small pond embodies the trees that arch around and over it with a depth that makes it more than a reflection: It is as if the trees are down in the water. Like two worlds. A terrific illusion. I cannot reconcile the statue of the ugly dictator ensconced in a chapel here -- the evil of the man -- with this perfect stillness, this peace.
By Keith Fitzgerald
(jukjuk@heraldcorp.com)
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