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11. The Town of Hinode-machi & Sotoba (Japanese Wooden Grave Tablets / Stupas)

Sotoba used to be produced in each region of Japan, but the production decreased due to increasing difficulties in procuring materials of favorable grades, especially to meet urgent demands, and the increasing cost of the materials. Today, it is in Hinode-machi, Tama-gun, Tokyo, where 60 - 70% of all Sotoba in Japan are produced. In Hinode-machi, those who make Sotoba are called 《Sotoba-ya-san》 in Japanese, and our website《Sotoubayasan》is derived from this. Our website is owned by Yaji Shintaro Shoten Co., Ltd., which was founded by Shintaro Yaji in 1883, in Hinode-machi, as a Sotoba manufacturing business.

Currently the environment surrounding the Sotoba manufacturing industry is a difficult one. It is thought that this is due to less and less families belonging to temples, coupled with the culture of memorial services with Sotoba not being passed down due to an increase in the number of nuclear families. However, once the background and significance of memorial services with Sotoba are carefully explained, the young generation gets interested in this tradition, and in fact we receive many inquiries from young people who have seen our website / social media, wanting to know more about this tradition, or actually visit our factory.

Also, recently, TV programs that feature the Japanese traditional culture and craftsmanship have become popular, and the momentum for re-learning our origins is increasing, in anticipation of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Presentation and explanation of traditional cultures with the use of advanced technologies such as the Internet and social media - Isn’t it innovations created in the fusion of existing things with the new, that are important and valuable?

An Overview of Hinode-machi

In metropolitan Tokyo, only Nishitama-gun with 3 towns of Mizuho, Okutama, and Hinode-machi remain in the ?gun (Japanese county)? system, since Minami-tama-gun and Kita-tama-gun disappeared when the towns in them transformed to the municipal system. Hinode-machi is an area of 28.07 square kilometers populated by 17,317 people (as of April 1, 2018). Fir trees are Hinode-machi’s symbolic tree and also serve as a material for Sotouba. Wisteria, cherry blossoms and nightingales are the symbols of Hinode-machi as well.

Hinode-mura, which was formed by merging 2 villages of Hirai and Oguno on June 1, 1967, took its name from Mt. Hinode (902m above sea level) rising to the north, and became Hinode-machi in 1974. The name of Mt. Hinode seems to have been derived from its location, i.e., the east of Mt. Ontaki (920m above sea level), with the east being the direction to worship the sunrise (called 《hinode》 in Japanese) from the mountaintop of Mt. Ontake.

Today, Hinode-machi houses a Ken-O Expressway intersection connecting main expressways extending from the Kanto region to other regions (Joban Expressway & Nihonkai-Tohoku Expressway, Kan-etsu Expressway and Tomei Expressway). Close to this intersection is Miyoshino industrial Park housing factories of major companies. On the west side of the Industrial Park is now a major shopping mall which attracts a large crowd from neighboring municipalities on weekends.
 
In addition, there is a natural hot spring called Tsuru-Tsuru Onsen in Ogino area, where our company is located in. Trailer buses called 《Seishun-Go》 looking like locomotives and bringing visitors to the hot spring have also become popular, and attract many backpackers and motorcycle tourists from all over the Kanto region.
 
Hinode-machi is rich in natural surroundings, and is well known for the splendid view of cherry blossoms along the Hirai River in the spring. During the rainy season of May to June, at our factory, we have a beautiful view of natural fireflies fluttering on and around the Hirai River. Our parking lot is open to the public free of charge for the viewing of fireflies. In the summer, Hinode-machi also attracts many families hosting barbecue parties.
 
Hinode-machi ranks among the top Japanese municipalities in terms of welfare for the elderly and child care. Combined with its proximity to downtown Tokyo with only a 1-hour commute, many have moved here from other places in Japan, especially families with children.

On November 11, 1988, Ron-Yasu talks between former Prime Minister Nakasone and former President Reagan were held at Hinode Sanso, and Hinode-machi was frequently featured in media coverage. Recently the completion of the Rokuya Daibutsu, which is bigger than the Great Buddha of Kamakura, was also featured in media coverage, and as a result, Hinode-machi has grown as a major tourist site.
 
Most areas of the town are mountainous, with only a few cultivated lands. The major industries of the town are forestry, wood industry, dairy farming, tourism and concrete industry. Taiheiyo Cement Corporation’s quarry is on the other side of the Hirai River across from our company. Hinode-machi is also known for its tomatoes, as well as a local speciality 《Red Udon Noodles》 made with these tomatoes.
 
