The Cultural Legacy of Tamba-Sasayama
Even though it is located within easy access from Kyoto, Osaka or Kobe, the Tamba-Sasayama area in the bucolic countryside of central Hyogo Prefecture remains largely unknown to most visitors despite its many attractions. Blessed with high-quality rice and pure water, it is famous for superb saké, as well as a rich history and culture one would expect to find in its castle town that was a major centre for regional daimyo war-lords throughout the Edo Period (1603-1868). Nearby is the site of the Tamba kilns (one of the celebrated Six Ancient Kilns along with Echizen, Shigaraki, Bizen, Seto and Tokoname), that has been producing ceramics since at least the 12th century – a tradition still continuing today. Designated as a National Heritage Site in Japan, the area is well-preserved yet free of the interference one associates with so many cultural sites around the world doomed to mismanagement by more well-known international organisations. As such, the area still remains a delightful place to visit for a day or two and well worth including in the visitor’s itinerary.
Central as the power-base for the area throughout the Edo period is Sasayama Castle, remarkably built within just six months in 1609, on a natural hill by Takatora Todo, the famous daimyo warlord and master castle-builder, in order to strengthen the political aims of the shogun and power-broker, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Unlike most castles in Japan, it was constructed without an inner keep, yet it is fully fortified with stone walls and two moats and could be easily defended. The main building known as the Oshoin – a luxurious residence for the incumbent warlord – survived until it was destroyed in a WWII air-raid. Most of the other original castle buildings were demolished during the late-19th century after the feudal system had been replaced with a modern Western-style parliamentary system of government, however the Oshoin was rebuilt in 2000 and now provides an insight for us today into the lifestyle of a warlord.
Throughout most of the castle’s history Japan was unified in peace allowing élite culture to flourish under daimyo patronage – and gradually in time to filter down the rather proscribed Edo class system. Pre-eminent were Tea Ceremony and Noh drama, both unique to Japan and much influenced by Zen and its focus on meditation, intuition, and the editing-out of all that is extraneous. These virtues, along with rigorous ascetic practices and discipline resonated with the mushin ideals, (simply: strike, do not think) of samurai warriors, led to a widespread acceptance and following of Zen and its later profound influence on almost all aspects of Japanese culture from painting to cookery.
The Noh drama evolved out of ancient song-dances traditionally performed at Shinto shrines that were transformed and codified into more-or-less their present form by Kan’ami Kiyotsuya (1333-1384), and even more so by his famous son Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443). Zeami caught the eye and patronage of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), and in addition to composing a large number of Noh plays, also wrote a text explaining the aesthetic principles, stage layout and performance that became the standard classic for subsequent performers.
The drama is performed on a raised wooden stage constructed of bare cypress wood, slightly over six metres square, covered with a roof similar to those found on shrines. Behind is a wooden wall painted with a large pine (and sometimes bamboo), and to the left side, a covered walkway leading to the dressing room from which the performers emerge. Traditionally, large stoneware pots are half-buried in the earth under the stage to reverberate the sound of foot-stamping during a dance. All performers are men and also consist of musicians playing flutes and drums at the rear of the stage, a chorus of chanters on the right-hand side providing a recitative of the story, and one or two actors who move around the stage. The leading protagonist is known as the shite and is supported by one or more attendants to adjust his costume and attend to stage props, while his deuteragonist, known as the waki, holds the other side in the play’s dialogue. In most Noh plays, the shite will wear a mask to indicate the persona of the actor’s role – those of a young beautiful princess, the ghost of a fallen warrior, or a terrifying demon being particularly expressive – together with a glorious costume for the last part of a play when the climax is emphasised with a stylised dance. As he approaches the stage with barely perceptible footsteps the actor’s appearance seems magical and almost unbelievable, like a moving sculpture gliding over the floorboards and slowly coming to life.
Such dry description can convey but little of the otherworldly atmosphere of a Noh performance, especially when seen by firelight at a country shrine where ancient stages can still be found. The drama is best appreciated subjectively and intuitively, as keeping up with the libretto and its layered depths of meaning would presume an intimate familiarity with, and understanding of, Chinese and Japanese religion and mythology. Such knowledge was once a standard part of a well-born warrior’s classical education, but is lost to almost all but the dedicated scholar today.
A complete literal understanding is hindered further by the use of certain words having double – often equally profound – meanings, so that the story will present different facets and interpretations depending upon one’s choice. It is easy to envisage that the same play might be perceived in a widely different manner depending upon the viewer’s age, experience and knowledge – and by extension – the same person might have very different perceptions of the same play when seen as a youth, during middle age, or when approaching death.
Each Noh performance commences with the sound of high-pitched flutes, unmelodic and unearthly as if to underscore a departure from the everyday and an entry to the otherworld of spirits – much as the torii entrance to a shrine marks the passing from the ordinary domain of mortals to that of deities. Throughout the play, supporters on the stage emit strange whoops while tapping small shoulder-drums as if to punctuate the actor’s words and add resonance to their meaning. The pervading influence of Zen is apparent in an economy of movement so that a single step onstage can signify a long journey, or a raised, slightly trembling sleeve convey deep and endless grief. In Noh, the role of a young princess is likely to be taken by a senior, more experienced member of the troupe, perhaps far at odds in shape and voice from the subject of his act, but the actor will keep his deep tone, not try to imitate a woman as in the popular Kabuki plays where the onnagata (male actor taking a female role) will affect every female mannerism in strained falsetto. The mask he wears is allusion enough to his adopted persona.
