Shogun, Samurai, Ninjas and Geisha

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Asia » Japan » Ishikawa » Kanazawa
April 10th 2018
Published: April 12th 2018
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The characters of Japan’s colourful history are larger than life, heros and villains, builders and destroyers, hard working people along with the elite and military classes. Understanding just a little has added a lot of richness to the sights we’ve seen.

A shogun was the military dictator in Japan from about 1185 onward - akin to a generalissimo. The last 250 years of the shoguns time in power began in 1600 when a general named Tokugawa seized power and established his government in Edo (now Tokyo)....thus began the Edo Period, which seems to be a superstar period as least as far as the towns and historical sights we’ve visited so far. Or perhaps its just the period recent enough to have some artifacts and buildings left standing.

The Edo Period had the hallmarks of economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies (no more Buddhist influences from China, if you please), a no-more-wars policy and an enjoyment of arts and culture. All of these factors seem to pop out in the various buildings and historical points we’ve visited.

Class was a big deal and is reflected in the architecture and stories. Beneath the shogun, the class structure had the daimyo (lords) at the top (presiding over one of 300 regional areas), followed by the samurai (warriors), with the farmers, artisans and traders ranking below. Merchants were an awkward outlier.

Tokugawa and his hiers ran the shogunate “oppressively but peacefully“ until internal strife and the world outside came knocking in the late 1800s, forcing an end to shogunates and their isolationist ways.


In Kanazawa, one of those 300 diamyos had this area as his seat of power. He built an incredible castle, with moats, towers, gates, storehouses...all of which burnt down a few times over the centuries. The keep was lost in 1602 and never rebuilt. The only remaining buildings on these 30 hectares are one storehouse and the intimidating gate, facing the Kenrokuen Gardens.

Those darn fires continue to be blamed for the loss of enormous numbers of historical buildings, all throughout Japan’s history. One article calls them “conflagrations” and I had to look it up to see that indeed they are firestorms. It seems that the majority of Japan’s historical buildings have fallen to flame, many , many times.

The gardens themselves are a breathtaking array of greens. The landscaping started in 1676 and I bet its never stopped. The blossoms here are waning, petals are in the air and collecting on the ground. One type of cherry tree here produces blossoms that have more than 300 petals, like a chrysanthemum. Gardners are meticulously raking the fallen foliage as we pass...and a few are sweeping (with little hand whisk types of brushes) the ground moss to leave it unblemished from the tress above. There are no annuals or fussy elements - but a collection of trees, water, grasses with walkways and bridges that create a tranquil yet interesting place. The garden’s name derives from a Japanese gardening book of the time, referring to the Six Attributes of a perfect garden: Spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses and panoramas. Perfection.

The waterways include ponds and streams, and the oldest fountain in Japan which works by natural pressure coming from the difference in levels between two ponds.

There are two trees that were planted from seed by a 13th Lord of Nariyasu. The trees today are treated like most revered elders. The tree-sized stumps have been placed and roped into place to brace branches the end done so neatly that they add to the tree’s impact.

The castle gates have been rebuilt. In through the outer gate, you need to immediately turn 90 degress to get into the next one - a natural defense that would serve to contain any foes that breached the outer walls.


Its interesting to me that the successes of the shogun period also introduced the weaknesses that would destroy it eventually. From the outset, the Tokugawa attempted to restrict accumulation of wealth and tried to foster the farmer as the “ideal person” in society - in fact, they are credited with creating a middle class in Japan. Standards of living grew during this period for all and by some estimate 80% of Edo city residents were literate.

The merchant class was heavily restricted and the shogunate review them as unproductive and usurious members of society. This created a subtle subversion of the class system when the samurai class depended greatly on the merchants and artisans for goods, loans and artistic interests. Who had power over whom?

We visited two original merchant houses in Takayama - merchants were only allowed to have single story homes and businesses so they wouldn’t be able to look down on the samurai. Yet inside, both these homes had high vaulted ceilings with beams and pillars made of Japanese cypress...and a partial second story that did indeed look down on the street and samurai below.

When I asked why so much space was left open and seemingly unused above, the dosent pulled out her cell phone, typed in her answer and showed me the English version. Beauty was her first response. Then another translation later, geometry. Right on both scores.

Each of these houses had nothing to differentiate room use, at least to our uninitiated eyes. The front rooms had dirt floors and were the places of business. The slightly raised wood floors led to other rooms further back from the street and were private family spaces, with little gardens tucked within. The room with the open fire pit was obviously the cooking and eating gathering place. And another room had a shrine (one was on wheels that allowed it to be the only thing saved during one of the fires). The majority had reed mats in every room.

The polished surfaces are credited to members of the household who polished the woodwork countless times with dry cloths. The impression of a lacquer finishing the wood is the result.


Ninjas are spies....or are they assassins? Whatever their covert role, evidence of them has been sparse so far. We’re keeping an eye out.


A couple of the towns we’ve visited have had Geisha Districts - no historical buildings associated, but Kyoto has an active community. We continue to explore.


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