Member’s pick by Aafke van Ewijk: The Excursion

Anyone will remember the excitement of school excursions, away from the desks and the daily routines. This double page from a late Edo period textbook shows a group of young boys about to enter the precincts of Kitano Tenmangū in Kyoto. Chatting excitedly, they pass between the pine trees, with their teacher and two older boys who may be explaining the purpose of the trip. The shrine is dedicated to the politician, poet, and scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), in deified form known as Tenman Tenjin. The boys should not only worship, but also take the studious Michizane as an example, and so should the student who uses this textbook. Those who do not consider this an exciting message might be told that Michizane, who died in exile in Dazaifu, came back to torment the court in Kyoto as a wrathful spirit. The shrine was erected to pacify him.

The textbook is titled Daizen shin dōji ōrai 大全新童子往来 (‘Great New Collection of Instructional Texts for Children’), first published in Osaka and Kyoto in 1837 and reprinted with new blocks in the part of the year 1868 that is not yet called Meiji. I obtained it in October this year, during my first visit to Japan since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. The trip was not only memorable for this reason, but I was surrounded by a group of enthusiastic Dutch highschool students and their teachers. 

The main destination of the study tour was Yokota, a village in Oku-izumo. Connections with the Yokota community were forged after the Dutch National Museum in Amsterdam aquired two temple guardians or Niō in 2007. These were found to have once protected the Iwayaji, a temple near Yokota. On our last day in this village, we hiked up the mountain to visit the temple. Sadly, in contrast to Kitano Tenmangu, the Iwayaji fell into disuse and is now the abode of hornets. The purpose of our excursion was to show students the original context within which the guardians had stood. It was a strange feeling to hear in that place from one of the elderly community members how as a boy he would pass the two fiercely looking guardians in terror. 

Two students by coincidence led me to the bookstore where I bought this volume. Apart from sword steel and the Yamata-no-orochi myth, Oku-izumo is famous for the Unshū soroban (abacus, with Unshū referring to Izumo). Back in Tokyo, some students ventured into the second-hand bookstores of Jinbochō, where they identified and bought a dingy late eighteenth-century soroban textbook. A nice find indeed. The next morning, the owner of the bookstore (that I had somehow missed earlier) showed me this compendium that is more aligned with my favorite school subjects. 

What makes this book especially interesting to me is that different from such compendia published in Edo, its opening pages do not contain a representation of the feudal status system. This was to remind merchant children to be diligent and to teach them that the aim of education is not to economically outrank the samurai. These Kansai publishers maybe felt less inclined to feign concern about such things. Instead, the opening pages show a grand panorama of Dazaifu Tenmangū in the fashion of illustrated guidebooks or meisho zue, followed by the above spread of an excursion to Kitano Tenmangū closer to home, and various legends related to the script. 

The main part of the book consists of canonical texts that were used for copying (tenarai) and reading aloud (sodoku). To my great pleasure, the book contains a comparatively large collection of kojō or ‘ancient letters’. These are (apocryphal) letters taken from wartales such as The Tale of the Heike, reinterpreted as writing examples. The letters are illustrated with iconographic images, thereby connecting didactic texts to popular legends about famous warriors. One of the illustrations shows, for example, the episode of Ushiwakamaru (the young Minamoto no Yoshitsune) battling the tengu at Kurama. The text on the right side of the image is the last part of the Koshigoe-jō, Yoshitsune’s plea to his half-brother Yoritomo. The text below is part of Edo-ōrai, that introduces the famous places and products of the political capital, where our own excursion began and ended. 

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