Miyamoto Musashi is arguably one of the most famous samurais to have ever walked the earth. His name is near legend in Japan for two reasons: He wrote a popular and enduring book on his sword-fighting strategy called The Book of Five Rings, and he was undefeated in his 60 duels. That’s right: In a life packed with of sword fights, the man never lost one.
A wanderer and a rōnin (a samurai without lord or master), Musashi’s footsteps through feudal Japan are hard to trace. Essentially, he roamed the land looking for strong opponents and moving on once he’d killed or bested them. The streets were mean in samurai-clogged Japan, and if you weren’t an ace with a katana, chances were you probably wouldn’t be around too long.
Although we can’t pin Musashi down during his bloodstained rōnin days, it’s certain that he made his way toward Kyushu during his twilight years. Located in the south, Kyushu is one of Japan’s four main islands. This is the place to head for those of you who want to get schooled in Musashi lore. Kyushu is rural, rugged Japan, far removed from Tokyo’s bright lights or Kyoto’s regal serenity. But it has several charms all its own just waiting to be discovered by the more fearless travelers. Check out BUCKiTDREAM to get a sense of Kyushu from others who have visited, and once you’re suitably inspired, keep that BUCKiTDREAM planner handy as we take you through the best ways to follow in the footsteps of the legendary samurai.
Ride the Rail There are four main points of interest in Kyushu. But first, let’s talk about getting there. If you want to incorporate a Musashi field trip into your Japanese adventure, you’re going to need the Japan Rail Pass. It’s a special ticket that allows foreign visitors to ride as many trains as they want for a seven- or 14-day period. If you’re doing a bit of traveling around, this thing will save you thousands of dollars. The Shinkansen (Japanese high-speed railway lines) are impressively precise, frequent and rapid, but they are also incredibly expensive. Kyushu is about a six-hour trip from Tokyo and around three from Kyoto.
Set the Stage The first place of interest is the tiny island Ganryū-jima, which is located between Honshu and Kyushu. Ganryū-jima was the place of Musashi’s most legendary battle against The Demon of the Western Provinces, Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi arrived late for the battle and reportedly used a weapon he fashioned from the oar of the boat he was traveling to the duel in, yet he successfully countered his opponent’s “Turning Swallow Cut” technique and finished him off with a direct stab to the chest. After the victory, Musashi exclusively dueled with a bokken (wooden sword) and never killed another opponent. The island is reachable by a ferry from Shimonoseki Harbor and contains several monuments dedicated to Musashi and his rival.
Put Your Experience to Service The next place to head is Kumamoto, the capital city of the Kumamoto Prefecture, which contains the other three slices of premium Musashi history. It was here that the great samurai saw out his final years as a retainer to the Lord of Kumamoto Castle and preserved his legacy through The Book of Five Rings. Standing in the center of the city, Kumamoto Castle has been restored and reinvigorated through the years. It’s considered one of the top three feudal castles in all of Japan. Or, sadly, it was considered. The castle sustained serious damage during a series of devastating earthquakes that hit Kumamoto in April 2016. The area is no longer accessible to the public, though some of the outer turrets are still visible. Reconstruction has begun, but the destruction was so severe that it’s not scheduled to be open again for many years. So you might have to wait a while to tick that one of your bucket list!
Find Your Spirit Fortunately, the other two Musashi sites are very much open. The first is a little cave named Reigandō (meaning Spirit Rock Cave) located a few miles outside Kumamoto. Musashi discovered this cave and used it as a place for meditation and writing. It’s here that he coalesced his life experience into his famous instructive work. The cave has a mystical and sacred atmosphere and stands almost unchanged from when Musashi retreated there in 1643. To get to it, catch a bus from Kumamoto, and ask the driver to stop at Reigandō. Once you’ve landed in what is seemingly the middle of nowhere, don’t panic! You must hike up a (gentle) mountain until you reach the cave. It seems like a long journey by bus, but Reigandō becomes even more staggering when you realize Musashi walked here all the way from Kumamoto Castle.
Stop To Rest The final place to visit is Musashi’s grave, which is in a serene park just outside Kumamoto. Hop on a train from Kumamoto Station for a short 17-minute ride, and get off at the Musashizuka stop. From there, the park is a 15-minute walk south. Despite being situated next to the main road, the park is calming, exuding the same kind of mystical atmosphere as Reigandō. The man himself is buried in the center of the park. It’s been said he was buried in his armor, upright and facing outward from Kumamoto. Locating the grave next to a busy road wasn’t a mistake; Musashi wanted to keep watch over his generations of lords as they went back and forth from Kumamoto.
Following in the footsteps of Miyamoto Musashi is a great way to experience a different side of the Land of the Rising Sun and to learn about a national legend and a very interesting piece of Japanese history at the same time. But it’s not the only way to have fun in Japan! Check out 4 Best Zen Retreats in Japan, Best Places to see the Cherry Blossoms and Top 3 Temples and Shrines in Kyoto for more bucket list action from the East!