In Japanese, the aesthetic terminology of Noh all but escapes clear interpretation. The word yugen is one most often heard and suggests a beauty that is hinted at, elusive and half-hidden, as if glimpsed in a brief parting of mist – a beauty that by its distance and transience leaves a sense of bittersweet sadness. It is by his ability to conjure this ethereal quality – tilting his mask to catch the firelight, or by holding a pose during which aeons of time seem to pass – that the skill of a Noh actor is judged.
Because of its profound ideals and strong connection with Zen’s practice of using intuition as a route to understanding, the Noh drama attracted a strong following among the 200-or-so daimyo warlords in their fiefdoms throughout Japan. In time, all of them maintained a stage and a troupe of performers within their own households together with masks and a wardrobe of lavish costumes – all for the entertainment of illustrious visitors – and it was a mark of cultural attainment for the warlords to be able to memorise and recite Noh chants themselves.
At first it was common practice to give costumes to favourite actors in appreciation of their performance and so there was no difference between luxurious aristocratic attire made from silk and that worn on stage. However by the late 16th century, costumes were being made purely for stage use, mostly by the textile artisans in the Nishijin area of Kyoto – and still are today. All troupes kept a collection of costumes and masks from which the shite would choose depending upon the season, the temperature and the actor’s mood, and so for aficionados, part of the attraction of Noh is that no two performances are ever the same.
All Noh performances are structured around relatively simple stories, mainly based on medieval epics such as those of Genji and the Heike, or on classical Chinese mythology, with the shite taking the part of an otherworldly deity or ghost. All of these are rather profound and serious and in order to provide a little levity and contrast, a farce or comic performance known as Kyogen is usually staged after or between Noh plays for light-hearted relief. These usually feature actors playing roles of country bumpkins or animals caught in comic situations. Masks are sometimes worn and costumes are usually simpler, made of cotton or linen and decorated with more prosaic designs of country plants, animals, insects, or objects of daily rural life.
Noh and Kyogen Masks
With warlord patronage and associated wealth, the accoutrements of Noh and Kyogen: masks, costumes, drums etc, were made to the highest standard of craftsmanship and are seen as unique works of art. Masterpieces can be seen in major museums and in the old town of Sasayama, a small but fine selection can be seen at the Museum of Noh Artifacts.
Tamba Pottery Kilns
A completely different but far older craft tradition can be found at the nearby Tamba kilns that have been making pottery – mainly stoneware – since the 13th-century Kamakura period. Old sueki sites, where immigrant Koreans were making stonewares as early as the 6th century, have been uncovered in the area. They brought new techniques of ceramic production especially the use of an anagama tunnel kiln in which temperatures up to 1300 degrees centigrade could be reached so that clay particles melt to form a glass-like, waterproof material. Many potters still use wood-fired kilns today, favouring – for better or worse – the unexpected results achieved by surrendering to the ‘god of the kiln’ rather than the near-perfect control of a modern electric or gas-fired equivalents
Most wares dating from this early period are storage jars with a flared lip and dribbles and splashes of a distinctive grass-green glaze formed by particles of molten ash that fell when the kiln reached a high temperature and contrast with the rust-red colour of the body. The earliest pots were carefully smoothed, but later examples reveal hastily-applied comb-marks suggesting that the potter was in a hurry to finish his work on time. The likely explanation for this is that large numbers of pots were seasonally in demand to safely store rice-seeds through the winter for planting in the following Spring.
Tamba wares changed very little throughout the medieval period. A tendency to making the mouth of the pot more rounded rather than flared can be seen, as well as the shaping of more rounded shoulders and a less-tapered body. The customers for Tamba wares were largely farmers who needed pots that were reasonably priced, sturdy, and practical. Located in what was then a rather isolated area of Japan, the Tamba potters had few opportunities to see what was happening in other areas, to catch up with newer tastes or to fall under their influence. This quiet stagnation came to an end during the early 17th-century, when a new type of climbing, multi-chamber kiln was introduced by Korean potters – that was capable of reaching even higher temperatures. This led to experimentation with glazes and forms and the production of new products such as tableware and flower containers. As communication with other parts of the country became less restricted, Tamba potters discovered a wider market for their wares, began to flourish, and still do today.
Excellent examples of historic Tamba wares can also be seen in Sasayama town at the Old Tamba Pottery Museum, close to the Museum of Noh Artifacts. Both of these house collections have been built up over three generations by the same Nakanishi family.
- Old Tamba Pottery Museum (Tamba Kotokan), 185 Kawaramachi, Tanbasasayama-shi, Hyogo 669-2325, Japan, tanbakotoukan.jp
- Museum of Noh Artifacts (Nohgaku Shiryoukan), nohgakushiryoukan.jp
- Sasayama Information in English, https://www.japanvisitor.com/japan-city-guides/sasayama-historical-districts