Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Nobunaga's favourites: hawks, archery and horses

As we know, Nobunaga, faithful to his portrait of a "countryman", has aways been depicted as someone who enjoyed outdoor activities, expecially if it could offer a proper contrast to some of his enemies, expecially to Takeda Shingen, who enjoyed poetry and the study of Classics.
The "Shinchokoki" offers a good sample case of Nobunaga's favourite past times, expecially as a youngster: swimming and entertaining himself with never-ending horse riding.

Later on these healthy hobbies would develop in typical past times for the adult bushi, centering around the art of hunting.
If riding horses across his province would proven a crucial point when it came to the art of war, it's interesting to see how, besides getting to know the shape of its territory for military purposes, these "inspections" would later be functional to the reasearch for decent hunting places.
Hunting doesn't feel like the mere fact of killing animals to eat, it develops the vibe of the "acquisition", the "conquest", the need to do something "familiar" in a newly acquired territory as to "mark" that territory as his own: a ride followed by a hunting session rather than a visit to a famous temple to lazy it off was pretty much Nobunaga's standard behaviour after the conquest of a new land.

When it came to hunting, archery was the standard, an activity where Nobunaga excelled and that we know he was quite fond of.
Another favourite "tool" for hunting, though, were Nobunaga's prized hawks, as he was an enthusiastic "collector" of these precious birds of prey, and a famed pratictioner of takagari (鷹狩), the Japanese falconry.

Falconry was imported from Korea around the IV century, and it became an immediate status symbol for the Imperial Court.
It later spread to the kuge class of warriors, turning into the expensive and popular past time of Nobunaga's times.
Before the strict legislation on takagari introduced by Ieyasu Tokugawa during his reign, in the rowdy times of Sengoku Era, there weren't peculiar limits for its practice, but it was avoided, obviously, to hunt in the fields and provinces belonging to other daimyo. It was an expensive past time, and as it was practiced by warlords and their subordinates, such an "invasion" may have been considered as a declaration of war. At the same time, though, it's interesting to note that falconry itself was originally used used as "a means of resolving struggles over land ownership among lords".
Nobunaga was known for loving these peculiar birds, and it's fun to see how allies and daimyo looking for diplomatic relationship used to present him the beautiful animals.
In the "Shinchokoki" there are references to some of Nobunaga's favourite hawks: one of them was called Juusanbi ("Thirteen Tails"), and it's mentioned about an injury that hurted its leg, causing Nobunaga's sorrow, and the other is Randori ("Catch"), Nobunaga's famed white hawk, one of his most iconic critters.
Because of his predilection for white hawks, it's mentioned that many warlords used to present them to him: one of them came from the far North, by a certain Tono Magojiro.
Hawks were used to hunt for birds. The most common preys were geese and cranes were the most precious ones, probably because of their symbol of a long life; a falcon which was "good at hunting cranes" came again from the Far North as a present on 1575, this time from Date Teramune, the father of the more popular Masamune, nonetheless.

Together with the hawk, came two other gifts extremely appreciated by Nobunaga, two beautiful horses. One of them, a "bay with white markings", got to become one of Nobunaga's favourite. Gyuichi mentions that people defined him as a "dragon steed".
White horses, because of their rarity, were usually considered supernatural creatures. Japanese culture takes a bit from the Chinese mythology, that came with the fantastic longma (龍馬), a fabled winged horse with dragon scales. White horses in Japan were then connected with dragons, were generally considered a good omen, and offered to Shinto temple as donations to grant good look and protection.
Despite popular iconography showing Nobunaga on top of a white horse, the whiter creature of this kind that Nobunaga ever owned was probably Terumune's gift, but he was the owner of some gray steeds, as we saw earlier-- Besides the present of Terumune, one of them, a "rose-gray horse with white eyes", was presented to him by a certain Kato Hikozaemon and it's mentioned that Nobunaga rode a gray horse during a parade in Azuchi on 1581.
Despite is love for horses, it's interesting to see that these beautiful beasts that Nobunaga was so fond of were rarely mentioned by name.
The only one to enjoy this luxury is Monokawa, a horse that Nobunaga owned in his younger days and was mentioned during one of the random attacks from the guys of Suruga.

