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Special Feature on Press Trips

A Journey Through Ancient Japan by Teniwoha


Part 3: In Search of Aterui and Moreh - Ruins of Isawa Castle, Ancient Battlefields, Dewa Shrine and more


Have you ever heard of the name Aterui, the leader of the Emishi people? Some of you may remember it being mentioned in your history textbooks. However, I am sure that few people can accurately state the name of their ally Moreh and their achievements. One reason for this, as mentioned in the first issue, is that Aterui and Moreh were losers. In addition, the Emishi were a race that did not have a written language, so there are significant limitations in trying to trace their history.
In fact, only a little historical material on the Aterui remains. There are only three places where the name Aterui appears in historical sources. Two of them are about Moreh.
In this article, we would like to visit places related to Aterui and Moreh and shed light on their lives and footprints by studying the culture and ruins in the area.

2.Toward Oshu City

(1)Historic sites related to Aterui and Moreh

When researching historical sites related to Aterui and Moreh, the first thing I remembered was Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, which I myself have visited many times in the past. I remembered that there was a stone monument inscribed with the names of Aterui and Moreh in the precincts of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and I was not mistaken when I checked it.
The monument was relatively new and was erected in 1994 to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the relocation of the capital to Kyoto. It was apparently erected with the approval of the head priest of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, at the request of a group called the "Kansai Aterui and Moreh Association. According to the official website of the "Kansai Aterui & Moreh Association," it seems that the group is mainly composed of people from Iwate Prefecture living in the Kansai region, and that memorial services are held every year. I learned that the monument has been carefully passed down with people's thoughts and feelings.
Another historical site related to Aterui and Moreh is the head mound in Hirakata City, Osaka Prefecture.
It is recorded that Aterui and Moreh were executed at the end of their lives in Kawachi Province, which is now Hirakata City.
This monument seems to be quite recent and was erected in 2007. However, there are some locals who do not believe in the location of Aterui and Moreh's last days. In fact, the head mound here is not even registered as a city historical site. Therefore, I assume that volunteers also erected this monument because they thought that the tradition should be passed down to the next generation.

(2)The living world of Aterui and Moreh

One of the stone monuments honoring Aterui and Moreh was found to be located at Kiyomizu Temple, which was donated by their rival, Sakanoue Tamuramaro, and the other at the site of their untimely deaths. I believe that the two are proof that people in later generations have passed on their achievements to the next generation.
As I studied the footprints of Aterui and Moreh, I wanted to see the world in which they lived. Of course, I could not go to the ancient world in a time machine, but I wanted to know about their hometown. I wanted to see with my own eyes the kind of place that Aterui and Moreh risked their lives to protect.
It is known that Aterui and More were based in ancient Isawa (present-day Mizusawa Ward, Oshu City, Iwate Prefecture). For this reason, I decided to visit the ruins and related facilities around Mizusawa Esashi on this trip.

(3)Travel Savior “Premium Taxi”

When I was trying to figure out how to get around Oshu City, I got a tip from a former teacher of mine from junior high school: "Premium Taxis" were available.
I investigated it and found that there were several courses offered by this sightseeing taxi service, including one called “Aterui no Sato Historical Tour.” The tour was to take us to the places related to Aterui. Furthermore, the description of the tour stated that a certified tour guide would “guide you through the charms of the region with love for the local area and a spirit of hospitality!”
My mentor said, "It's fun to go there while getting lost," but I am a very directionally inept person, so I booked a cab without hesitation. I also wanted to ask someone who knew the area and what the locals had to say about it, rather than walking around by myself, staring at maps and books.
The counter of the taxi company spoke politely, but the intonation of the dialect that could not be hidden was mixed. I was reminded of Takuboku Ishikawa's tanka poem, "I'm going to listen to it in the crowds of the train station, which has a nostalgic accent in my hometown." Certainly, Takuboku was also from Iwate prefecture. The unique accent had already stirred up the excitement of the trip.

