We continue with part 2 on our discussion about the fabled tale “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”. In part 1, we looked into the origin of the story and its possible connection to a real life figure, as well as a version of the story from the collection of the Kōga region-native Mochizuki family. This article will continue in the same vein, where we’ll review another version about Kōga Saburō and how he overcomes the trials of surviving in foreign lands, and managing to make it back home years later. The following version is introduced in the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which was mentioned in part 1. This is said to come from the source “Asahi Nihon Rekishijinbutsu Jiten” (朝日日本歴史人物事典).
This tale begins with an individual by the name of Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方). Saburō is the territorial lord of Kōga, Ōmi province. He has a wife, who is known as Kasuga-hime. He also keeps in contact with his 2 older brothers, the oldest named Tarō, while the 2nd oldest is Jirō¹.
One day, Kasuaga-hime was captured and taken away by a tengu (天狗), which is a goblin with a long nose, body of a man, and wings on its back. Saburō, accompanied by his 2 brothers, went into pursuit in order to save her. During the chase, his brothers advised that they take a path that leads through Mount Tateshina (蓼科山, Tateshina yama), a familiar location not far from them. On the surface, it sounded like an easy path to traverse through in order to continue tracking the tengu. However, what Saburō didn’t realize is that this was just an excuse for the 2 older brothers to put a plan in motion they had for a long time; Tarō and Jirō had secretly been jealous of their younger brother’s good fortune, and had conspired to bring his downfall when the opportunity arrived.
As the 3 were walking by a moderately-sized pit, the 2 older brothers suddenly shoved down towards it. Saburō fell a distance down through the pit, and landed in an unfamiliar underground world. With no way up to the pit hole, he had no other choice but to travel through the area to learn his surroundings. Saburō crossed through different lands that were populated by villages. He entered various villages, and witnessed that the inhabitants lived their lives farming on their lands. Blending in where ever he could, he also engaged in farming for as long as needed, before moving on.
Eventually, Saburō’s wanderings through the underground world would bring him to a land called “Yuima” (維摩). In this land, he came upon a village where the locals specialized in deer hunting, and engaged in this on a daily basis as it was their way of life. He was able to make good relations with them, so much to the point that he was able to begin a relationship with the village chief’s daughter, Yuima-hime. Saburō was able to find happiness and piece of mind in Yuima, as he settled in the village doing hunting as much as he likes, and being with the lovely Yuima-hime, he spent many years there.
After some time, Saburō began to reminisce about his actual wife, Kasuga-hime. His feelings for her was getting stronger, to the point that he desired greatly to see her again. Setting his mind to find a way to get back to his homeland, Saburō executed a plan to run away from the village on a particular day, and set once again to search for a path that would get him back above ground. Giving up his life of comfort and heading back into the wild, he had to overcome many hardships. It took time, but Saburō was finally able to return back to the lands above through an opening on Mount Asama (浅間山, Asama yama). Descending down the mountain, he began his final journey back home.
Making his way back to his home country Kōga in Ōmi Province, Saburō saw a Buddhist temple along his path, and decided to stop by and offer prayers at its Shakyamuni Hall². Before entering the temple grounds, he felt something off about him. Feeling himself, he noticed scales all over his body, and realized his appearance has changed into that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm the locals, Saburō hid himself from plain sight. Wondering how to resolve this predicament, he remembered a remedy he had heard about, which involved bathing oneself in a lake where a particular plant called sekishō (石菖)³ grow. Keeping a low profile, he wandered around abit, looking for this plant. Eventually, Saburō came to a lake and, as expected, there was a good amount of sekishō sprouting from it. He stepped into the lake to test this remedy and, after washing his body, sure enough he felt his scaly skin soften up. In no time, he reverted back to his normal self as the his snake-like appearance was no more.
With no more obstacles, Saburō finally returned home. There, he reunited with his wife, Kasuga-hime, and was able to live the rest of his life happily.
