There’s a saying about time: Always forward, never backward. In Japan, though, that isn’t quite true.
The Japanese people carry their past along with them in their daily lives. They perceive the world in cycles and seasons, in destruction and rebirth. They live alongside their ancestors, heroes, and legends. These experiences build up in layers over time, and this can make it very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the culture.
So you can imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the Aoba Castle museum in the northern city of Sendai, to find a group of samurai warriors, and the powerful 17th century feudal lord of the region, Date Masamune (Dah-tay Maw-sah-MOO-nay), awaiting our arrival. What kind of craziness was this? Somehow, though, my normal cynicism vanished, I smiled, and went along for the ride.
Lord Date Masamune and The Sendai Welcome Squad
Lord Date and his samurai wore elaborate sets of armor weighing over 40 pounds each. The Lord greeted us with forceful, guttural speech that was typical of a man of his stature. He was gracious enough to pose with us for some photos as he showed us around his castle grounds.
Of course, these weren’t real samurai, and this wasn’t the real Date Masamune — they were the “Sendai welcome squad” and acting troupe called Date Busho-tai. They were eager to welcome us to their city and tell us about their culture and history, from the Edo period in the 17th century to today.
Each samurai explained to us the symbolism of his armor, including the fanciful helmet designs. One helmet featured a centipede that represented the concept I mentioned earlier, “Always forward, never backward,” since a centipede, like time, moves in this way. The samurai themselves strived for this ideal to achieve their goals and conquer obstacles. Lord Date’s helmet bore the crescent moon, his personal insignia and a symbol recognized across Japan today thanks to anime and manga comics.
Our tour continued through the museum on the castle grounds. By now, I should also mention that the castle itself no longer stands on the strategic site atop Mount Aoba. Over the last four centuries, several catastrophes – from the unrest at the end of the Edo period, a massive fire in 1882, and the firebombing by the Allies in World War II – have destroyed the original structures. Only the stories and a few ruins remain.
Our main guide was dressed not as a feudal lord or a warrior, but as a commoner. “I’m a ninja”, he whispered, hoping to conceal his identity from the others. Likely, he was employed by a rival lord or possibly even the shogun himself, and tasked with gathering strategic information about the Sendai area. Obviously, we only knew he was a ninja because he wanted us to know. But as ninjas go, he was kind and courteous, even buying us both zundamochi on a stick, a typical local sweet made from green soybeans (edemame) and rice.
After watching a short film about the life of the real Date Masamune, our samurai friends made sure we followed the custom of letting the Lord leave the room first, walking ahead of the group. We followed the Lord Date out of the museum, and said our goodbyes to him and most of his warriors. But the ninja and one of the samurai stayed with us to guide us around Downtown Sendai.
Exploring Sendai with a Ninja and a Samurai
So there we were, walking through the Sendai Market with a ninja and samurai. And you could imagine how odd this scene must have looked to the locals shopping there. Obviously, I’m not talking about the ninja and the samurai, that part is perfectly normal in Sendai. I’m talking about the two wide-eyed Americans who still couldn’t believe what was happening to them.
We visited shop after shop, as our friends introduced us to the shopkeepers and the local Miyagi Prefecture food specialties.
After the market, we walked over to a covered downtown shopping center called the Ichibancho Arcade. In the midst of the modern shops, there was Mitakisan Fudoson, a Buddhist temple paying tribute to Sendai Shiro, where local people go to ask for good luck in business.
I made my wish, asking Sendai Shiro for good fortune in business — my small company needs all the luck we can get!
These were just more examples of the Japanese people honoring the past alongside the present. And of course, it follows the continuous cycle of renewal.
All along the coast of the Miyagi Prefecture, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused tremendous damage. Now, three years later, you need to look closely to see any remaining physical damage, and it is more difficult still to get a sense of the psychological damage caused by this tragic disaster. The rebuilding continues today, and will keep going for a long time to come. As our interpreter, Ms. Sato, put it, rebirth and renewal is “in the DNA of the Japanese people.” Natural disasters have taken their toll on these islands for over ten thousand years, and the people will overcome this disaster like they have all the disasters before. Understanding this history will bring you closer to the people of Japan when you visit.
Our last adventure of the day was a stop at Tamazawa Tea Lounge for a modern take on the traditional matcha tea service.
I can honestly say that one hasn’t lived until they’ve shared tea with a ninja and a samurai. Generally, this is the sort of statement that needs no proof, but I will offer some all the same. Remember how I mentioned that the samurai have specific speech and mannerisms? This extends even to the way they drink tea.
By Date Masamune’s time, the role of the samurai was of the cultured aristocrat wielding more political than military power. In addition to following chado (the “way of tea”), the samurai holds his cup differently from the commoner. This was one of many details so subtle that we never even would have noticed if Ms. Sato hadn’t pointed it out to us. It’s yet another example of the many levels at which it is possible for an outsider to understand Japanese culture. The deeper we were able to go, the more rewarding our experience became.
So if you visit Sendai, I highly recommend you spend as much time as possible accompanied by a ninja or a samurai, ideally both. Perhaps this is a bit more literal way of walking alongside Japan’s history than is typical, but I can guarantee it will help you experience life in Japan from a different perspective. And you can’t possibly have more fun, wherever you decide to walk.
See more photos of the Date Busho-tai welcome squad on their Facebook page.
Our trip to Japan was supported by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our walk with the Date Busho-tai troupe was arranged by the Miyagi Prefecture Tourism Division. Words and opinions are my own.