Oka Castle and Rentaro Taki's Song Moon over the Ruined Castle 竹田市, 岡城, 荒城の月
If you have been to Japan for any length of time you most likely have encountered the wistful old "folk song" Kojo no Tsuki (The Moon over the Ruined Castle).
Just give the melody a short listen - you will certainly recognize it.
Kojo no Tsuki (The Moon over the Ruined Castle)
Beautiful, sad and yearning. It is often called a "Japanese folk song", but actually, it isn't. Japanese folk songs (minyo) are by definition songs that came from the peasantry and were sung to pass the time of monotonous but collective labor, like, say, picking tea leaves. Typically, the creators of a minyo are lost in history though their song's (supposed) area of origin may still be recognized.
If you give Kojo no Tsuki a listen, you will hear that it is hardly informed by Japanese countryside music at all - but very distinctively by Western romanticism.
Oka Castle History
Originally erected in 1185, Oka Castle had been enlarged multiple times and eventually covered a widespread area on the steep hills overlooking a river and all the surrounding countryside up to the Kuju mountain range clearly visible in the distance.
Various local clan battles took place here but the castle did not gain prominence until 1594 when the Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi handed it over to his trusted follower Hideshige Nakagawa. Hideyoshi ordered Hideshige to rebuild the flimsy local clan fortification into a veritable stone castle - and Hideshige did not only that. He fortified the whole hill range with massive stone walls.
During the Edo Period, the castle grew and grew, occasional earthquake damages just inspired only more and bigger construction efforts. Oka Castle housed thousands of samurai and was thus one of centers of Kyushu samurai culture during the Edo Period. Traveling to the outer posts belonging to the castle had to be done on horseback - they were kilometers away from the center of the castle.
Yet despite its size and large warrior population, the castle proved to be of no military significance during the Edo Period.
All samurai action came to a sudden end in 1871 when the new Meiji government ordered the castle to be destroyed. Striving for the modernization of Japan, the Meiji government wanted to get rid of the old samurai centers. After a history of about 700 years, the samurai were forced out by the new powers of modernization.
They left peacefully and tore down their own castle - but they left the basic stone fortification walls standing.
Enter Rentaro Taki, the man who composed the song. Born in Tokyo in 1879, he lived through his early youth in many places in Japan due to the itinerant job schedule of his father. Eventually, in 1888, the family settled in Taketa city in today's Oita Prefecture while Taki was still a boy.
The abandoned castle proved to be the perfect playground for young Rentaro. He explored every nook and cranny of it through all the four seasons.
When he entered the Tokyo Music School in 1894, Taki took his wistful feelings about the abandoned castle with him. The school, like all major schools in Japan at the time, focused on new Western ideas. In music, that meant the European classics including recent European Romanticism.
During the course of Taki's studies, the Tokyo Music School decided to publish a new song book for High School students. First, they asked a variety of both young and established poets to write a number of lyrics. One of the poets they asked was Bansui Doi (1871 - 1953). He was a specialist on English Romanticism and in love with the works of Lord Byron and his contemporaries.
A native of Sendai, Doi wrote the lyrics for Moon over the Ruined Castle based on his own experiences witnessing the sad state of the former samurai Aoba Castle in Sendai and Aizuwakamatsu Castle in Fukushima.
Taki picked up Doi's text and composed the music for Moon over the Ruined Castle based on his own experience of playing as a youth at the Oka Castle in Taketa.
When the school's song book was published in March 1901, Taki's castle song was chosen and included into the book, along with two other songs composed by Taki.
The following month, Taki embarked for Europe. The Meiji government had recognized his talent and sent him to Leipzig, Germany to further his music studies. Taki was only the second Japanese musician to be sent abroad to study by the Meiji authorities.
Taki enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory. At the time, Leipzig was perhaps the center for classical music studies in Europe. The city had both the proud history of Johann Sebastian Bach as a former church musician at the central Thomas Church and of more recent musical innovators like Robert Schumann. The Conservatorium itself had been founded by romantic composer Felix Mendelsson Bartholdy and Romanticism was still in vogue there.
Yet, Leipzig turned out to be an unfortunate place for Taki. Despite living under comfortable conditions in the midst of the "Musician's Quarter", a rather noble housing area with all streets named after famous composers close to the Conservatory, Taki caught tuberculosis within two months upon his arrival.
Due to the illness, he decided to return home and left Germany by boat in September 1902. His ship departed from Hamburg and made a stop for one day in London on its voyage to Japan. Right at that time, Bansui Doi, the writer of the lyrics for Moon over the Ruined Castle furthered his studies of English literature in London.
Finally and only very briefly, the two men creating the song could eventually meet.
Taki returned to Taketa and died in June 1903 at age 23. Because he was known to have been infected with tuberculosis, all his personal papers were burned to prevent a possible spread of the disease - including all the compositions he did while staying in Leipzig.
But Kojo no Tsuki remained and the song became a legend - both domestically and internationally: Jazz piano saint Thelonious Monk for example recorded it in 1967 on his album Straight, No Chaser. The German rock band Scorpions picked the song up during their first visit to Japan in 1978 and released it on their album Tokyo Tapes in the same year.
See here a live Scorpions performance of the song with an introduction by singer Klaus Meine.
Visiting Oka Castle Today
When you buy your ticket for Oka Castle ruins, you get a very nice surprise. The ticket is not just a ticket, it's a treasure to keep: a long scroll with a detailed picture map of the castle in medieval times, rolled around a wooden base. A map just as the old samurai might have used it to find their way around the castle back in the day. That scroll alone is certainly worth more than the humble 300 yen you pay for the right to visit the ruins.
You then walk along a road with a few souvenir and food stalls and soon you are on your way up to the ruins. The entrance way with its high stone walls is very well preserved. The gates to the castle are missing, of course, but you can clearly make out were they were.
After walking up the stone steps (widely spaced to so they could give access to horses) flanked by high stone walls, you finally reach a plateau. That's where the actual castle once stood. Trees have overgrown the area. Besides of various old fortification walls, hardly a trace is left of the buildings that once housed the samurai.
If you walk to the edges of the plateau and look below, you see almost vertical stone cliff walls reaching all the way down to the bottom of the hills, 150m or more straight down. There are no barriers at all, make a careless step too far and you go down.
From the edges of the of the plateau, you also have great views over the surrounding landscape, including the Kuju mountain range, also to more outlaying parts of the castle. High stone cliff walls are there as well. Hiking over to those outposts would take hours. But those might be hours well spent - hardly any of the few visitors to the castle bother to explore those distant reaches.
There you are all alone in the ruined castle - just like Rentaro Taki was when he explored the castle in his youth. Not much has changed since then. A new sign board here and there, new roads and houses way down below.
While all seasons are good to visit the castle, the cherry-blossom season in early April and the autumn colors in November are the most picturesque. At those times, expect many more fellow visitors, though.
You will still easily find a quiet corner if you go further afield. With the late afternoon moon out in the sky, sitting down under a blossoming cherry tree or under the wildly colored autumn leaves at a good viewpoint, opening a bottle of sake and tuning in to Rentaro Taki's song on the headphone device of your choice might be the perfect romantic way to enjoy the castle ruin, the song - and life in general.
Train: JR Hohi Main Line (connecting Kumamoto city with Oita city) to Bungotaketa Station. From there, Oka Castle is 5 minutes by taxi.
Opening times: daily, 8:30am to 5pm
Admission: 300 Yen
Tel: 0974 63 1111
Website (in Japanese)
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