Among the various areas of Hinode-machi, Oguno is more mountainous than Hirai, and many of people in Oguno area make a living by foresry. The reasons Sotoba manufacturing grew in Hinode-machi was the abundance in fir trees suitable for Sotoba, and the town’s proximity to Edo (old name for Tokyo), which contributed to relatively short time and cost of transporting raw materials and finished goods. Locomotives used to run through the town and played a major role in logistics.

 

圏央道▲Area Near Hinode Interchange on Ken-O Expressway

桜並木▲Cherry Blossoms

平井川▲Families Enjoying Fishing by the Hirai River

紅葉
▲Beautiful Autumn Leaves Along the Hirai River

クリスマス
▲Christmas Lighting

日の出山
▲Sacred New Year Sunrise Seen From Mt. Hinode

どんと焼き
▲Dondo-Yaki (A traditional event held after the New Year’s Holidays; Everyone in the neighborhood gathers around a powerful bonfire to wish for happiness in the new year)
 
日の出山荘
▲Hinode Sanso

The History of Sotoba Manufacturing in Hinode-machi

During Genroku Period (1688 - 1703), two people, Bun-emon, who was a master in Habu of Oguno area of Hinode-machi, and Sōbei, who managed agriculture and mountain work, set off on a shrine visit to Ise Jingu (in Mie Prefecture in western Japan), which was an activity gaining popularity at the time. On their way back after the visit, around Enshu-Hamamatsu (near Hamamatsu-City today), they noticed a monk on pindapata, but in pain, on the roadside. Being people of deep religious faiths and with kind hearts, the two travelers could not just let him be, so Bun-emon gave the monk his medicine. Having taken the medicine and feeling a bit better, the monk invited the two to spend the night at his temple. Sōbei put the monk on his shoulders, and as they set off toward the temple, they came across a horse with a bundle of long, thin plates on its back, just coming out of the temple. Bun-emon and Sōbei asked the monk what the plates were for. The monk replied, ?The horse is carrying to other temples Sotoba that I had carpenters make? and continued, "There are many fir trees in the mountains of your hometown, so if you also make Sotoba and sell them in Edo (Tokyo today), they will sell well.? The monk then explained Bun-emon and Sōbei how to make Sotoba. On their way back home, the two travelers consulted. Since cutting fir trees was one of Sōbei’s trades, they decided for him to be in charge of fir tree cutting, and for Bun-emon to make and sell Sotoba. After returning home, they immediately took up Sotoba-making, and their Sotoba did sell well. Others in town started imitating them, and Sotoba orders from temples all across Japan began to pour in.
Source: 《Hinode-machi Foklore》 by Hinode-machi Cultural Property Protection Committee

The Yokosawa strata that lies from Habu of Hinode-machi to Itsukaichi-Yokosawa is a production area of Inaishi stones, and stone Sotoba were actively made from the end of the Kamakura Period (about 1333) to the end of the Muromachi Period (about 1573). In those days there were local swordsmen in Musashi (most of Tokyo, Saitama Prefecture, Kawasaki-City and Yokohama-City today) with Buddhist beliefs, and Sotoba with Aoishi stones and five-ring pagodas were made. Of course, Ita Touba were probably already being manufactured even before then.

In the 12th century, two clans, Taira and Minamoto, fought over the control of Japan. The covert plan conjectured in Shishigatani of Kyoto to subjugate the Taira clan was uncovered, and the participants in the plan were punished and banished to an island off Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan’s four main islands. One of those banished was Yasunori Taira-no, and during his exile, he made 1,000 Ita Touba, set them off to the ocean and waited for the day he would be forgiven. This is described in a famous epic called The Heike Monogatari (The Tale of Heike) that depicts this conflict between the two clans.
 
The Heike Monogatari (The Tale of Heike)
Volume 2: Sotoba Nagashi (The Floating Sotoba)
 
Thus these two, continually praying before the Three Gongen, at times spent the whole night
before them.
 
So that it happened that one night when they had thus stayed until morning singing 'Imayo' and dancing, toward dawn they allowed their eyes to close for a moment with weariness, and in a dream they saw a small ship with white sails rowing in from the offing, and twenty or thirty court ladies in scarlet hakama coming on shore from it, beating drums and chanting in chorus,

"Better than prayer to ten thousand Buddhas is the vow to Kwannon of the 'Thousand Hands

Straightway the withered herbage will put forth flowers and fruit.》
 
Repeating this chant three times they vanished.
 
