Tsurugi watari

Joe Nickell's Secrets of the Sideshows sez:

In ancient times, walking on swords was a Shinto ordeal called Tsurigi Watari [sic!]. However, after Japanese conjurers learned the secret, the Shinto priests abandoned the rite. Later, Far Eastern performers brought the feat to Western audiences (Gibson 1967, 91). Resembling a stepladder consisting of five to seven rungs of broad swords placed edge upward, the ladder of swords is a sideshow mainstay.

"Gibson 1967" is Secrets of Magic: Ancient and Modern, which I do not own and cannot Google Book, so I can't trace the claim further back. But the intended word is obviously tsurugi watari 剣渡り, "sword-walking". (Tsurigi watari would be less thrilling.)

Here's a photo-filled blog entry about firewalking (火渡り) and swordwalking (剣渡り) at Fukan Reijō 普寛霊場 shrine, near Honjō station in Saitama. This event takes place on April 10th every year to celebrate the birthday of Fukan Jonin 普寛上人 ("the Great Fukan"), who "opened" (first climbed) the Mt Ontake in Chichibu nearby. (It all has to do with Ontake kyō 御嶽教; more; more. My knowledge is woefully incomplete here.)

There's a great written account of this event an appendix to Carmen Blacker's The Catalpa Bow. I also found an account of swordwalking at another shrine in Percival Lowell's 1895 Occult Japan, or the way of the gods. I quote:

Nothing now led up to the goal of this acrobatic pilgrimage but the consecrated ladder of sword-blades. Ad astra per aspera with a vengeance. Nevertheless the Chief of God-Arts, calling once more upon the gods, prepared to mount. Girding up his loins that his feet might not catch in his tunic, and grasping parts of the upper blades with his hands, he planted one foot lengthwise along the lowest sword-edge, and then, drawing himself up to its level, placed the other similarly on the blade above. Then he rose in like manner to the third rung, and the fourth, and so on heavenward. He did this carefully but deliberately. Evidently it was merely a question of foot-placing with him.

The higher he got the less he seemed to think of his footing and the more of effect, till in mid-ascent he was minded to try a religious pas seul. Posing on one foot, he turned deftly to face the crowd, and with the appropriate swing kicked out with the other high into the air, flaunting his foot before the rapt concourse of people in the most approved prima assoluta manner. At this unexpected terpsichorean touch the populace burst into applause; and the Chief of God-Arts, turning triumphantly to his climb, continued boldly up till amid a general gasp of relief from the crowd below he topped the last rung and stepped out unscathed upon the platform.

Lowell also offers an increasingly embarrassing (for the modern reader) analysis of the workings of this "miracle":

Doubtless credulity is the mother of miracles, but doubtless, also, with the far eastern family of them a pachydermatous sole step-fathers the process. For most of them are questions of cuticle. Of the three great Shinto rites: the Ordeal by Boiling Water; the Walking across Live Coals; and the Climbing upon Sword-blades, all depend upon it for easy performance. That the average Japanese sole is equal to the feat without preliminary purification is evident from the success of my boy, who simply picked up his skirts and walked.

But a certain other physical fact enters this last miracle not commonly appreciated, to the innocent manipulation of which by the priests the miracle is due; to wit, the immense difference in cutting power between a stationary and a moving blade. Everybody is aware that there is a difference, but few people realize how very great it is. If you press your finger upon the sharp edge of your knife, you will be surprised to find what a pressure you can put upon it with impunity; but if, ever so gently, you draw the knife-blade across the skin, it instantly sinks in.

The principle involved is the principle of the wedge. By drawing the blade along in the direction of its edge at the same time that you press down, you thin its angle to any desired tenuity. You have but to graduate the horizontal motion to the vertical force. As the angle of the wedge thus sharpens, the force necessary to make it enter is lessened indefinitely. We unwittingly apply this principle whenever we cut anything. And as this is our normal state, we forget that the blade is, statically used, not as cutting as we think.

Furthermore, it will be remembered that, as a rule, the priests took heed in placing their feet. Most of them were careful to minimize the impact.

