Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Pilgrimage to the Grave of Miyamoto Musashi

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last week, my husband Michael and I traveled to Kumamoto, a city on Kyushu (Japan's southernmost major island) that is famous for oranges, the cheerful mascot Kuma-mon, one of Japan's greatest and best-preserved medieval castles, and its association with Miyamoto Musashi: one of the greatest swordsmen the world has ever known.

This is not Miyamoto Musashi.

Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, 1584 – 1645) was born in southern Honshū (Japan's largest island) to a samurai family. As a teenager, he left home and traveled extensively throughout Japan, training in swordsmanship and engaging in duels--generally fought with wooden swords called bokken, but occasionally also with real swords.

One of Musashi's swords on display at Reigan-do

He developed a then-unique style of fighting with a sword in each hand (as opposed to using a single sword in a two-handed style), and won a record 61 duels--a feat unmatched in Japanese history.

In 1633, after decades of traveling, fighting duels, and serving in at least two wars, Musashi settled in Kumamoto, where he became a retainer of Daimyō Hosokawa, who then ruled over the Kumamoto region.

The shrine where modern swordsmen come to pay respects to the master.

Ten years later, he retired to Reigan-do, a cave in the mountains outside Kumamoto, where he meditated, practiced calligraphy and art, and wrote the Book of Five Rings, a seminal work on swordsmanship and martial arts that remains both relevant and well-read to this day.

The exterior of the cave at Reigan-do, where Musashi spent his final years in writing and meditation.

Musashi completed the Book of Five Rings just months before he died. His body was interred in Kumamoto, in what is now Musashizuka Park. His head or hair (depending who you ask) was buried in a smaller, less-accessible grave in the mountains near Reigan-do. Both sites are considered sacred, as is Reigan-do.

Musashi's "true grave" in the mountains - considered the "real" grave even though his body is not buried here.

Since his death, Musashi has been considered a kami (protective deity) and, specifically, a patron deity for those who study swordsmanship. To this day, many Japanese people visit his cave and grave(s) to pray for assistance with martial arts training, testing, and success.

The path to the grave sits on the grounds of a temple dedicated to Miyamoto Musashi.

Rakan on the hillside en route to Reigan-do

Hundreds of rakan (statues of Buddha's disciples) line the slopes, placed there since Musashi's death in recognition of the now-sacred nature of the site.

Many of the statues have lost their heads through earthquakes or at the hands of vandals, but many remain intact.

More Rakan

The cave itself is quiet and serene--when not filled with visitors--and it's easy to see why an aging warrior chose this spot to spend his final years.

The interior of Reigan-do

Musashi was a great calligrapher and writer as well as a swordsman, and I was glad to finally have the opportunity to visit, and pay our respects to, this great man who casts a very long and honorable  shadow over the history of martial arts and philosophy in Japan.


  1. Susan, I al so glad that you and Michael had he chance to make this pilgrimage. Fascinating that Musashi has been deified.

  2. Did you pick up any calligraphy inspiration on this pilgrimage? I know for sure you had to pick up some new book ideas. What a protagonist!