BREAKING DOWN THE STORY
After reading both stories, it’s easy to see where both versions are similar, as well as where they differ.
We see Saburō as the protagonist who shares a relationship with Kasuga-hime. He is betrayed by an older sibling and knocked into a hole to sends him into an underground realm. There, he adapts, and is able to start a new life with another person named Yuima-hime. However, longing to go home and be with his first love, Saburō runs away, manages to escape this underground realm, and return back to his homeland. While he had an unfortunate transformation into a snake, he was able to change back, and successfully make his way back home and be reunited with Kasuga-hime. Of course, both stories have their differences in how this tale unfolds, which includes what event with Kasuga-hime that triggers the betrayal, which of his brothers actually commits the betrayal, to how Saburō was able to change back from a snake into a human. Despite these variations, the overall theme is still shared between both versions.
Below are specific points regarding the meaning embedded within the story, which will help understand the development of the protagonist, and how both Shinto practice, as societal structure of that time have an overall connection.
#1: PROTAGONIST AS A DEITY FOR WORSHIP
To understand how Kōga Saburō (and, albeit a minor role in these versions of the story, Kasuga-hime) is viewed is to first look at the source of his invention, which is the Suwa Grand Shrine in Nagano. At this shrine, there are 2 types of gods worshiped there, with the first being Takeminakata-no-kami (建御名方神), and the second being Yasakatome-no-kami (八坂刀売神). Constructed by Suwa Lake, the Suwa Grand Shrine is divided into two locations, with one being the “upper” shrine where Takeminakata-no-kami is worshiped, and the other being the “lower” shrine where Yasakatome-no-kami is worshiped.
Both deities come from the ancient texts Kojiki (古事記) and Sendai Kyūji Hongi (先代旧事本紀). From these texts and more recognized sources, Takeminakata-no-kami is presented as one of the sons of Ōkuninushi (大国主), the main god who heads all other local gods within ancient Japan and had ruling power what could be called the earthly realm. When the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照大神) sent 2 messengers from the heavenly realm down to claim control over the land from Ōkuninushi, Takeminakata-no-kami challenged one of the messengers in a contest of strength. One of the messengers, whose name was Takamikazuchi (建御雷神), agreed to the challenge, and had an interesting exchange with Takeminakata-no-kami, which would eventually lead to the young god’s defeat. Takeminakata-no-kami retreated to Suwa Lake, and as the two messengers were going to kill him, he begged them to spare his life, as he confided that the land be given to Amaterasu, and that he would stay forever at this lake.
Take note that in the records from Suwa Grand Shrine, this story has a slight variation to it, mainly where the fight and the scene of Takeminakata-no-kami’s retreat are omitted. As a whole, Takeminakata-no-kami’s bravery is honored dearly. Takeminakata-no-kami is worshiped as the god of wind, water, agriculture, warfare, and hunting, where hunting represents the lifestyle of certain families at that time.
Kōga Saburō is thought to not only be related to the story of Takeminakata-no-kami, but is said to have been the reincarnation of him. Thus, the young god is believed to have been reborn as one of the sons of the Suwa family, and was brave enough to take up the lifestyle of a warrior, become a renown warrior under the Ashikaga Shogunate, and rose to be lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province.
#2: THREE SACRED TREASURES
In the Mochizuki version, it is mentioned that Saburō was protected by 3 sacred items. This is a parallel of the 3 sacred treasures of Japan which are introduced in the Kojiki, the ancient text that presents the mythical story of Japan’s origin. The idea of a protagonist to have such items meant that he himself was special, and was protected by divine powers, as if destined to not lose. This idea most likely comes from the root story regarding Takeminakata-no-kami.
#3: SNAKE / DRAGON REFERENCE
The Suwa Grand Shrine’s god of worship is called “Suwa Myōjin” (諏訪明神). From the shrine’s documents, it is said the Suwa Myōjin would come down from the heavens to the lands below, riding on the back of a giant snake. It is also interpreted that Suwa Myōjin also took the appearance of a snake himself. In other writings, the creature is instead referred to as a dragon.