Then Yasuyori Nyudo, awaking from his dream, thought it a wondrous sign
 
indeed it must have been sent by the Dragon God
 
For seeing that one of the Three Gongen of Kumano called Nishi-no-Gozen was the Kwannon of the Thousand Hands in India,
 
And the Dragon God of the sea is one of the twenty-eight servants of this Kwannon, no doubt they would obtain their desire.
 
Another night the two spent there also, and in a dream they saw two leaves blown in by a breeze
from the offing and wafted into their sleeves,
 
And when they looked at them, they were leaves of the ' Nagi ' I41I tree at Kumano.
 
On the leaves of the Nagi these lines had been bitten in by insects:
 
"Since your prayers to the god have been so long and incessant, surely you are allowed soon to return to your home."
 
So much did Yasuyori desire to return that as one method of consoling himself he made a  thousand Sotoba and wrote on them the character in Sanscrit, with the clay of the month  and his name and priestly name, adding these stanzas also:
 
"That I am here in au isle of the bay of Satsuma dwelling; Prithee O salt sea breeze, tell to my parents afar." and,
 
"Dear is his native land to him who is not so far distant; Feel then more pity for me exiled so lone and so far."
 
Then taking them down to the shore,

He cast them into the white sea waves one by one with this invocation: "Namu Kimyo chorai, O Shaka Nyorai and Four Great Heavenly Kings and Ye God of Heaven and Earth, and all the deities who protect this Imperial land, especially the Gongen of Kumano and the deity of Itsukushima in Aki. May it please you to grant that one of these may reach the capital."
 
As he went on making them and casting them into the sea.
 
Thus, as the days passed the number of the sotoba increased with them,
 
And whether the winds assisted him or the gods and Buddhas sent it, one of the thousand sotoba was cast up on the shore before the shrine of Itsukushima Daimyojin.
 
It chanced moreover that a priest who had some connexion with Yasuyori Nyudo had just come to Itsukushima in the course of a pilgrimage to the western part of the country, and this priest had the intention of going to the island if he could find occasion, to enquire the whereabouts of the Nyudo.
 
There a servant came out from the shrine dressed in a kariginu and looking like an ordinary person,
 
And in the course of their talk the priest said:
 
It is true that the gods appear in the world in divers guises to save mortals, but in what connexion
does the god of this place appear as a sea dragon?"
 
"Because the third daughter of the Dragon King of Shakatsura Dainichi Nyorai is manifested here as Taizokai (the mandara of wisdom),"
 
Since the goddess appeared in this place she has continued to help mortals until the present day and many miraculous events have taken place,
 
So that these eight shrines stand raising their lofty roofs by the sea shore, the moon shining on the ebbing and flowing tide:
 
When the tide flows the great torii and the red shrine-fence shine like emerald,
 
And at the ebbing tide even in the summer night the sand before it is covered with frost.
 
Then the priest, wondering at these marvels, offered gifts to the shrine with peace of mind, and as
the moon rose and the tide came in at dusk he saw the sotoba come floating among the seaweed
that drifted in from the offing, and idly picking it up
 
《I am on a small island in an open sea 》
 
Was the verse he saw upon it.
 
And as the characters were cut in the wood they were not washed off by the waves but stood out clearly.
 
Thinking this very strange, he stuck it on the side of his pilgrim's box and went back to Kyoto.
On arriving there he showed it to the old mother of Yasuyori and his wife and children who were  living in retirement at Murasakino north of Ichijo.
 
"Ah! " they said sadly, "Why should this have come here, instead of going across to China which lies nearest, to renew our grief by the sight of it ?"
 
Then the matter came to the ear of the Ho-o, and when he looked on it
 
He exclaimed, weeping "Ah, how cruel that the wretched man should still be living."
 
It was sent on by him to Komatsu Dono, and he in turn sent it to his father.
 
Of famous verses there is the stanza that Kaki no moto Hitomaro made about ' the ship  disappearing among the islands,' thinking fondly of his native laud, and that of Yamabe-no-
Akahito in like case celebrating ' the storks among the reeds.' So the god of Sumiyoshi also spoke of 'the shingled roof of his shrine,' and the Miojin of Miwa of ' the cedar trees of his shrine gate,' when afar from his home. Since Susa-no-o-no-mikoto first made the verse of thirty-one syllables, even the gods and Buddhas have thus expressed their feelings in it.
 
