Legend of Kōga Saburō ~ Part 2

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).

Page with this article’s version of “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”. From the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”.

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.

A pic of Takeminakata-no-kami, as he performs a trick called “senbiki no ishi” (千引の石, lifting a stone that requires the strength of 1000 men) when he challenges Takamikazuchi.

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.

CONCLUSION

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”.

Legend of Kōga Saburō ~ Part 1

In today’s article, I will discuss about a famous story called “Kōga Saburō Densetsu” (甲賀三郎伝説), or “Legend of Kōga Saburō”. Gaining public recognition from the 1600s onwards during Edo period, there were many theatrical renditions done by kabuki actors, as well as musicals called “jōruri” (浄瑠璃), which incorporated a musician and puppets. Exposure to this story comes from the collection of esoteric-related writings by shrines, as well as from word of mouth by shugendō followers. While popular as a folklore, the Kōga Saburō Densetsu was especially significant to certain families from Koga region of Shiga prefecture, as it represents the root of their unique martial tradition.

Cover of the picture book “Kōga Saburō: Shinshu-Yomikikase Minwa Ehon Series”. One of the many visual interpretations of the fabled tale “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”.

In today’s article, we will look into the specifics of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, which includes its origin story. We’ll also look at one version of this story, which comes from one particular family reigning from Kōga region.

TALE FROM THE SUWA FAMILY

Kōga Saburō is a heroic figure that is deified and worshiped at the Suwa Shrine located in Nagano prefecture, as well as viewed as a type of warrior god at various shrines. Considered a very old shrine in Japanese history, Suwa shrine itself was built by the Suwa family, whom also assumed the role as priests. The legend of Kōga Saburō dates back some time around the 1400’s, with the main character said to be modeled after one of the Suwa family’s sons who took up the occupation of a warrior, went to serve the Ashikaga shogunate by becoming a retainer of the Hōjō clan, and earned many merits due to his accomplishments in battle. For his service, he was also made territorial lord over Kōga. if this is the case, then it makes sense that this individual would be immortalized at their family shrine.

Image of the main hall of the Suwa shrine. From Wikipedia.

There is another version to this story, which is found within the documents of the Mochizuki family. One of the major allied families in Kōga during Sengoku period, The Mochizuki family have recorded in their family genealogy that they are descendants of a Mochizuki Saburō. Not only was this individual from the Suwa family, but is in fact claimed to be the same individual as Kōga Saburō, for he not only was the territorial lord of Koga, but at one time was a lord over the neighboring Iga region as well.

With the inception of this fabled tale, Kōga Saburō was immortalized as a hero of the Kōga region, as well as throughout Ōmi province (present-day Kōga, Shiga Prefecture). Other than the bigger-than-life trials the character had to go through, he is also revered as having establishing the way of life in that region. Another unique point is that for the Mochizuki family and their allies, the tale of Kōga Saburō is interpreted as teaching the roots of where the unconventional tactics and survival methods the warriors of Kōga specialized in, which today is often dubbed as ninjutsu.

MOCHIZUKI’S VERSION

For this article, we will first look at the Mochizuki family’s version of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. This version is taken from the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which is authored by Ukai Takehiro.

Cover of the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”

This story starts off at the beginning, when the protagonist was known by the title “Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方), and was the 3rd son of the territorial lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province. Although youngest, his father made an unexpected move and appointed Saburō as the next successor of their family line due to his talents and likeable personality. On top of this, he had an arranged marriage with Kasuga-hime set up, who was the granddaughter of Kasuga Shrine’s chief priest. Along with his future wife’s unmatched beauty, the union between the two families would ensure that Saburō’s family continue to maintain their prestigious status. His older brothers, on the other hand, were not pleased with the special treatment their younger brother was receiving at all.

One day, Saburō went deer hunting in the woods with Jirō, the 2nd oldest brother. While his younger brother was distracted, Jirō suddenly pushed him down into a pit, where he would tumble into an underground cave. With no way to reach the opening of the pit from where he fell from, Saburō was forced to wander through the the tunnels of this underground cave. Trapped with no way out, he was sure to perish, but he maintained his wits and was resourceful with whatever was at hand as he traveled into unknown lands. For example, when there was no food to be found around him, Saburō ate pieces of his sōshi (雙紙)¹. During the night when there was no light peering above him, he used his sword Nikkō no tsurugi (日光剣) to illuminate his surroundings. Lastly, to keep safe from evil spirits and beings lurking about, he placed his keepsake mirror Omokage (面影) close by his side. These 3 items were actually blessed with divine powers, and protected the lone warrior during his journey².

Saburō’s wandering would come to an end when he finally stepped foot onto a kingdom called “Yuima” (維摩) . Although a foreigner, he was welcomed by the King of Yuima, and was also offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. Saburō agreed to this, and lived with them in Yuima for about 13 and a half years. While life was good, after some time he started to long for his fiance Kasuga-hime, and wished to be with her. So, bidding his family in Yuima Kingdom farewell, Saburō embarked once again through the underground in order to make his way back above ground.

Saburō finally discovered an exit from the underground realm, and was able to walk on his native land again. Hungry from his long trek, he decided to engage in his long-time past time and went deer hunting³. However, he soon discovered a terrible matter; for during his time in Yuima, he unknowingly went through a transformation and his appearance had become that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm everyone at his home, Saburō sought a method that would change him back to look like his normal self again. Luck was on his side, as he encountered a mysterious old monk who, seeing the young warrior in his plight, conjured a remedy. Miraculously, the remedy worked, as Saburō reverted back to his original form. What he didn’t know was that the old monk was actually a powerful deity in disguise, and had came to aid him in his return home. Just as he mysteriously appeared, the old monk went his way, without leaving a trace.

Successful in making it back home, Saburō presented himself to his family and explained what had happened to him since his disappearance. He also sought out his older brother Jirō, and drove him out of their home, forcing him to roam the land and never to return. Lastly, Saburō could be reunited with Kasuga-hima, he took his rightful place as the head of the Suwa family, and became territorial lord over Kōga. With everything taking course as intended, Saburō would assume the title “Kōga Saburō Kaneie” (甲賀三郎兼家), and could live the rest of his life happily.


ENDING

This bring the 1st article about the Kōga Saburō Densetsu to a close. Reading fabled tales like the one above most certainly will bring up questions, especially about the hidden meanings behind certain parts of the protagonists overall journey. Fear not, for many of these will by answered in part 2, where we will go over another version of this story, and do an analysis of the symbolism that shapes this popular tale.


1) Normally this is written with the characters “草紙”. While its usage varied depending on the era, a sōshi is a type of bound notebook.

2) These 3 sacred items parallel the 3 sacred treasures of Japan, which are the following: Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍, The Grass-Cutting Sword), Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡,the 8-Span Mirror), and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels).

3) Although not mentioned in this version, one of the differences found in the underground lands is that agriculture was the main source of food. Due to this, Saburō learned a great deal about farming during his time underground. On the opposite end of the spectrum, deer hunting was an important source of food when Saburō was living above ground. A comparison can be drawn from this when looking at class during Japan of old. This will be evaluated more in the 2nd article.