Cerry Blossoms 2017

The Storyteller of Sarugakyo: Japanese Folktales in Minakami, Gunma

The Storyteller of Sarugakyo: Japanese Folktales in Minakami, Gunma

Stephen Howes

Writing about the lesser-known aspects of living in Japan is a passion of mine. It is well understood by those who have had this experience, but living in a place affords you a different perspective on many parts of the local culture. I do not want these invaluable memories to slip away or be taken for granted, so I feel I must document them in some accessible medium. I am also a teacher and feel naturally compelled to share potential learning opportunities with a wider audience. The world is full of amazing wonders that should not be confined to stereotypes alone, so I would like to encourage readers to search for and construct their own opinions of a place. I found such a place that meets these criteria; it is not widely known, it evoked a memorable experience and I would like to encourage more people to visit this place.

My story takes place in Minakami, which is located in northern Gunma prefecture. I could easily write about the abundant beautiful nature, with snow-capped peaks, most notably Mt Tanigawa, and crystal clear streams that carve their path between them. I could also spend many lines writing about how Minakami is one of Japan’s premier adventure sports locations, with canyoning, bungee-jumping and rafting just some of the options available with English or Japanese speaking guides. Or, I could quite happily share some information on the relaxing, secluded onsens (hot springs) that are nestled in this beautiful nature.

Takaragawa Onsen in winter

Takaragawa Onsen
But not this time. This time I would like to share a particularly memorable experience that does not involve nature. Instead, it involves the ancient oral tradition of story telling.

Yasuko Mochitani (持谷靖子), proprietress of the Sarugakyo Hotel (猿ヶ京) has been telling folktales (民話 minwa) for more than 35 years. In her earlier days at the hotel, local workers that would recite folktales as they carried out their duties inspired her to learn more about these old tales. Mochitani-san recorded around six hundred of these folktales and then dedicated herself to learning the subtleties of this art form. As of now, she modestly states that she has learned more than one hundred of these stories, short and long, by heart.

Minwa to Kamishibai no Ie entrance

Minwa to Kamishibai no Ie entrance
I had the pleasure of listening to Mochitani-san tell a folktale in the cozy atmosphere of the “Folktale and Picture Story House” (民話と紙芝居の家 Minwa to Kamishibai no Ie) in the Mantenhoshi Hot Spring, Sarugakyo. In this setting, which resembled a small library, numerous picture stories and other memorabilia filled the room.

Visitors were guided to a smaller room though, that was designed for an intimate retelling of a folktale.

Yasuko Mochitani

Yasuko Mochitani
However, this occasion had two unique features. First of all, the folktales were local. This gives the stories more gravity as they describe locations you would have encountered on your journey there. They were also told using words, expressions and accents from the local area that I must admit were difficult to catch. But that did not prevent a total loss of understanding, as the physical gestures and intonation used to emphasize certain expressions assisted in my understanding of the flow of the story.

Yasuko Mochitani

Yasuko Mochitani
For those of you interested in both Japanese language and history, this would be a rich and worthwhile experience. However, the biggest surprise came immediately after when she retold the same story in English, with remarkably similar markers of stress, intonation and physical gestures. In my case, the remaining 40% I didn’t catch from the Japanese version was satiated with the English translation. Mochitani-san mentioned that in order to reach a greater audience so that they could enjoy these wonderful stories she began taking English lessons. In my opinion it was a brave and challenging goal. But as I experienced the hypnotizing effect of completely understanding a folktale set 450 years ago in this area, I am grateful she undertook that challenge.

The story she told was about how Sarugakyo got its name. The following is a brief summary of the story.

During the turbulent times of the Warring States Period, the great warlord Uesugi Kenshin advanced south in the hope of taking control of the Kanto area’s eight main provinces. Uesugi loved sake and at the campsite one night he enjoyed drinking too much and fell into a deep sleep.

He dreamed he was eating a large banquet but was only given one chopstick. He shouted loudly to the servants “Where is my other chopstick?”, but shouted so loudly that eight of his front teeth fell out into his hand. Shocked, and thinking this was a bad omen, he called out “Call off the battle!”.

However, while he was dreaming this he also shouted out in his sleep to call off the battle. A trusted general heard him call this out and rushed in to his quarters to seek clarity. Uesugi awoke and explained what had happened, but his general explained that this was in fact a very good sign. Surprised and elated to hear this, Uesugi asked what day it was that day. His general said it was the year of the monkey (saru) and month of the monkey. Uesugi was surprised again to hear this, as he was given the nickname “monkey spine” as a child. So, he happily declared this place to be named “the day of the monkey” (Saru-ga-kyo) in honour of this good news.

As with any memorable learning experience, it has inspired me to learn more about local folktales for the area in which I live in. She has even collaborated with Tone Commercial High School (利根商業高等学校) to create a free booklet with nine translated folk tales. This booklet is available at the hotel and from many other hotels in the Minakami area.

When one travels to a famous hot spring area, the relaxing powers of the hot spring water and the sumptuous feasts on offer are usually enough to satisfy you. Minakami is different though. Not only is it easily accessible from Tokyo by train, bus or car, it is also located deep in beautiful nature. Within this surrounding you can experience many different activities, but my advice is to absorb a folk tale from Mochitani-san. There is something deeply engrossing about listening to a local person speak with passion in two languages about a local tale. You connect with the storyteller and in the process strengthen the memory you will have with the area and the culture. In essence, this is the purpose of travelling.

Minakami and Mt Tanigawa

Minakami and Mt Tanigawa
Minakami is located just over one hour by Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Jomo Kogen Station.

Sarugakyo Hotel is located at 1171 Sarugakyo Onsen, Tone-gun, Minakami-machi 379-1403, Gunma Prefecture. It is 20 minutes by bus or car from Jomo Kogen Station (on the Joetsu Shinkansen line).