Luck, trickery and treasure in Koka City

by Perrin Lindelauf

What do underground treasure troves, ninja lairs and drunken raccoon dogs have in common? Shiga Prefecture’s Koka City, that’s what.

Beneath the deceptive veneer of an unassuming rural setting lies a wealth of history: an ancient capital, crafts of deception, mythical tricksters and relics of distant ages. And it’s all within an hour of Kyoto.

Koka City is a combination of several rural areas molded into a single municipality, but it is its village of Shigaraki that first earned fame for the region. Tucked into a quiet valley, Shigaraki was once the capital of Japan, albeit for only four years. Emperor Shomu established his palace there in 724, but then had to abandon it following an earthquake and a forest fire. Until the first permanent capital, in Kyoto, was founded in 794, it had been the practice to move the capital with each new Emperor, to escape the taint of death of the previous ruler, but in this case the capital was destroyed first, eventually coming to be known as “The Palace of Illusion” because it vanished so rapidly.

The locals, however, were busy at a craft that would outstrip the fame of their short-lived palace and become synonymous with rustic beauty: Shigaraki pottery.

Of the six ancient pottery centers in Japan, Shigaraki is the oldest, its craft stretching back 1,200 years. But it wasn’t until the tea ceremony began to be developed in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568) that interest in the simple, rustically asymmetrical wares of the region skyrocketed. The pottery is still often made without a wheel, giving it a very rough-hewn cast, and the light-brown clay contains many small stones that melt into white spots when fired in the kiln. The ash from the pinewood fires glazes the tops of Shigaraki-ware dishes with a irregular green-white coat, and although Shigaraki now produces a variety of glazes and colors, it is these traditional styles that continue to command the highest prices.

But why spend so much when a ¥100 dish can serve the same purpose?

“There’s not much difference — a cup is a cup,” said phlegmatic local potter Shinsuke Takaiwa, “so it’s a matter of personal preference.”

“We do feel, though,” added his wife, Asako, “that Shigaraki-ware is warm and a pleasure to use.”

Shops and active kilns line the main street in Shigaraki, so visitors can try their hand at a potter’s wheel. My teacher, Naotoshi Tanii, gave this advice: “At first, just play around. Your mistakes are the foundation for mastery!”

More than pots and vases, however, Shigaraki is famous for lucky ceramic statues of tanuki, the raccoon dogs of Japanese folk-tale notoriety. While the real tanuki, a distant relative of the dog, is a pest to farmers, the legendary tanuki causes much more mischief. He can transform himself into both a beautiful woman and an old hag, disguise leaves as money to buy rice wine for boozing, and stretch his pendulous scrotum into a drum, a parachute or an umbrella.

Everything about his whimsical image symbolizes some virtue we should all adopt: his hat — preparation against bad weather and bad luck; the toothy smile — graciousness; the big eyes — caution and wariness; the huge stomach — for “gut” decisions; the promissory note — the importance of trust; the stout tail — determination; the sake bottle — the virtue of holding your liquor; and lastly, the massive testicles, or kinbukuro, “money bags” in Japanese slang — a reminder not to be stingy.

It isn’t only the tanuki of Koka City that is a master of trickery, as the area is renowned for being one of Japan’s two great ninja strongholds of yesteryear. The two training centers, Mie Prefecture’s Iga and Shiga Prefecture’s Koka (also known as Koga), were vital to espionage and assassination before and during the Warring States Period leading up to Japan’s unification in 1603.

Nowadays, all that remains (visible anyway; who knows with these crafty assassins) of the Koga ninja are two tourist sites; the Ninja Estate and the Ninja Village. The former at first glance looks more like a wealthy farmhouse, but as its white-haired guide, Minoru Fukui, took me around, the building revealed its secrets.

“The way of the ninja is a world of lies,” he explained, pointing out a secret revolving door, under which a trap floor would open to a 5-meter fall into a well. “In the peaceful times after the Warring States Period, there wasn’t any need for ninja, so their techniques were used to protect families.”

Indeed, much of Ninja Estate’s trickery is in enabling its denizens to escape or hide quickly. A rope ladder dangles out of sight up to the attic, and between the main floor and the attic is a secret floor for hiding weapons, medicine and people. One window slides open normally, but another swings open for a quick escape, while in another room a sliding door is immensely heavy, intended to be a barricade.

Best are the displayed tools of the ninja trade: throwing stars, rope ladders, clawed gloves, concealed guns — and even sandals that convert to flippers to aid wading through deep water.

The Ninja Village is more amusement park than museum, offering “ninja training” including climbing walls and tossing blunt throwing stars — but a small Edo Period (1603-1867) building preserves many architectural tricks. One room has a ceiling suspended by a single rope so that it can be dropped on intruders, and another has a low ceiling with small slots for attacking from above. Even the hearth can be slid away to reveal a hidden passageway beneath the floor. These relics of a sneakier past are fascinating for ninja aficionados, but others may find the sparse history of the secretive practitioners a bit of a letdown. For some very substantive history then, head to the Miho Museum.

Mihoko Koyama (1910-2003), one of Japan’s wealthiest heiresses and founder of the new-age sect Shumei in 1970, commissioned architect I.M. Pei — famed for his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and the glass-pyramid entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris — to build a museum to house her family’s collection. At his request, the collection was expanded to include international treasures, resulting in a top-class private collection.

The museum lies high in the forested hills behind Shigaraki, cut off from the world. Visitors approach through a smooth, steely tunnel that bursts through a mountaintop out onto a bridge over a deep gorge. Across the bridge lies a small glass-roofed building, the figurative tip of the iceberg, as most of the Miho Museum lies underground, beneath this second peak. This is no dark subterranea, though, as windows on the western slope let light spill over the warm marble floors, and skylights are positioned to highlight the carefully selected pieces.

The antiquities on display there are drawn from the world over, though the principle artifact, an exquisite second-century stone Buddha from Pakistan (the largest of its kind in the world), is well worth the admission alone. Also astonishing are three-millennia-old Persian goblets and equally old statues of an Egyptian god and queen. However, please note that the museum will be closed until March 14, when it will reopen with its new exhibit, “Eurasian Winds Toward Silla”, featuring treasures from Korea’s 7th-century capital, present-day Gyeongju.

From Shiga’s Ishiyama Station, Teisan Buses (www.teisan-konan-kotsu.co.jp/index.htm) go to the Miho Museum (¥800; 50 min.) and Shigaraki (¥1,050; 67 min.). Alternatively, trains run hourly from Kibukawa Station on the Kusatsu Line to Shigaraki village. One of the many pottery-class options is at Marutaka Touki ([0748] 83-0026; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.), where ¥1,500 buys 1 1/2 kg of clay and ¥3,500 gets you 3 kg and use of a potter’s wheel. It’s at the third intersection to the right of Shigaraki Station on Route 307. Miho Museum’s (10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tues.-Sun.; ¥1,000; miho.jp) Silla exhibit runs until June 7. The Koka Ninja Estate ([0748] 86-2179; 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; ¥600; www.kouka-ninjya.com) is a 25-min. walk from JR Konan Station: Head southwest and then cross the bridge on the left. Walk straight, pass a Shell station and then look for the signs. The Ninja Village ([0748] 88-5000; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; ¥1,000) offers free bus pickup from JR Koka Station, but call ahead.