Nobunaga enjoyed rides and archery, and both these crafts were summarized in the yabusame, a popular past time for the warriors of the era, enriched by Shinto and educational traits, a kind of mounted archery.
The invention of this peculiar discipline was credited to Minamoto no Yoritomo as a way to train his men to use archery while mounting riding horses.
The sport is quite suggestive, and it's still practiced in Japan during festivals or special rituals.
Studies on the grounds of Gifu Castle reported that in the area that ran along the Nagara river, Nobunaga set a riding ground to practive horse riding, and as it was long yet narrow, it was probably used for yabusame, too.

This love of Nobunaga for his horses and the satisfaction that he gained from showing them off is punctually reported on the "Shinchokoki".
Worth a special mention is the provision of twenty horses and riders for the kurabe-uma of Kamo shrine in Kyoto in 1574, where again Gyuichi took his time to describe the awe of people during the parade.

On a vaguely unrelated note, a little curiosity about horses, Nobunaga and Shinto that I'd like to share.
During one of my trips to Japan I stumbled over the statue of a horse featuring an Oda kamon in a Shinto temple (for your touristic interest, it was at Tejikarao Shrine, 手力雄神社, in Gifu) and wondered about its meaning.
I investigated, and I got to know that these are not tombs or memorial statues of Nobunaga's beloved horses that turned into deities for their valor, as I read somewhere, but it's something that deals with the tradition of donating horses, expecially white horses, to Shinto shrines to grant good luck.
As donating actual horses started to get very little practical, expecially for the monks that usually had no means to take care of them properly, donors started to present statues of horses to the shrines.
Later on, the statues of the "holy horses" (shinme, 神馬) turned into practical "pictures of horses", and this is how the votive ema (絵馬) developed, and the meaning behind the curious name of the wooden plate.
Horses were considered a favoured medium as they were thought to "run" to the deity.
The kamon that they are decorated with, probably refer to the family that founded the shrine, or to the one of its most important "regulars" as in this case.

I leave you with this fun fact and the notes on the prints that decorate this page.
The first is a portrait of a falconer (takajou, 鷹匠), a refined work by Chôkôsai Eishô, showing an interesting example where the usual bijin is a young man rather than a woman; the second one comes from the collection of prints "Official Ceremonies at the Chiyoda Palace" (千代田之御表) by Chikanobu Yoshu and shows a demonstration of yabusame in front of the Imperial representative (yabusame joren, 流鏑馬上覧).


  1. Hmmm, I wonder if Nagara River used to be part of Gifu Castle's "complex". Didn't the Shinchoukoki say Nobutada also made a riding ground in Gifu? Unless there's more than one horse riding ground in the castle...

    1. Well, the Nagara river is right down the Kinka Mount, it's obvious that it was part of Nobu's "dominion". The recent studies on the mysterious remains of the "house of Nobunaga" at the bottom of the mountain seem to go in this direction-- My mere assumption has been that that residence was that of Nobutada himself or of any of his retainers-- About the riding grounds, it's probable that Nobutada adjusted those made by his father...

    2. Ooh cool. Do you have links to the studies? I want to read it too XD

    3. Yes, it's the stuff linked by Les in Japanese XD Search on his blog for "Gifu Castle" and you should get the links to the original articles and website!

  2. OMG, I nearly forgot about him XD
    I haven't visited hi blog in a while. I fail.

    1. Here's the general website about the research! -> http://www.nobunaga-kyokan.jp/

  3. Hi, sorry for replying to old post again, but do you have links to the particular posts that mentioned the horse riding ground? I can't find it >__<

    Les's blog now don't have the "search" feature anymore, so I can't search his blog either :(

    1. No problem, reply to your heart's content ^o^

      That was mentioned on the Shinchoukoki, but if you search over Google you can find further infos.
      Here's a random link with pictures: http://photoguide.jp/pix/thumbnails.php?album=94

    2. Hmmm, that looks like the one from the path going up the castle... Is that the one you mentioned in the post?

      Or is there another one excavated recently?

    3. --I don't think that something like a "path" can be "excavated" XD Probably it just comes from Nobu's residence to downwhill. Anyway, if it's mentioned on Shinchokoki and it's signaled on the park's ground, it should be kinda old.