These are some of the points that make miracle-working possible; but a good audience is equally necessary. A sympathetic populace renders Japan a very paradise of miracles. There is thus a twofold reason for a miracle's success; a thicker skin in the priests, and a thicker skull in the people. This double lack of penetration makes it easier both to do, and to be done by, a miracle than it would be elsewhere.

Pondering in this wise upon the great advantages for successful miracle-working possessed by priests of an artistic, pachydermatous people over those of a thin-skinned, scientific one, and half lamenting the lost grandeur of that pious past whose childish imaginings loomed so large and life-like, and vanish so sadly before our bull's-eyes of search, we were rolled through the broad quiet twilight of tillage toward the growing twinkle of the town.

Oh, well, it wouldn't be a 19th-century book about Japan without racism. (For what it's worth, Nickell's explanation of the trick is the same as the physics-based part of Lowell's.)

As for conjurers, tsurugi watari is one of the tricks included in Kairyō kijutsu 改良奇術 ("Improved Magic"), a book written in 1905 by Matsui Shōyōsai 松井昇陽斎. (Source: This handy site with info on Japanese magic books by decade.) Kairyō kijutsu is even in the online Diet library. Here's the part about swordwalking:


●種明し 此の技を演ずるときは、技師は、足袋を穿つこと勿論なるが、足袋の底には、堅固なる金網を入れ置き、刀傷を受けざる様に注意するものなり。

First, make a walking bridge of a line of bright, shining swords as shown in the diagram. Next, say "I shall now walk across these swords before your very eyes, and, should I be so fortunate as to receive no injury, I ask for your applause," spread out your fan so as not to loose your center, and then walk across and then back with an amusing step, repeating this several times, and so chill the innards of your audience.

The secret: When performing this trick, professionals are of course wearing tabi (toed socks); but in the sole of their tabi they insert a tough wire mesh, so as not to receive injury from the blades.

So, wire-mesh socks are also a good way to perform this trick, but only if you can master the much more difficult art of finding people who will be impressed by you walking on dangerous things non-barefoot.


Everyone's favorite Ryōjin hishō 梁塵秘抄 song...

... in Arthur Waley's 1921 translation!

Dance, dance, Mr. Snail!
If you won't I shall leave you
For the little horse,
For the little ox
To tread under his hoof,
To trample to bits.
But if quite prettily
You dance your dance,
To a garden of flowers
I will carry you to play.


I love the very English translation of makoto ni ("verily", "in truth") as "quite." I seem to recall a Pillow Book translation of similar vintage that used "rather nice" for ito okashi.

Yamaguchi Misa 山口美佐's Ryōjin hishō page observes that the message of this song (i.e. "if you don't do what I want, I'll kill you") really brings out the hardass (強硬) nature of the times (i.e. the crumbling, violent end of the Heian golden [for nobles] age). Yamaguchi also mentions a derivative poem by Jakuren 寂蓮:


Let not the garden snail be trampled by the little ox! Horns he may have, but he is not so strong.

(Other versions are addressed to the snail himself.)

Here's one more Ryōjin hishō poem for good measure:


On my head sport head-lice, the nape of my neck they ever bite, they descend from the teeth of the comb as if from heaven, and on the barrel's lid do their lives end.

Momoyama Harue 桃山晴衣 has recorded versions of these songs (with music by herself, of course, since none has survived). You can hear her version of the head-lice song as part of this medley.

For good measure, here's another video of Momoyama playing a reconstruction of the oldest known shamisen tune, "Renbo nagashi" (Roughly and idiomatically, "Lookin' for love blues," although there is debate over what "renbo" really means... for example, many in the shakuhachi community feel that "renbo" 恋慕 in the "love" sense must be derived from their "reibo" 鈴慕 "yearning for the bell" rather than the other way around, if the two are related at all.)



