Life In Kyoto English Version February, 2005
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Kurama and the Legend of Yoshitsune

NHK's 2005 Taiga Drama (a historical drama broadcast over the span of a year) is "Yoshitsune", the story of Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189), Japan's great Samurai hero from the late Heian era (794-1192). Like 2004's Taiga Drama "Shinsengumi", Yoshitsune is set in Kyoto, in the mountain village of Kurama. This drama stars the actor Takizawa Hideaki in the title role and is broadcast every Sunday evening at 8pm on NHK.

Kuramadera Temple

Kuramadera Temple

Kurama is a hilly area located 30 minutes North of Kyoto City by train. Kurama is a sacred natural area featuring forests of pines, cedars, cypress, and other trees. The area is famous for the annual Fire Torch Festival (Himatsuri) which occurs on Oct. 22nd. Kuramadera temple, the place where Yoshitsune was raised, was founded in 770 below the peak of 569 meter tall Kuramayama mountain. The temple formerly belonged to the Tendai Sect of Buddhism but was established as the independent sect of "Kurama Kyo" Buddhism in 1949. The temple is currently headed by the renowned Kansu (Head Priestess) Konin Shigaraki. Yoshitsune lived at Kuramadera from ages seven to sixteen, mastering the art of warfare.

Let's take a moment to examine the historical circumstances that brought Yoshitsune to Kuramadera.

There were two primary "Bushidan" warrior groups in 12th century Japan: the Taira (Heishi) clan and Minamoto (Genji) clan, whose origins derive from the Kanmu and Seiwa Emperors respectively. During the Hogen Disturbance of 1156, Yoshitsune's father Minamoto no Yoshitomo allied with the Taira clan to defeat the adversarial powers led by Minamoto no Tameyoshi. Four years later, Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Taira no Kiyomori came to blows during the Heiji disturbance. Minamoto no Yoshitomo was killed and Minamoto influence was completely swept away. Taira no Kiyomori's victory enabled the Taira Clan to rise to power by the force of its military strength. Yoshitomo's four sons were captured but permitted to live. Kiyomori exiled the eldest son to Izu (Shizuoka prefecture) and the remaining sons were sent to Buddhist temples to serve as priests. Yoshitsune was a baby at the time and was permitted to live with his mother until the age of seven, when he was sent to Kuramadera to serve as a Buddhist priest for the rest of his life.

Tree roots on Kurama Mountain

Tree roots on Kurama Mountain

Over the course of the ten years he spent at Kuramadera, Yoshitsune is said to have met a winged, long-nosed Tengu goblin who was the mountain's guardian. Yoshitsune trained to be a great warrior under the guidance of this strange, mysterious martial arts master. Whenever he met spiritual or physical hardships during his training, Yoshitsune strengthened his resolve to become a great samurai in order to re-establish the Minamoto Clan.

While Yoshitsune trained at Kuramayama, Taira no Kiyomori (1118-81) rose to prominence within the imperial court. His grandson even became the emperor of Japan. However, Yoshitsune was able to completely destroy the Taira clan through a series of three battles. The Ichinotani Battle (1184), took place in Settsu near modern Kobe in 1184. In this battle, Taira no Munemori was the commander of the Taira clan after the death of his father Taira no Kiyomori in 1181. The second battle was the Yashima Battle in Shikoku in March 1185. Yoshitsune launched a sudden, successful attack against the Taira clan's fortress and sent the family fleeing to the area west of the Setonaikai inland sea. The Taira clan was finally defeated on April 25th 1185, at the naval battle at Dannoura in the Eastern part of Shimonoseki City in Yamaguchi. It took only half a day for Yoshitsune to corner the Taira's huge naval fleet and finally slay Taira commander Taira no Tomomori. All major Taira figures were either captured or killed at this final battle which caused the ultimate downfall of the Taira clan.

Yoshitsune returned to Kyoto as a victorious hero and gained the patronage of the former emperor Go Shirakawa. However his enormous popularity aroused the suspicions and jealousy of his half brother Minamoto no Yoritomo. At that time, Yoritomo was the supreme commander of the Minamoto clan. His political ambition was to start his own government in Kamakura, and in 1192 he was granted the title of Shogun and successfully established Japan's first bafuku (shogunate) warrior government.

Yoshitsune was forced by his patron to join in rebellion against Yoritomo that ended in failure, and Yoshitsune and his kinsmen were forced to find shelter in Northern Oshu (now Tohoku). They eventually found shelter in Hiraizumi (Iwate Prefecture) under the protection of Fujiwara Hidehira, but following Hidehira's death, Yoshitsune was compelled to suicide by Hidehira's son Yasuhira, who feared that Yoritomo might attack. However, some legends say that Yoshitsune moved on to Hokkaido or Mongolia. The legend of Yoshitsune has become the subject of many books, Noh and Kabuki plays, and now a television drama.

You can learn more about the legend of Yoshitsune by visiting the Kurama and Kibune area, which remain as a relaxing and inspiring natural retreat from modern life. You can catch the Eizan Train from Demachiyanagi station to either Kibune or Kurama station, which takes about 30 minutes.

Kurama is a popular destination for hikers, since the natural area is very beautiful and relaxing (ancient exposed tree roots are an attraction of the area). You can also pay a visit to Kuramadera temple or Kibune Jinja Shrine, and relax in the natural hot springs of Kurama Onsen. The mountainous area is very relatively cool in the summertime and visitors enjoy sitting on a platform above a river and eating nagashi somen, noodles that flow down bamboo pipes to your table.