3.Visit Oshu city, a place full of attractions

While researching places related to Aterui and Moreh, I came across a facility that I really wanted to visit. Oshu Buried Cultural Properties Research Center.
When I checked the official website, it turned out that there was also an "Aterui Corner" in addition to the "Emishi Introduction Corner" in the permanent exhibition. The more you look at the homepage, the more you think, "I have no choice but to go here!"
Moreover, right in front of the Oshu Buried Cultural Properties Research Center is Isawa Castle, which is said to have been built by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. Therefore, I decided to headfirst to the Oshu Buried Cultural Properties Research Center and Isawa Castle as must-see spots.

(1)(1) Oshu Buried Cultural Properties Research Center

The Oshu Buried Cultural Property Research Center is located about 15 minutes by taxi from Mizusawa-Esashi Station.
When I bought a ticket at the reception and looked at the exhibition on the first floor, it was the "Aterui Corner.” I was so excited after researching it on the internet. In the Aterui corner, there are interesting panels such as "Aterui's history" and "Aterui's hometown exploration map", as well as a short movie.

  • Statue of Aterui
    Statue of Aterui

But upstairs was nicer. It's spectacular from the entrance.

2nd floor exhibition room entrance
2nd floor exhibition room entrance

The second-floor exhibition room had a theater in the center, where a movie titled "The World of Ancient Tohoku Emishi" was shown periodically. This movie seemed to be getting old. However, it was very easy to understand and packed with the essence of the ancient Tōhoku, making it perfect for a beginner like me.
If I had to sum up my impression of the visit in a few words, I would say, "I am glad I went! But there was overwhelmingly not enough time to see everything!" I was very happy with my visit.
I told the taxi driver, I want to go to other places, so I will see them in about 30 minutes! But we didn't have enough time at all because the movie was only 30 minutes long to begin with.
There is so much to see, so if you decide to go, please adjust your schedule so that you can take your time.

(2)Isawa Castle Ruins

When you exit the Oshu Buried Cultural Property Research Center, the ruins of Isawa Castle will be right in front of you. The total area of Isawa Castle is said to be about 460,000 square meters. This is the size of nine Tokyo Domes. At the Oshu Archaeological Research Center, I got a pamphlet titled "Isawa no Mahoroba - Walking around Isawa Castle", but I didn't have time to walk around, so I took a taxi around the area.
The ruins of Isawa Castle are just a "remain", and only the Tsukijibei wall has been slightly restored. The taxi driver said, ``If you have the money, you can restore more things,'' but I thought that this was enough. Even if there are no historical buildings in the remains of Isawa Castle, where nature remains untouched, the scenery and other aspects of the castle may still be reminiscent of those days.
Since I visited at the end of April, the paddy fields were filled with water. It really is a refreshing, idyllic place. There were trees with white flowers here and there, so when I asked, the driver told me they were apple trees. I'm from Kyushu, so it was my first time seeing an apple tree. I wonder if Aterui and Moreh also ate apples that were nurtured in rich nature. Suddenly, I was thinking about that.

  •  Tsukiji walls on both sides of the outer south gate of Isawa Castle
    Tsukiji walls on both sides of the outer south gate of Isawa Castle
  • Ruins of Isawa Castle, information board
    Ruins of Isawa Castle, information board

(3)(3) Ancient battlefield

①Battle of the 8th Year of Enryaku
Aterui suddenly appears in history. Let's take a look once again at how "Aterui" is described in the book.

By the time, the bandit general Aterui arrived, there were 300 bandits who met him and fought.
The former army was unable to advance across because of the rebels. The rebels came in force and fought back. The force was so strong that when the government forces finally retreated, the rebels directly attacked them. Another four hundred bandits emerged from the eastern mountains to cut off the rear of the government forces. The enemy was caught in the front and rear. The rebels attacked and the government forces were driven out.
According to the Shoku-nihongi (Chronicles of Japan). Partially modified.

This is a breathtaking description. If you are interested in the rest of the story, please read "Shoku Nihongi".
This is the description of the "Battle of the 8th of Enryaku" in which Aterui appears for the first time in history.
As briefly mentioned in the first article, the friction between the Emishi and the Imperial Court had been growing after the rebellion of Azamaro. Emperor Kanmu was exceptionally determined to fight in the battle of the 8th year of Enryaku. However, due to a brilliant maneuver on the part of Aterui, the Imperial Court forces suffered a crushing defeat.

  • Stone monument inscribed with the site of the Battle of Subushi
    Stone monument inscribed with the site of the Battle of Subushi
  • Stone monument under the stairs of the watchtower<br>Group of Emishi
    Stone monument under the stairs of the watchtower
    Group of Emishi
  • Watch tower
    Watch tower
ColumnRice field art and Shohei Otani

Shohei Otani, a baseball player from Oshu City, may be more famous than Aterui right now. At the Watch tower, which overlooks the ancient battlefield of Subushi, visitors can see rice field art every year. Rice paddy art is the creation of mighty pictures using rice paddies of different colors as a campus.
I visited at the end of April. Rice planting had not yet started, and I could not see anything, but this year they are going to depict Otani's WBC accomplishments. I really wanted to see it!

The view from the watchtower. It was higher than I thought, and I was scared!
The view from the watchtower. It was higher than I thought, and I was scared!

②Battle of the 13th year of Enryaku
Five years after Enryaku 8 (789), the second conquest of the barbarians took place in Enryaku 13 (794). Emperor Kanmu greatly increased his army as a battle that he could never lose. The army at that time was said to number 100,000 men. Furthermore, he conducted a series of winning strategies, such as taming the Emishi in the Tohoku region and making ample provisions of food and weapons. Emperor Kanmu's confidence can also be read in the fact that he decided to move the capital to Heian-kyo in the same year as his conquest of the barbarians.
As a result, the battle of Enryaku 13 ended in victory for the government forces. For Emperor Kanmu, this victory seems to have had a certain effect in enhancing his authority. However, Aterui had not yet surrendered in the Tohoku region. Therefore, the battle will continue.

③Battle of the 20th year of Enryaku
The man who was appointed as a barbarian general in the battle of Enryaku 20. That is exactly who he is: Sakanoue Tamuramaro. However, not enough has been written about the battle of Enryaku 20, and not much is known about the actual situation. However, it is known that Sakanoue Tamuramaro was in the area as a vice general at the time of the battle of Enryaku 13. There are also documents that show that for several years after the battle of Enryaku 13, Tamuramaro offered preferential treatment to the Emishi who returned to their homes. Therefore, there is a theory that Sakanoue Tamuramaro won without a battle, or that he was accepted as a hero by the people of Tohoku because he only used measures to soften their hearts.

ColumnAterui surrender

After the battle of Enryaku 20, Aterui and Morer surrender with 500 men. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro returned to the capital with Aterui and Moreh, and pleaded with them to spare their lives, but they were not heard. Aterui and Moreh were beheaded in Kawachi Province as mentioned earlier.
Three questions come to mind here.
One is why did Sakanoue Tamuramaro offer the two pleas for their help? One possible reason is that Tamuramaro recognized the degree of Aterui and Moreh. In addition, Tamuramaro may have actually been there to see the life of the Emishi up close and personal, and thus learned firsthand that the Emishi were not the barbaric race they were made out to be in the capital.
Another question is that after the execution of Aterui and Moreh, we do not find any mourning battles or other warfare in the Tohoku region. Tamuramaro's pleas for help went unheeded because the nobles were afraid of the Emishi. They feared that if they sent Aterui and Moreh back to the Northeast, the Emishi would regroup. In other words, I believe that there was still a smoldering fire in the Northeast. But in reality, the rebellion did not happen again. Why? It may be because Aterui himself had persuaded the remaining Emishi. He said he would protect the Tōhoku in exchange for his own life.
The third question is why did he go to the trouble of stating that he pleaded for their lives? Since Aterui and Moreh were the enemies of the emperor, it would have been sufficient to simply state that they were executed. However, the fact that he went to the trouble of stating that they pleaded for their lives suggests that Emperor Kanmu himself may have shown a certain understanding of the situation.

(4)Dewa Shrine

Premium Taxis allow a certain amount of flexibility in destinations. Originally, the "Aterui no Sato Course" included a stop at Kanegasaki Town. However, since I wanted to concentrate on gathering information about Aterui, I decided not to stop at any of the facilities in Kanegasaki Town. When I told the driver of my intention, he told me that there was a cenotaph for Aterui and Moreh at Dewa Shrine, and we agreed to visit there. Dewa Shrine is located on a mountain called Mount Haguro. At the foot of Mt. Haguro, there was a large sign that read "Home of Aterui and Moreh" and "Mt. Haguro Dewa Shrine," and at the entrance of the approach was a torii gate. A few stone steps could be seen a short distance from the torii gate, but the path was a complete climb up the mountain. Therefore, this time, we took a cab up the mountain road. The road was narrow and just barely accessible, so it was not recommended for those who are not good at driving. However, it would also be difficult to go on foot.

  • View from the summit. The stone steps look hard.
    View from the summit. The stone steps look hard.

①History of Dewa Shrine
According to the origin of the shrine, Tamuramaro Sakagami made a request to Haguro Gongen in Yamagata Prefecture and pacified the Tohoku region.
After that, it is said that Haguro Gongen was worshipped at the site where fierce battles were fought for protection.
In the 1773 Fudoki, the shrine is mentioned as Hagurosan Haguro Gongen, but the name was changed to Dewa Shrine after the separation of Shinto and Buddhism in the Meiji period.

  • Dewa Shrine
    Dewa Shrine
  • Origin of Dewa Shrine
    Origin of Dewa Shrine
  • Signboard about Mt. Haguro and citizen excavation
    Signboard about Mt. Haguro and citizen excavation

②2 Cenotaph of Aterui and Moreh
Haguro is said by some to be the "East Mountain" where Aterui hid his ambush troops and defeated the Imperial Court army in the Battle of Subushi. Indeed, the mountain roads are dense, and I thought it would be perfect for hiding an ambush (on the contrary, if an unfamiliar person wanders, it seems that they will get lost without doing anything).
200 meters further from the worship hall, there was a memorial monument for Aterui and More. When I checked it, it seems that it was built by local volunteers in 2005. A memorial service is held on the second Saturday of September every year.

  • At the end of this road there is a cenotaph.
    At the end of this road there is a cenotaph.
  • An information board that says
    An information board that says "Aterui and Moreh's Land of Honor"
  • Aterui and Moreh Cenotaph
    Aterui and Moreh Cenotaph
  • View from where the Cenotaph is located.
    View from where the Cenotaph is located.
ColumnAterui Trend

Considering the fact that the Kiyomizu-dera temple monument was also placed in 2007, I wondered if there was some kind of momentum around that year. I found out that 2002 was the 1200th anniversary of Aterui's death, and that there was an Aterui trend mainly in Iwate Prefecture, his hometown. A series of symposiums, special exhibitions, and lectures were held, and Katsuhiko Takahashi's "Fire Grudge: Aterui of the North Star" (published by Kodansha, 1999) won the Eiji Yoshikawa Prize for Literature.
But now, 20 years after, the Dewa Shrine was so quiet that the name Aterui may have been quietly forgotten again.