Today I learned something interesting about an old Japanese word for "twilight," tasogare. Turns out the etymology is ta so kare, 誰そ彼, literally "Who is that?" This is a reference to that unique twilighty level of illumination where you can see that people are there, but not who they actually are. You usually see it paired with -doki ("time", "hour"), so the effect is like "Meet me at the crossroads at the whodat hour."

One related word is kawatare. This comes from 彼は誰, the same question in reverse, but where tasogare was about dusk, kawatare evoked the murk of early morning. Sugimoto Tsutomu 杉本つとむ's Gogenkai 語源海 ("Sea of etymologies") offers Man'yōshū poem #4384 as evidence:

阿加等伎乃 加波多例等枳尓 之麻加枳乎 己枳尓之布祢乃 他都枳之良須母
Of the boat/ that rowed out from the hidden harbor/ In the pre-dawn/ kawatare time/ I have had no word

They do seem to have gotten mixed up a bit later on, though, particularly with reference to twilight where you will see either used.

Bonus: Kawatare Soup.


Uses of grain

Here is an 1893 advertisement for Temperance Magazine (禁酒雑誌):

The message I take away from this is "Look, we're not against grains. Grains are fine. But they have to be in bread form." Note the distinctly Japanese angel handing out the helpfully labelled loaf, and also the radiant bliss of the family who are about to eat it instead of wallowing in the squalor of intoxication:

I don't think I've ever seen someone who looks like they need a drink more than that guy.

Intemperate googling reveals that the history of Temperance Magazine was brief and turbulent, in typical Meiji-publishing-world fashion:

  1. November 1868 1888 (Meiji 21): Launched as Magazine of the Yokohama Temperance Society (横浜禁酒会雑誌)
  2. January 1892 (Meiji 25): Publication ceased.
  3. January 1893 (Meiji 26): Relaunched as Magazine of the Japan Temperance Society (日本禁酒会雑誌)
  4. May 1893 (Meiji 26): Renamed Temperance Magazine (禁酒雑誌)
  5. January 1894 (Meiji 27): Publication ceased again.

There's a little more information about the early history of temperance in Japan at the page for Waseda's other copy of this ad. The publisher of this magazine, the Japan Temperance Society (which, despite the name, was based in Yokohama — all those missionaries were a terrible influence) is actually still around. Sort of: it merged with a bunch of other local temperance societies to form the Japan Temperance Union.



The word umami sparked a bit of discussion in the comments to my last post, and since I stumbled across it again in an unrelated document I thought I'd beat the dead horse a little longer.

So, the document in question is Hitorigoto 独言 ("Talking to myself"), by Hisamatsu Fūyō 久松風陽. Fūyō was the fourth head of the Kinko-ryū school of shakuhachi, and Hitorigoto is advice in point form for members of the school. It was written in 1818, only a few decades after Hanzan's work.


As a beginner, do not strive for the (m)umami of beautiful sound. It is pleasing when polish and (m)umami emerge from (dekiru) the sound; to force them out (dekasu) is disagreeable.

In other words, don't try to get a beautiful tone out of your instrument. Just pay attention to the tone you do get, and before long it will become beautiful. (TL;DR: Watch the path, not the goal.)

What does umami mean here? I would argue that, again, it represents some truly and deeply satisfying quality in a performance, something that cannot be faked or forced but must grow organically within the performer before it can be revealed. It's not even necessarily about beauty. Umami might manifest as an abrasive or challenging quality. Truth and meaning are what matter.

Bonus link: Another site that also has Fūyō's Hitori mondō 独問答 ("Questions and answers by myself"). Features this awesome exchange:

問 普化禅師はいかなる人ぞ
答 知らず禅家の知識に問へ

Q: What kind of person was Master Pǔhuà [Fuke] 普化?
A: I don't know. Ask a scholar at a zen temple.


Your favorite city sucks

Currently reading: Edo ga Tōkyō ni natta hi 江戸が東京になった日 ("The day Edo became Tokyo"), by Sasaki Suguru 佐々木克. A bit prolix, but it sort of has to be given the fiddliness of the topic: the first question is how to even define the "capital" of a country like Edo-period Japan, ruled as it was through a delicately balanced system of real and figurative power centers by people who were not particularly interested in emerging European nation-state theory.

