From Downtown to Out of Town: Matsumoto’s Rock-Riddled Landscape

Mon, Jun 20, 2022
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If I asked you “Where in Matsumoto can one find rocks?” I’d bet all the money in your pocket you’d answer “Matsumoto Castle!” You’d be right, of course. You’d probably also not give me your money.

If you correctly guess my answer to the same question I’ll give you all the money in my pocket. Think about it as you enjoy this photo of your answer.

 

So what’s my answer? If you said “all over the place” you win!

You’ll have to go ask my wife for my money.

Along Sidewalks, On Street Corners, and Out in the Countryside

Matsumoto is not unique for having rocks all over the place. But Matsumoto, like most anywhere you go in Japan, has its own unique collection. Some of these stones can be found in every corner of the country. Some are regionally specific. And some are tailor-made for our town.

So let’s go rock hunting.

 

Just up the street from the train station, on the northwest corner of the intersection named Fukashi Ni-cho-me, stands a stone pillar with this guy carved into it. This is Ebisu, one of the Seven Gods of Luck. He was placed here to bring commercial success to the people of town and in particular to those along Honmachi-dori Street, which runs north toward the castle from here.

Walk up Honmachi-dori and you’ll find this unobtrusive stone pylon.

 

Etched into the plaque are the lines of a haiku written by Tsuruda Takuchi in the first half of the 19th Century. The words – “Matsumoto no Matsu fuki okose hatsu shigure” – translates as “When the pines of Matsumoto are blown by the wind the first rains of autumn arrive.” Or something like that.

There are plenty of interesting details along Honmachi-dori, all the way to the castle. I’m still discovering (and trying to figure out) new ones all the time. For the rundown on some of them check this post.

Some stones are polished and etched with big bold characters. These often indicate the boundaries of a neighborhood. This one stands along the road at the edge of Arai-machi.

 

Other markers are much more detailed, inscribed with an explanation of the history of the ‘hood, or how said hood got its name. This one, along the sidewalk in front of the Matsumoto Museum of Art, tells the story of Yayoi-cho.

 

It might make sense to think that this neighborhood was named after Yayoi Kusama, the red-wigged artist from Matsumoto whose world-renowned work is on colorful display just behind that rock wall. But the explanation tells us that the name of the neighborhood predates the artist by a few years. In the early 1920s this stretch of road was widened to accommodate the increase in traffic due the the estblishment of the Higher School that once occupied the grounds of Agata-no-mori Park. An area called Yayoi-cho was carved out of the existing other neighborhoods.

So it’s just an interesting coincidence that Yayoi Kusama’s flowers stand as the visual centerpiece of the Yayoi-cho neighborhood.

 

Some of the newer stones you’ll find downtown are mere decoration.

 

Or pay quiet tribute to the town’s beautification efforts.

 

But some have been around a considerable while longer, and are often found in groups. These are from the 18th and 19th Centuries. The stone lantern in particular served a distinctly practical purpose.

 

Many other stones, especially out around the outskirts of town, are of a thoroughly spiritual nature. You might recognize the guy below in the stone on the right as the aforementioned Ebisu, holding his trademark tai (sea bream) in his left hand and his ever-present bamboo fishing rod in his right. Next to him is another of the Seven Gods of Luck, Daikokuten, who is always depicted sitting or standing on two bales of rice and, in his right hand, wielding his Mallet of Good Fortune.

 

Stones like these, and like the one of Ebisu on the corner of Honmachi-dori, are placed as a form of prayer to the gods for a good harvest or, for some, good business. Other stones called Dosojin serve a different purpose. These demi-deities, unique to the Shinshu (Nagano) region, have traditionally been protectors of travelers and residents of the communities where they stand. They usually show an elderly couple looking content standing arm in arm, though some simply consist of a stone etched with the characters for dosojin, 道祖神.

 

Another stone you’ll often see, both in Matsumoto and all over Japan, is one like this.

 

The characters read “Namu Amida Butsu” – a chant meaning “I take refuge in the Amida Buddha.” The belief was, and perhaps still is for some, that repeating this phrase over and over would allow one passage into the Buddhist Pure Land after death. Check in with the folks at Byodo-in for a bit more on this age-old Buddhist practice.

So whether you’re strolling around downtown or you’re exploring the countryside on a cycling tour, keep an eye out for the various rocks and stones that adorn the landscape. They may not be as dramatic as the stone walls of the castle, but they are no less a part of the ongoing story of this place called Matsumoto.