-Bianca Jarvis and Saburo Narita



Kyogen Master Shigeyama Shime and
Hybl Ondrej

Kyogen Master Shigeyama Shime and Hybl Ondrej

Hybl Ondrej was born in the Czech Republic in 1977. He is currently studying the traditional Japanese Performing Art Kyogen in Kyoto as a disciple of Kyogen Master Shigeyama Shime.

Hybl OndrejHybl Ondrej
Shigeyama ShimeShigeyama Shime

Interviewer Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

Hybl Ondrej My name is Hybl Ondrej. I was born in the Czech Republic, and studied Medieval Japanese literature there before coming Doshisha University in Kyoto as an exchange student in 2002 . I recently finished my Master's thesis and I am considering what to do next.

Interviewer What sparked your interest in Kyogen?

Hybl Ondrej When I was sixteen I read the Kyogen scenario "Honekawa" that had been translated into Czech. Even though it was a classical work, I found it very interesting. The theatre director who had translated the work into Czech, asked if we could try performing the scenario in the Czech style. I had seen some books and videos about Japanese traditionaltheatre at the Japanese Embassy, but I had never actually seen it performed. We tried arranging it in a way that seemed suitable to us, and performed this version alongside a Japan photo exhibition at the cultural center in my town.

Interviewer So you developed your interest in this way?

Hybl Ondrej I didn't realize how unusual Kyogen was at the time, but my performance was well received. I later learned that Kyoto and Prague have a sister city relationship. I met Shigeyama Sensei for the first time when he came to perform in the Czech Republic in 1998.

Shigeyama Shime Ondrej served as my assistant interpreter then.

Hybl Ondrej There were two days of performances, and I interpreted during the breaks as well as helping backstage. I got to know the performers in this way.

Shigeyama Shime I had no idea that he was researching Kyogen, so I found this out this through talking to him.

Hybl Ondrej In 2000, Shigeyama Sensei was kind enough to return for ten days in order to present a Kyogen workshop.

Hybl Ondrej I performed the Kyogen play "Kakiyamabushi" that I learned at the workshop in the Czech language, and after gaining this experience, I came to Japan.

Interviewer How do you practice performing Kyogen?

Shigeyama Shime When rehearsing for a typical Western play, you receive the script ahead of time to study. With Kyogen, you memorized the lines by repeating them like a parrot. The interaction between teacher and student is like playing catch with words.

Interviewer No script is used?

Shigeyama Shime There is a script, but we don't look at it until afterwards. When you begin rehearsing, no script is used. After you've become familiar with the words to some extent, you practice the movements that accompany the words.

Hybl Ondrej In the beginning we recorded the rehearsals on videotape, and imitated the teacher's words and movements. The students cannot quickly imitate the rhythm or timing but are able to learn gradually . On the other hand, in Europe you are given a script to memorize, and you must figure out the mannerisms yourself. There is pressure to come up with an original interpretation of the character. You begin with a situation where factors like timing and movement are undecided, and perform after three months of rehearsals. I do not think you can truly express the subtleties of the character's emotions with this acting style.

Interviewer Is this true of classical European acting as well?

Hybl Ondrej Unlike Kyogen, performance techniques have not been passed down through the generations in European theatre.

Interviewer What about Shakespeare?

Hybl Ondrej It's not the same. No matter how much they try to recreate the original performances, there's a long gap of time in which the plays were not performed, and therefore it cannot be reenacted the exact same way.

Shigeyama ShimeWith a few exceptions, there is almost no difference in the way Noh was performed 300 years ago and now. Of course there are small improvements fromgeneration to generation based on the fundamentals, as well as the influence of ones' individual personality and ideas.

Hybl Ondrej performing Kyogen

Hybl Ondrej performing Kyogen

Interviewer What piece are you currently working on?

Hybl Ondrej I am currently rehearsing a Kyogen piece called "Shimizu", the story of the lazy servant Tarokaja and his master. I play the role of Tarokaja. Tarokaja is told to fetch water for his Master's tea ceremony. Tarokaja shirks his duty by telling his master that he was attacked by a demon before he could fetch the water. The master goes to fetch the precious water container that Tarokaja left behind, and Tarokaja attacks him while wearing a demon mask. The master is frightened at first, but sees through the disguise when he recognizes Tarakaja's voice. Even if the audience knows nothing about Japan, you can easily perform the same story in any language. The story of the master and the lazy servant who wants to neglect his duty is caught in the act is a universal theme.

Interviewer Generally speaking, how long does a novice need to practice before they can perform?

Shigeyama Shime Maybe a year for a simple piece.

Interviewer Do you have a favorite place to go in Kyoto?

Hybl Ondrej Outside of the Kyogen practice space, I like Kiyomizudera and Daimonji Mountain. When I feel lonely or anxious, I like to climb up Daimonji mountain at night, and from that dark place I can see the lights of the world below.

Interviewer What are your dreams for the future?

Hybl Ondrej I would like to continue to improve upon the things I have learned in College, increase my level of skill and gain more experience performing Kyogen for a while. Of course, I would like to perform Kyogen in the Czech Republic, as closely to the Japanese style as possible. I'd like to spread knowledge about Kyogen to the public by translating scenarios into Czech, and producing a book. Moreover, I would like to create more opportunities for Kyogen Masters to perform all over Europe. I'd like to make Kyogen more accessible and easy to understand for people in other countries. Unlike Noh, Kyogen scenarios have changed a bit since the Edo period, and these changes have made the brilliance of Kyogen easier to understand for the contemporary audience. I think people abroad will be able to understand these plays. If we can skillfully make these pieces interesting and easy to understand for modern people, we can create a Kyogen performance that has a very authentic feeling. The most important thing is that the heart of the piece remains interesting to viewers.

-Interview by Yuko Sugiyama, translation by Bianca Jarvis


Note:This list is by no means exhaustive. Information is subject to change without warning.

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