Anyway, in discussing pre-Meiji attitudes towards Kyoto, he quotes this zinger from a 1781 book entitled Mita Kyō monogatari 見た京物語 ("Kyoto/the capital as I saw it"), by Nishōtei Hanzan 二鐘亭半山, a shogunate functionary from Edo who had recently spent a year and a half in Kyoto gathering material. (Although Hanzan is now better known as a writer, Sasaki notes that he was no mere dilettante — he served in Edo castle and his work was based on a deep understanding of the history of power and politics in Japan.)


Kyō[to]/the capital is like a piece of candied fruit peel: all very elegant and sweet, but if you bite into it there's nothing there. Just a measly little dried-up thing. It's beautiful, but somehow desolate [...] The days of the "capital in bloom" (hana no miyako) were two hundred years ago; now it is a florid backwater (hana no inaka). A backwater, but the blossoms do remain (hana nokoreri).

Burn! The putdown works even better in Japanese, where you can use hana naturally to mean both literal blossoms and figurative flowering.

Also note that it's difficult to say if, when he writes "京", he means it as a proper noun ("Kyoto") or a description ("the capital"); and even if he means the latter, translating it merely as "capital" is potentially misleading to a modern English-speaking reader — that's the point of the whole chapter, really.


Jinx, you owe me a head

Low-level situational speech taboos are still relatively active in Japan. For example, you aren't supposed to say "cut" (kiru) at a wedding — even ceremonial cake-cutting is referred to as "inserting the blade" (入刀) — and it's bad manners to say "fall" (ochiru) or "slip" (suberu) (i.e. "fail") to someone about to take an important exam. The number of people who don't really care about this stuff is growing, but they're still common wisdom, useful for driving comic book plots and the like.

According to Magic and astrology in the Sengoku period (呪術と占星の戦国史) by Owada Toshio 小和田哲男, similar taboos were in place back then too. Obviously, words like "death," "lose," and "defeat" were right out, as were homonyms like "four" (shi, same as "death"; actually, shi is still avoided today — my building has an apartment 103 and 105, but no 104). If you absolutely had to write the number 4, you might do it by writing two 2s together, either side-by-side (like ニニ) or squished closer and angled together, like × with the center missing.

Another forbidden word was hiku, as in "pull back," "retreat." Even gestures implying this word were frowned upon. For example, here's a passage Owada quotes from an Imagawa clan etiquette manual (the 今川大双紙, compiled by Imagawa Ryōshun 今川了俊):


When departing for battle, the ladler shall kneel on his left knee to serve the sake. Though he may adjust his knees, he shall not pull back his feet.

Normally, after serving the sake, you would knee-crawl backwards out of respect. This was not permitted. You had to knee-turn and face forward as you left.

"North" was yet another pre-battle taboo, because the kanji, 北, also means "flee" or "turn one's back." (The character was originally drawn as two people with their backs turned to each other, it seems. Note also that this is why the character for "back" [the body part] is 背: it's 北 + the "meat moon" body-part radical.) Not to mention the fact that corpses were placed with their heads facing north, and this was known as kitamakura (north-pillow), an undesirable way for the living to sleep. All in all, a bad bundle of imagery for superstitious soldiers, and so you were not to leave your armor facing north, face north while putting it on, or dismount a horse from the northern side. It is for this reason that the armies of Japan were never able to mount a successful campaign against Santa Claus.

However, north was good for one thing: disposing of enemy heads, once they had been displayed to the satisfaction of your superiors. You wanted them to flee, after all, not stick around haunting you.

(The post-battle display of trophy heads, by the way, was known as the kubi jikken 首実検. Meanwhile, in modern Japanese, jikken means "[scientific] experiment." The shared etymology is in the characters: "truth[fulness] inspection," and it's obvious when you think about it — did you really kill that general? do the rats really grow extra tails? — but it still gives me a little "Re-animator" thrill sometimes when I see it in print.)



Sign outside a development near my house: