In the spring of 1645 a man lay dying in Kumamoto, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. He sensed that his time was near, asked for someone to help him into a seated position and tucked his short sword into his belt. This way he could greet death with dignity. The dying man was the celebrated swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
“I fought more than 60 times, but not once was I beaten,” writes Musashi in his treatise on martial strategy, “The Book of Five Rings,” written shortly before he died. He famously fought his first duel at age 13, in which he killed an older and more experienced opponent. However, his most illustrious duel was on a small island between Honshu and Kyushu in 1612 with Sasaki Kojiro, an accomplished swordsman known for using a sword so long, it was referred to as a laundry-drying pole. Musashi arrived late, flustering his opponent, and then defeated him with a wooden sword that some say he fashioned from an oar on the way to the island. He also participated in some of the important battles of the period including the Siege of Osaka (1614-15) and the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-38).
I was first introduced to Musashi when I was in elementary school through an adventure novel called “Sword of the Samurai.” Later, in junior high school, I found a couple of volumes of Eiji Yoshikawa’s fictionalized account of Musashi’s life and read them with fascination. Last summer I had the chance to visit Kumamoto, to see where Musashi spent his last years.
Hosokawa Tadatoshi, the lord of Kumamoto and an avid swordsman, invited Musashi to stay in his castle town as his guest. In return, Musashi instructed him in his style of swordsmanship — a style that is still practiced today in Kumamoto and known as Noda-ha Niten Ichi Ryu. As he neared the end of his life, Musashi spent more and more time meditating and writing, secluded in a cave in the mountains on the outskirts of the castle town. I decided to start by visiting this cave, located behind modern Kumamoto City.
I boarded an old bus at the central terminal and watched the city pass by out the window. After winding its way through the streets, the bus began to climb into the mountains. Kumamoto grew smaller as the bus climbed higher until it disappeared behind us completely as we entered the forested hills. Thirty minutes later, the driver announced that we had reached the stop for Reigando Cave.
I scanned my surroundings as I disembarked, searching for a convenience store or vending machine, but all I could see beside the road were dark-green hills, light-green rice fields and a few low buildings.
A sign beside the road informed me that my destination was another 1 km uphill. It was one of those scorching midsummer days known as mōshobi, when the temperature rises above 35 degrees Celsius and by the time I reached Unganji Temple, where the cave is located, my throat was parched and sweat was pouring down my face, but there were no vending machines or shops in sight.
I asked the attendant at the ticket office if there was anywhere I could get a drink. He pointed toward the temple hall. I looked closer and saw water flowing out of a lantern-shaped stone in front of the temple. I took a sip; the fresh mountain water was delicious.
The path leading to the cave skirted the rocky face of a hill that was dotted with Buddhist stone statues known as rakan. According to tradition, if you inspect the faces of the rakan, you are bound to find one that resembles someone you know.
Rounding a final bend I came face-to-face with the gaping mouth of the cave. I looked up and tried to make out the faint Chinese characters for Reigando carved into the stone above the entrance. Wide and shallow, the cave was nothing like I had imagined it as a young boy. As I stepped onto the wooden platform that had been built above the original rocky floor, my footsteps made a hollow sound reminding me of a kendo practice hall. A large stone, which I imagined Musashi had sat on while meditating, rested in the center of the cave.
I sat quietly on a bench located inside the cave and tried to tap into the energy that had made this a site of pilgrimage even before Musashi’s time. But not being as disciplined as the master, I couldn’t help but become distracted by my thoughts of missing the infrequent bus back to town.
I arrived at the bus stop still thirsty and with about 20 minutes to spare before the bus was due. I spotted a small fire station and, wondering if there might be a drink machine inside, knocked on the door. There was no vending machine, but two men invited me in and offered me chilled pears and a bottle of ice-cold water.
With a few of hours of sunlight remaining, I left to visit Kumamoto Castle. A major battle took place at the castle during the Satsuma Rebellion (1877), when the disgruntled samurai revolted against the new Imperial government. The rebels hoped to capture it quickly, but it soon turned into an unsuccessful siege. Mysteriously, an unexplained fire broke out in the castle a number of days before hostilities began, which burned down the main keep and many other structures. It was this castle that Musashi must have frequently gazed upon from his nearby residence, which stood where the NHK Kumamoto Broadcast Office now stands. Nothing remains of Musashi’s residence except a small well he was said to have used.
The next morning I headed to the Shimada Art Museum to see a different side of Musashi. The small private museum is on the grounds of the old residence of Shimada Matomi, who was a collector of Japanese art and a researcher of Kumamoto’s samurai culture.
Inside the museum is a famous ink painting of a kingfisher perched on the branch of a withered tree. Musashi drew the branch with a long and powerful stroke — evidence that, in addition to the warrior arts he is most famous for, he was also skilled in the more peaceful arts such as painting, calligraphy, sculpture, writing and even garden design. The museum houses a collection of calligraphy, paintings and other artwork attributed to the master swordsman.
There was one more place I wanted to visit before leaving Kumamoto: Musashi’s tomb. I walked by a busy road some distance from the center of town before passing through the small unimposing gate marking the entrance to the little park inside which Musashi’s dark gravestone stands in the shade of some trees.
On the day of his funeral, Musashi was dressed in a full suit of armor and a procession carried him to the burial site. Near Taishoji Temple the procession stopped and, as the priest Shunzan was chanting some prayers, it is said that there was a sudden and mighty clap of thunder. At the grave site, by the old road leading out of town, Musashi was buried in an upright position from where — according to his wishes — he could forever watch over the line of Hosokawa lords traveling up to Edo (modern-day Tokyo).
I stood silently in front of Musashi’s grave and, for a brief moment, felt that the great chasm of time separating us had dissipated.
However, the swish of the lone caretaker sweeping nearby — almost like the sound of a steel blade, slicing through thick, humid air — quickly brought me back to the present.
Getting there: Flights leave daily for Kumamoto Airport from Tokyo and Osaka. Reigando Cave is 30-minute bus ride from the city of Kumamoto.