Source of English Version: The Heike Monogatari by Translated by A.L. Sadler, the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/stream/TheHeikeMonogatari/HeikeMonogatari._djvu.txt, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication)
 
One of those who came to the island to pardon and get Yasutomo Taira-no, the monk, was a member of a clan based in the Arakawa area of Kanto region. This clan had members with Buddhist beliefs, and it is said that some of them were influenced by Yasutomo Taira-no. Perhaps this served as a basis, even if partially, to Sotoba-making in the Tama area, which encompasses Hinode-machi.

It is highly possible that Sotoba were produced even before the times of Bun-emon in the aforementioned folklore of Hinode-machi, but it seems that the Sotoba production of the time was just to fulfill immediate needs in the nearby areas, and was not conducted as a main business.

Before mechanization like in the present day, craftsmen were called "Kezuri Shokunin (scraping craftsmen)》 and handmade Sotoba with saws, chisels and planers. Our factory and main building were located on the same land, and in those days the craftsmen handmade Sotoba one by one in the attic of our main building. Our attic today is reminiscent of this past.

Initially, many manufacturers made Sotoba as a side business, and up to the early years of Showa Period (Showa Period started in 1926), in fact, our company also produced them while carrying on forestry and sericulture businesses.

 

卒塔婆干し▲Sun Drying Wooden Plates from Mountains for Sotoba Production (Yaji Shintaro Shoten Co., Ltd., About 1965)


昔の塔婆
▲Sample Sotoba of 1922 (Owned by Yaji Shintaro Shoten Co., Ltd.)

Sotoba (Japanese Wooden Grave Tablets / Stupas) and Fir Trees

Fir trees became a material for Sotoba because their surface is clean and beautiful when made into plates, and excel in absorbability and quick in drying, even if ink writings are made on them. However, the softness and lightweight property made fir trees prone to cracking and breakage, and thus not suitable for construction materials. By the way, when you hear the word 《fir tree,》 doesn’t the image of Christmas trees come to mind? In fact, young fir trees are often used as Christmas trees. Fir trees are a speciality of Japan. They are a gymnosperm plant, and are evergreen, needle-leaf trees with a stem straightness. With a 5m-diameter and height of 50m, a fir tree has needle-shaped, dense, alternate leaves with forked tips. A fir tree grows 150 - 250 years. Many are seen all across Japan, from north to south, and especially Hinode-machi had abundant fir trees.

The Japanese word for fir trees, 《Momi no ki," was once 《Momu no ki》and were regarded as fortune trees, with even records about them remaining in Man’yōshū (8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry). They are often used for religious services as well. For example, the Suwa Onbashira Festival in Nagano Prefecture is known to cut down a large fir tree every 7 years, bring it down to Kamisha in the south and north of Lake Suwa and Shimosha, and then to erect it in the 4 corners of the shrine.

Also, ancient dugout canoes used in sacred rituals in Mihonoseki-cho of Shimane Prefecture, derived from a myth recorded in Kojiki (Japan’s oldest historical record), were made with fir trees, and this tradition is handed down through generations even today.

Fir trees have a pure white color, giving a feeling of cleanliness and purity, and are used widely all around the world, for religious purposes or not.

Fir trees in Hinode-machi once grew on hills 300 - 900m above sea level, and the polar phase (flora) of plant ecology became a stable layer in the fir tree forest and this natural cycle continued  with fir trees growing well even in the shade. They prefer strata rich in limestone, and grow mainly in Hinode-machi, as well as Nariki of Ome in Tokyo and Hanno in Saitama Prefecture, areas with many Sotoba production companies. Fir trees on Mt. Takao are red and not suitable for Sotoba production.

It takes nearly 100 years until the size of fir trees becomes suitable for Sotoba production. Fir trees in Hinode-machi have been cut down and replaced by cedar, and now there are almost no fir trees left. For a while, fir trees from the Tohoku region were used in Sotoba production, but when they became scarce too, imported fir trees from China, the United States, Canada, Germany, etc., took over. Our company currently also uses imported fir trees in our Sotoba production.

 

もみの木▲Fir Trees


Referential Resource:

Hitoshi Shimojima,《Tama no Dento Gigei 2 (Traditional Arts of Tama: Volume 2),》1990

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