Nagase Hangan was a vassal of the ill-fated Kiso Yoshinaka. He perished along with his master at the Battle of Awazu. This epic battle saw Kiso Yoshinaka shot in the face with an arrow after his horse became mired in the frozen sludge of a rice polder. By that time Nagase Hangan had likely already given his life. In order to escape persecution by the forces of Minamoto Yoritomo, the surviving Nagase Clan back in Shinano retreated to a secret, hidden residence in order that they may go unnoticed and live out the remainder of their lives in peace. This is the origin of the Nagase-yakata and the small village which grew up around it, only recently abandoned. The Nagase would eventually revert to farming, but they never neglected the memory of their brave ancestor.
A pleasant walk from Seba Station with its old station house brings one to a rural area of the Narai River valley. A local community bus trundles along with the old dears onboard. Beyond the bus stop is a quiet, narrow lane. Follow this unlikely side road until it bends around an old cemetery and suddenly, the tarmac fraying, descends down a forested slope to arrive at a place - surely there is nothing here but the river? The Nagase bridge traverses more than the rapidly flowing Narai River, it spans the realm between the mundane and the mysterious.
Nagase is a 'hidden village' of sorts. This phrase kakurezato (隠れ里) blurs history and legend, and is often associated with ochiudo densetsu (落人伝説), which means 'legends of fallen warriors', a phenomena of Japanese folklore. A typical encounter with a kakurezato occurs in a remote location. Imagine yourself a hunter in the deep forest. You're alert and tense. Suddenly you hear sounds you shouldn't in the dark forest. An echo of laughter floats between the cedars. You are unnerved and fall back to a stream to splash its cool water in your face. But you jump back from the water in awe: a bowl with chopsticks is floating down stream. Someone is upstream, and you follow the river to its source, coming across a hidden village. Various legends attend the kakurezato, from the improbable to the fantastical. Often the concept evokes a sort of bucolic paradise of a simple, quiet existence without conflict. The intersecting legends of fallen warriors I describe in this extract from a short article I wrote on the topic:
'A village hidden in the mountains, untouched in centuries, known to only a few outsiders... Here is where Heike warriors who survived the massacre at Dannoura came to hide and eventually settle, rebuilding their lives and clan in the strictest secrecy, passing down their crafts and heirlooms to their ancestors who possess them to this day.
'... If you believe this, do you also believe the over one hundred other villages which tell the exact same story? Each has secrets, each has treasures and each has lineage to back up their claims! But of course they can't all be genuine. Perhaps none of them are.
'Ochiudo Densetsu (落人伝説) means 'Legends of Fallen Warriors' and is a phenomenon of Japanese folklore. Warriors presumed or even proven dead live on in legend and are said to have escaped destruction, disappearing into anonymity and re-establishing themselves in out of the way places, carrying with them their special crafts and skills, passing them down to their ancestors right up until today. Japanese folklorists and historians have long observed this phenomenon and tried to separate fact from fiction, in the process debunking many myths, but also proving long established facts to be incorrect. To illustrate how pervasive this trait of Japanese culture is: in 1926 when the Emperor Chōkei was officially recognised as a legitimate Emperor (some six centuries after his reign) a search for his tomb prompted claims from over two hundred villages that they were descended from him and that his final resting place was in their village. I imagine each village mocked the absurd claims of all the others, smiling demurely and shaking their heads.'
Although some remote villages have laid claim to the status of real world kakurezato (Kyōmaru in Hamamatsu, Gokanoshō in Yatsushiro, &c.), Nagase was not particularly remote. Instead it was located beneath a terrace of the Narai River. From the above plateau it is invisible. One would have to have prior knowledge of its existence to find it. The hidden part is geographic, and its attendant folklore concerns not Taira but Minamoto warriors, discussed in the history section.
I went to Nagase to investigate the potential remains of a yakata (fortified manor hall). Today the small slip of land which constitutes Nagase is uninhabited and no longer cultivated. The main land-owners were the Nagase family, and they grew rice. At its height the village had twenty dwellings. Now only a few remain standing, and none appear to be tenanted. There used to be a pig farm whilst people still lived here, but now that has been cleared and there is a solar panel array in its place in the north of the slip. The rice paddies in the south are fallow. The hamlet is still in orderly fashion; cemetery plots (all cenotaphs bear the name 'Nagase') and the local shrine are maintained. When I first entered the village a man in a light truck was clearing up at the shrine - perhaps he was a Nagase man himself; I could see him between the trees when descending the terrace, but he soon left and I don't think he noticed me.
There is a terrace with old paddies below and more fields above. There is a short berm beneath with a waterway which empties into a pond. There are several waterways lined with stones in the village which once provided the necessities of daily living to the villagers. The road which runs up has an old residence at the corner. This house could be a century old or more. The terrace rises behind it, and this is thought to have been the site of the Nagase clan residence. The earth is heaped up here. Overlooking the river there is heaped, rammed earth running along the cliffline like dorui (earthen ramparts). Amidst these piles of earth is a hokora (a small shrine) and a stone marker proclaiming the site of Nagase Hangan's burial mound.
It's true this site is well hidden. But being on such low terrain also would've made it very vulnerable. An enemy could come upon the place very quickly. But there is one final secret. Above the village shrine, on what appears to be nothing but a mountain, there is a flattened terrace of considerable size. Although there are too many trees in the way now, this area, thought to have been a fortification site, gives enough elevation for a view of the plateau on the other side of the river. The Nagase used this space as a fortified redoubt and look-out. If viewed as a fort, this was a secondary upper bailey and the main bailey with the residence was below. There's just enough here to make one think, yes, it's possible the stories are true, this really was a kakurezato - of the real kind - where the Nagase Clan held their secret court.
|English Name||Nagase Yakata|
|Year Founded||Late Heian Period|
|Castle Type||Fortified Manor|
|Castle Condition||Ruins only|
|Historical Period||Pre Edo Period|
|Access||Seba Station on the Chūō West Line; 20 minute walk|
|Visitor Information||24/7 free; fields|
|Time Required||30 minutes|
|Location||Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture|
|Coordinates||36° 4' 53.76" N, 137° 54' 17.21" E|
|Added to Jcastle||2022|
|Admin Year Visited||Viewer Contributed|
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