Izuhara Castle Town
on Tsushima - Exploring Kyushu’s Medieval Past
Today, I went back in time. Not literally, but I spent my day in the historic castle town of Izuhara. To get there, you must take a 2 hour and 15-minute jetfoil boat ride from Hakata Port in Fukuoka to Tsushima, an island of Nagasaki. Last year on July 17, 2020 an open-world samurai epic PlayStation 4 video game called “Ghost of Tsushima” was released, in which a fictional samurai character, Jin Sakai, is tasked with protecting the island from a Mongol invasion. This popular game uses Tsushima as its setting, with many locations featured in historical context.
Tsushima lies in between Kyushu and Korea on the Tsushima Channel. As I gazed out the window of the speeding boat, I can imagine the ancient envoys and traders from Tsushima who traveled on these very waters as they brought cultural elements that would shape Japan’s formation as a country. The introduction of metal tools, kanji syllabary, and Buddhism came from such countries as China and Korea via Tsushima.
After arriving at Izuhara Port, I crossed a bridge that connected me to the main part of town, where I came to Nakayarai Wharf. This wharf was created during the Edo Period (1600 – 1868). If you look closely, you can see just below street level the stone walls commonly used during the Edo era in Tsushima which were used as reinforcements. They were also used as firewalls because there were many fires in those days.
Of course, Tsushima is moving with the times, one sign of the present being Tsushima Burger Kiyo where I stopped for lunch. The burgers looked delicious and I appreciated that the restaurant had stringent safety measures against COVID-19 including enforcing social distancing in the dining area and alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Tsushima is a remote island surrounded by the ocean, so it comes as no surprise that it is a treasure trove for seafood lovers. The owner of Tsushima Burger Kiyo takes advantage of Tsushima's fresh squid by creating a very popular local dish called the Tsushima Burger. The burger is a fusion of a meat patty, hijiki seaweed, and grilled squid. Don't be surprised that the staff provides you with a fork and knife because the hamburger is huge, yet it is reasonably priced at 600 yen. As I put the first morsel into my mouth, I was surprised at how the taste and texture of the squid go very well with the beef, teriyaki sauce, and mayonnaise. The locals say that the taste of Tsushima food varies from day to day, but the Tsushima burger is always delicious. The restaurant has a large dining area in the back that is both stylish and comfortable. In addition, the warm and friendly staff helped make the first leg of my journey to Izuhara a memorable one.
The relationship between Japan and Korea from the 17th to the 19th century was one of peacebuilding and cultural exchange. The Korean envoys were diplomatic missions sent by the Joseon Dynasty to Japan during the Edo period. Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea aggravated the relationship between the two countries, but diplomatic relations were later restored after persistent negotiations by the Tsushima clan under the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Korean envoys visited Tsushima 12 times between 1607 and 1811, and deepened exchanges in various fields such as academics, arts, industry, and culture. The delegations sent were not a small number by any means. The 300 to 500 people in each delegation included those from various occupations, such as Confucian scholars, doctors, and painters. As you walk along Kawabata Avenue, you will see murals and stained glass depicting this relationship. In Europe, the stunning stained glass windows dating centuries back keep onlookers in awe inside churches, while in Tsushima, these pieces of art are a part of your outdoor experience in Izuhara viewing Tsushima’s past.
After appreciating the beauty of the stained glass art, I took a leisurely stroll to Banshoin Temple, also known as The House of Ten Thousand Pines. Banshoin Temple was a family temple belonging to the Soh clan, the feudal rulers of Tsushima. In 1615, Soh Yoshinari built the temple in order to pray for his father’s happiness in the next world. The first thing you will see as you approach the entrance is a vermillion-colored wooden gate. This gate is the only remaining original structure, spared from the fire in the 1870s that burned down the temple, and is considered one of the oldest buildings in Tsushima.
I made my way to the main temple and after spraying my hands with sanitizer provided at the entrance, I entered to view several important historical artifacts called the mitsugusoku. These were a set of three Buddhist altar fittings (a vase, incense burner, and candlestick). In a Buddhist memorial service, it is an important custom to burn incense for the deceased. On the occasion of the death of a Tsushima clan lord, the Korean Joseon Dynasty ruler presented this set as a gift and as a sign of the good relationship between the two countries.
There is also a memorial tablet here of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the presence of which suggests the importance Banshoin Temple had to the Shogun.
To the right of Banshoin Temple, I stood at the bottom of the Hyaku Gangi, an ancient stone staircase. Each of the 132 stairs leading upward is flanked by stone lanterns. As I made my way up the steps, I felt as if I were entering another world. The Soh family’s mausoleum and graveyard are located at the top of the steps, so perhaps the intent of the builder of the stone steps was to convey a sense of leaving one’s earthly abode and ascending into a heavenly realm. The cemetery itself is impressive enough to be recognized as one of the “three great cemeteries” in Japan and a national historic site.
Due to its geography as a border island of Japan, Tsushima has a long military history for those who appreciate it. It began in the 13th century, when the island was invaded twice by the Mongols. The powerful Soh clan controlled the island from the 13th century through the end of the Edo era in 1868 and maintained a formidable samurai army. The remains of Tsushima’s military past surround you as you stroll through the city. Many examples of stone architecture built to withstand the rigors of battle remain in Tsushima, particularly Izuhara Castle Town, reminders of its warrior history.
My next stop was the Kaneishi Castle Garden which I arrived at by passing through the Kaneishi Castle Gate. The castle was first constructed as a fortified residence of the Soh clan but in 1669, the third feudal lord of the Tsushima clan, Yoshizane Soh, expanded and improved the site’s stone structure, adding defensive turrets and making it a true castle. Eventually, newer and more defensible castles were built on Tsushima, but Kaneishi Castle continued to be occupied by the family as a residence.
The Kaneishi Castle Garden is located just north of the castle gate. The garden was built in the 1690s inside the castle grounds and is the only remaining structure inside the castle area. The garden, with a heart-shaped pond in the center, was likely designed as a place to entertain the Korean envoys who frequently visited the Soh lord. A stroll around a beautiful garden admiring nature was a pleasant and effective way for the clan to forge a lasting friendship with Korea, whom they relied on for trade and diplomatic relations.
The bottom of the pond was paved using a method called hanchiku, in which different types of clay were alternately layered to prevent water leakage. Also, white soil made from a type of quartzite rock unique to Tsushima was used. The garden was designated as a national scenic spot and has been open to the public since May 2008.
Admiring the garden was the perfect way to end my tour of the castle town of Izuhara. As I looked at the serene garden and its heart-shaped pond, my own heart was full with the experience of having visited this medieval Japanese castle town.
Note: This blog post was written during a time when preventive measures for COVID-19 were being undertaken. These measures are expected to be relaxed going forward.