Everything Under the Sun

Would you believe that Ibaraki was once considered a paradise on earth? That there was a scary giant who lived on shellfish, lovers who turned into trees, and parental visits from the gods? It seems hard to reconcile with the office workers and exhaust fumes we see today, but according to the Hitachinokuni Regional Cartograph (or Fudoki in Japanese) this was how Ibaraki was viewed back in the day. As 2013 marks the 1300th year since the Hitachinokuni Fudoki was commissioned it is now possible to see parts of it on display and learn more about the fascinating world of yesteryear.

Yamato no Takeru

The origins of the Fudoki lie in the early Nara period of Japanese history, when the Minister of the Right (the second-ranking minister at the Imperial Court) commissioned five of them for each outlying region of interest. Hitachinokuni, currently Ibaraki, was one such region, and the minister’s son, Fujiwara no Umakai, was selected as both the regional administrator and the author of this epic undertaking. The court was interested in how much tax they could collect, the populations, customs, geographic features, origins of place-names, and local folklore, among other things, and Umakai is said to have conducted many personal interviews to research his work.

Fudoki

Part of the reason Umakai was chosen was due to his excellent writing skills, as well as his parentage; he is the most prolific poet of the Kaifuso poetry collection, and was proficient in the four- and six-character expressions that the Fudoki would need to be written in. Unfortunately, the originals of the Fudoki no longer exist, as each time they began to age they were copied by a new author who chose which parts to include or remove. What remains today are the prints of metal plates made in the early 1800s and a hand-copied text from a similar time, but both are extremely well-preserved and historical treasures in their own right.

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Currently parts of the Fudoki are on display at the Joyo Shiryokan in Mito’s Bizen-cho, along with explanations (as no modern-day Japanese speakers can read the original language) and displays to illustrate the lifestyle of the period. This exhibit focuses on the foods, dwellings, and garments of the Ibaraki of 1300 years ago, with recreations and relics to spur the imagination, but also delves into the colorful folk history. Legends about folk hero Yamato no Takeru, stories about the Daidara giant who lived near Oarai (where a large statue of him can still be seen) and lived on shellfish, a pair of lovers who turned into intertwined pine branches when caught embracing, there is much to enjoy for those who delight in myth.

Daidara

Of particular interest are the origins of place-names, in particular those of Hitachinokuni and Ibaraki. at the time Ibaraki’s coast was the easternmost part of the region governed by the Imperial court, and therefore seemed to be the place the sun rose first in the morning. This is why Ibaraki became known as the ‘place of the sun’s departure’, or Hi-Tachi (sun-departure). It was also thought to be a paradise on earth because of its abundant arable land and produce, balance of mountains, plains, and ocean, and cooler climate, which is why it came to be called Joyo, or ‘the enduring world’, after a concept of paradise or the afterlife popular at the time.

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Meanwhile, the name Ibaraki comes from a tale about a bandit and his downfall. A vicious marauder had been terrorizing the countryside, and an official was dispatched to remove the threat. This lord built a keep surrounded by thorn bushes and sealed off all the exits, trapping the bandit inside and ending his dominion, and Ibara-Ki (thorn-castle) was born.

All in all, the Fudoki is an excellent glimpse at the origins of the Ibaraki we know today, and filled with interesting legends and details that flesh out a history not so well known. The display at the Shiryokan is just the beginning, so don’t worry if you can’t make it out before it ends on May 19th; a listing of other regional events is already posted, so take a look for something near you. You may be surprised at the kinds of things you learn about your everyday scenery.

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