While visiting and walking around the Mizusawa Esashi District in Oshu City, I thought back to the days when Aterui and Moreh lived. Now that the Internet is conveniently available, it is easy to gather information on a screen. However, I was convinced that the quantity and quality of what one actually feels by visiting a place with one's own hands and feet is superior to the information available on the Internet. I was glad I went.
The scenery of Tohoku was completely different from that of Kyushu, my birthplace.
The mountains in the distance were covered with white snow (in Kyushu, snow only accumulates in winter). Even the shape of the dandelion flowers at my feet was different. Each difference may be trivial, but as a whole they make a big difference. I also thought that if I went there in winter, I would see more differences.
Even in the same Japan, where information and goods come and go so actively, there is such a difference, so in ancient times there must have been more psychological distance between the two. However, it is a one-sided argument and a barbaric act to try to dominate without acknowledging the differences.
Even today, the capital attracts many people. Naturally, it also attracts money. Political functions are also concentrated. However, people's lives and culture cannot be compared in terms of which is better or worse.
The dandelion flower in Tohoku blooms when I feel that this place suits me best. If I force it to be in a different place, it may not bloom.
It is very difficult to accept each other's differences. However, I think there are feelings that arise through direct contact.
I thought that the reason why Sakanoue Tamuramaro was able to conquer the Tohoku region was because he himself went there.

5.Final thoughts

As if guided by something, I embarked on a journey to Tohoku. But what was that something?
I am of the disposition to believe that everything has a meaning. So, I wondered why I was so moved by Sakanoue Tamuramaro. Then I thought about why I was so drawn to Aterui and Moreh.
It was while I was pondering these questions that I came across the following statement.

Among the eastern peoples, there is the land of Hitakami, where men and women alike have raised their heads, stood on their feet, and became human beings. They are all called Emishi. Let the land be fertile and pluck it. Shoot and take it. -According to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). Partially modified.

I noticed the part “The land is fertile.” My eyes were glued to the part "Shoot and take it," and my heart trembled as I realized something.
When you hear the words "fertile land," what kind of country or place do you think of?
As for me - I thought of Ukraine.
In Ukraine, 60% of the soil is black soil called chernozem. The black soil is so productive that it is also known as the “emperor of soil.” Thanks to this soil, Ukraine was known as one of the world's leading producers of wheat, corn, and sunflower seeds, which are used to make oil. But what about now?
Perhaps if you ask today's children, what kind of country is Ukraine? they will probably think neither of sunflower fields nor wheat, but of the war with Russia. Even in Japan, news of this war is reported daily. My daughter, watching Ukrainian cities burning with bombs, asked with a straight face, "Why is Russia dropping bombs?" She is five years old and doesn't even know where Russia is. To be honest, I would have liked to ask Russia myself, but as I thought about the history of the ancient Northeast, I was concerned about the current situation in Ukraine.
They say that history repeats itself, but the composition of "Ukraine vs. Russia" seems to me to have similarities with the ancient Northeast vs. the Imperial Court. History has always been filled with battles between aggressors and aggressed. Even now, it is probably no exception.
But if this is the case, this war must come to an end sooner or later.
Sakanoue Tamuramaro, Aterui, and Moreh were in different places. They were in different positions. However, when we look at the circumstances of their surrender and what followed, we cannot help but think that there was a deep understanding between them. I believe that each leader wished for a world without conflict, based on mutual recognition of each other's degree.
In the Tohoku region where Aterui and Moreh risked their lives to protect the land, the rice paddies are still flooded. In autumn, ears of rice will hang down and the area will glow with a golden color. Water from melting snow nurtures wild vegetables, and the Kitakami River still rushes through the area today. People continue to live in this rich natural environment.

Ruins of the ancient battlefield View from the watchtower
Ruins of the ancient battlefield View from the watchtower

"Aterui and Tohoku Ancient History" Kimio Kumagai (Takashi Publishing)
"Tamuramaro and Aterui: The Ancient Nation and Tohoku" Naokichi Niino (Yoshikawa Kobunkan)
"Aterui - It's bad to call yourself Ii-" Satoshi Higuchi (Minerva Nippon Critics Selection)
Homepage of the Oshu Buried Cultural Property Research Center (official) (oshu-bunka.or.jp)