“No matter the purity of Paris in France, no matter the beauty of our country’s vistas, no matter how bustling Tokyo may be, how can I forget it among them! Ah, my hometown’s views: Bandaisan in the east, [Iidesan] in the northwest enfolded in snow. Soaring sublimely through town, the pure waters of the Shikimi River flow…“Kitakata native Ikarashi Osamu, writing in 1908
Humans make geopolitical boundaries. They set down with pen and paper that which then becomes an imagined reality, existing on top of our physical world. Some borders follow geographic features like rivers, but more often, they’re arbitrarily drawn. And consequently, they are rarely neat.
Even those borders that are seemingly “straight” lines have messy histories. The process that created the borders of modern Japanese prefectures has a similarly complex history. And in the Tohoku region, perhaps the strangest border is the tri-point between western Fukushima, southern Yamagata, and northern Niigata Prefectures. Its salient now belongs to Kitakata, a city most famous for its local variety of ramen. While Japan’s prefectures took their earliest form in 1871, the Iidesan tri-point now found in Kitakata was the object of a decades-long campaign. As a result, Fukushima’s modern form only dates to 1908.
This is a story of gods, mountains, wars, and lines in the proverbial sand. Why does Iidesan, along such an odd border, belong to Fukushima?
Between Prefectures, Regions, and Heaven and Earth
Iidesan — Mount Iide– is a block mountain. It’s mostly granite, but partly slate. Iidesan is the chief peak of the multi-peak Iide mountain range, in turn part of the Ōu Mountains. The range’s peaks vary from 1631 to 2128 meters; Iidesan itself is 2105 meters tall. With such rugged terrain, located as it is in what for many years was on the periphery of the empire nominally ruled from Kyoto, “inside but outside,” it is perhaps unsurprising that Iidesan was a holy mountain and the site of ascetic pilgrimage. Many similarly rugged places in the Ōu Mountains have been the focus of religious journeys. In a recent article, I covered the Dewa Sanzan, three mountains not far from Iidesan. Until the modern era, as with many other such sites of ascetic practice, women were prohibited from climbing the mountain.
There are different views as to who founded the mountain as an ascetic site. One has it that the legendary En no Ozunu, better known as En no Gyōja, founded it together with a monk from Tang China named Zhidao (Chidō-oshō in Japanese) in 652 CE (Hakuchi 3). By 1595 CE, it had already gone through several periods of prosperity and decline. That year, Gamō Ujisato, then the local daimyo ruling from nearby Kurokawa (later Aizu-Wakamatsu) Castle, ordered the reestablishment of the mountain as a pilgrimage site. Yūmyō, priest of nearby Renge-dera temple, took up the lord’s call. Iidesan has been open to pilgrims ever since, with a shrine at Iidesan’s peak.
Two Shrines As One
While it was once a syncretic Shinto-Buddhist shrine, today, the shrine on the peak is the inner shrine (oku no miya 奥の宮) of Iidesan-jinja. The lower shrine (fumoto no miya 麓宮) is in the valley below. It’s in what used to be Yamato, town but since 2006 has been part of Kitakata City. This two-part division of Iidesan-jinja would go on to prove central to the dispute that gave the Iidesan tri-point its twisting, narrow shape. In order to understand why it was taken away from Fukushima Prefecture to begin with, we need to backtrack to the Edo period.
The Fukushima salient that runs along Iidesan’s peak was historically part of Higashi-Kanbara County. This was one of the counties in Echigo Province. Today, most of it is still part of Niigata Prefecture. For most of the Edo period, Aizu domain controlled this county. Aizu, centered in the southwest of neighboring Mutsu Province, had its capital in what today is Aizuwakamatsu City. It was ruled by one of the Tokugawa shogun’s cousins. The shogun entrusted the Aizu daimyo with more than simply the administration of the daimyo’s own core territory. Together with the Shogunal territory in Minamiyama (mostly made up of modern Fukushima Prefecture’s Minami-Aizu County), it also administered Higashi-Kanbara County in Echigo.
While the inner shrine of Iidesan-jinja is in Higashi-Kanbara County, the lower shrine is in modern Kitakata City, in the former Ichinoki Village, which was in Mutsu Province’s Yama County. But for the entirety of its existence, this division mattered little, as both sides of the county and province line were under the rule of whoever controlled Aizu-Wakamatsu. But in 1868, all that changed.