In Shintō belief, gods often used “shinshi” (神使), or divine creatures for both delivering messages or as a mode of transportation. These divine creatures look like earthly variants, such as the ox, chicken, crane, and carp fish. The snake is one of these divine creatures, so there are shrines that pay respect to these faithful messengers.
In another version of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, the role of the snake / dragon plays a center role in the story, this time between Saburō and Kasuga-hime.
#4: SUDDEN CHANGE INTO A SNAKE
With the importance of the serpent and dragon to the Suwa Grand Shrine established, it’s easier to now look into the scene when Saburō changes into a snake. Here’s one way to interpret this scene. This is a direct reference to Saburō being Takaminakata-no-kami, and the transformation was a natural phenomenon. This came about because he fell into the underground tunnels that actually leads to a supernatural plain, where the lands there are populated by mystical creatures and people. When he left this supernatural plain and emerged back into his own homeland, he did so by transforming into a snake, much like that of Suwa Myōjin. Even though it may not have been through his own doing, this serves as a hint that deities are able to enter the human realm through the body of a divine creature.
#5: CONTRAST BETWEEN THE HOMELAND VS UNDERGROUND LANDS
Kōga Saburō’s homeland and his journey into the underground lands may be a reflection of the differences in classes in Japan, and how Suwa Myōjin is revered by both. In the story, we have both Saburō’s family who are warriors that engage in hunting, and in the underground lands there are those who are farmers. Saburō engaged in both willingly, which is a display of acceptance of both activities. In this respect, both military families and farmers saw it appropriate to pray to Suwa Myōjin for blessing.
From a different angle, the 2 worlds could also represent different cultures & beliefs. If we look at the name “Yuima, it’s a Buddhism term, and relates to certain sutras. The origin is India, where Yuima is the Japanese pronunciation of the name “Vimalakirti”. This name comes from an Indian folklore about an older man named Vimalakriti who was a layman, and had an uncanny understanding of Buddhism despite not being a monk. A bit to unpack, but India has been viewed as an integral place in the development of Buddhism in Asia, plus there has been many shared concepts between Shintō and Buddhism in Japan over the generations. There may be something to this in reference to Saburō’s journey in the underground world.
#6: LESSONS FOR THE KŌGA SHINOBI
This point is an interesting one, which is explained a bit in the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”. The focal point that ties the Legend of Kōga Saburō to the shinobi of Kōga is hunting. It is understood that there was a culture that involved heavily with working in the wild within certain areas like Kōga, and the pioneers of this were woodcutters and hunters. Through these types of occupations, one would gain experience traveling through wooded areas, understand the characteristics of wild animals which would include being able to copy their calls, disguising one’s appearance and smell by wearing animal hide, and so on. Such real life skills are believed to have been some of the building blocks to the shinobi no jutsu (or, as called in modern times, ninjutsu) techniques that the warriors of Kōga used generations later. The thought that hunting being a building block for Kōga warriors’ style of ninjutsu, as introduced in the book mentioned above, is an interesting concept, albeit one that is not stated as fact.
The legendary story of Kōga Saburō is an example of how fabled tales play a significant role in people’s lives in the past due to familiarity of content. How such tales are recorded and transmitted also plays a factor, with there being slightly variations in the story to fit a favorable agenda. This concludes our coverage on 2 versions of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. As I mentioned before, there still more variations to this story, which, if time permits, I hope to take a look at one that gives an even more different perspective on how the story unfolds.
1) In this version, the older brothers are not addressed by name. From other versions, as well as resources, it is understood that these are their names. Using it here is to introduce them as significant figures.
2) A section of a temple or shrine where the Buddha Shakyamuni is worshiped.
3) In English, this is called “Japanese sweet flag”. Its botanical name is “scorus gramineus”.