The Lay of the Land

You don’t need to know anything about the geography of central Japan during the Sengoku Jidai in order to make sense of the Tales of the Ninja Coder. Theoretically, you should be able to just read the stories as an entertaining jidaigekiJapanese historical/period dramaJapanese historical/period drama yarn, and not worry about where the hell anything is.

But it’s nice to have an idea of the lay of the land, so that if I talk about having to travel, say, “from Mikawa to Settsu”, you’ll realize it’s a long way to go on foot. And besides, there’s a long tradition of fantasy authors putting maps at the beginnings of their books. (And no matter how much accuracy I’m trying to include, you can’t escape the fact that this is a story where the main character occasionally fights demons and ghosts, and his girlfriend is a kitsune. It’s a work of fantasy.)

map of the Kansai region during the Sengoku Jidai

So here’s your quick guide to the Kansai region, where all the action takes place. Please note that this map represents the Kansai Region during the Sengoku Jidai, not during the modern era! Practically everything has changed in the intervening centuries, and if you try to relate this map to a modern one, you will be very confused. (The borders of the modern prefectures don’t even match up with the feudal provinces.)

The Kansai Regionalso called the Kinki region — I’m avoiding that name among English-speakers for obvious reasonsalso called the Kinki region – I’m avoiding that name among English-speakers for obvious reasons occupies the central portion of Japan and includes the city of Heian-kyōmodern name: Kyōtomodern name: Kyōto, which was the capital until after the end of the Sengoku period. As you can see in the map, Kansai is dominated by the Kii Peninsula (that big swath of land pointing south from the mainland). “Kii” is pronounced like “keee” with an extra-drawn-out “eee”. Imagine there were a word meaning “of, relating to, or concerned with keys” and it were spelled “key-y” instead of “key-ish”.

The Kii Peninsula has a province called Yamato nestled right in its center, which is where we’ll start.

Yamato: History, Shrines, and Mountains

Yamato is where Japanese culture first got its start, and there was an early period of Japan’s history that is sometimes called “the Yamato Period” — it has connotations vaguely like “the days of King Arthur” in England, of a quasi-mythical golden age in the distant past. More prosaically, you’ll note the city of Nara at the northern end of Yamato. Nara was the first permanent capital, even before Heian-kyō. In general, Nara and the region around it are jam-packed with shrines, temples, and religious sites. For example, the Horyu-ji, a prominent Buddhist temple and seminary, sits to the southwest of Nara. The Todaiji (one of the largest and holiest temples in Japanese Buddhism) is inside Nara itself. (Indeed, pretty much all cities have quite a few shrines in them.)

Southern Yamato is fairly mountainous, and is the home and main “stomping grounds” of the yamabushiThe yamabushi were (and still are) a group of mystical ascetics who live high in the mountains, practicing a nature-based spiritual path called Shugendō. In the world of the ninja coder, they’re invaluable to any clan that aims to conquer more than a tiny territory, because their knowledge of the trails and mountain passes is critical for moving troops and supplies from place to place. The word "yamabushi" is both singular and plural; it can mean the group or a single mountain man.Mystical mountain warriors who know the trails and passes in the mountains, and can help clans move troops and supplies around. The word "yamabushi" is both singular and plural; it can mean the group or a single mountain man.. One of the main yamabushi shrines is the shrine of Yoshino, on Mount Yoshino. Nearby, the Yoshino River starts flowing westward. As soon as it crosses the border, however, it gets renamed the Kinokawa River.

Yamashiro, the Capital, and Ōmi

Ōmi province and the capital

To the north of Yamato and Nara, you’ll find the Yamashiro region, which is where Heian-kyō is. (The first part is pronounced “HEY-on”. The word kyo should be a single syllable, but “kee-yoh” or “kiyo” is close enough.)

Heian-kyō, the capital city and the home of the Imperial Court, is currently struggling to recover from the Ōnin War, back in 1467-1477. Once the flower of Japanese nobility and culture, Heian-kyō spent the latter part of the 1400s as a war-torn city of fortresses, castles, and occasional, sporadic violence. Heian-kyō was once the most important thing to capture. Now? It’s still important as a symbol, but not much more. The Emperor still resides there, though he is powerless as ever. Respected, even revered, but powerless.

Heian-kyō was also a major cultural center, and the Ōnin War didn’t stop that. There are still active hanamachiLiterally, “flower towns”, a poetic metaphor for a pleasure district. A city’s hanamachi are the places to look for gambling, for nightlife, for fun and recreation.Literally, "flower towns", a poetic metaphor for a pleasure district. A city’s _hanamachi_ are the places to look for gambling, for nightlife, for fun and recreation. in Heian-kyo, where nobles and wealthy merchants and up-and-coming warlords can go to relax and enjoy their fortunes. There are gaming and gambling in the ancient hanamachi called Kamishichiken. In the prestigious Gion hanamachi, the famed Gion Festival still takes place every year in summertime — even the war could not stop it.

The major roadway called the Tōkaidō departs Heian-kyō heading southeast around the southern tip of Lake Biwa, then the Nakasendō splits off from it heading vaguely northward. Both the northern Nakasendō (meaning “Central Mountain Road”) and the southern Tōkaidō (meaning “Eastern Sea Road”, as it mostly hugs the coastline) eventually reach Edo (present-day Tokyo), far off this map. The town of Kusatsu is at the junction of the two roads.

Due east of Heian-kyō, Lake Biwa dominates the character of the surrounding Ōmi Province. Oda Nobunaga’s Castle Azuchi (built from 1576-1579, just after these tales start) is on Lake Biwa’s eastern coast, as is the newer settlement of Hikone. There are also fishing and trading villages all around the lake.

At Lake Biwa’s southern end, the city of Ōtsu has sprung up where the Seta River drains out. Ōtsu is still a small-ish city; whether to list it as a city or a town on the map was something of a judgement call. However, it’s very important; all the lands around southern Biwa and central Ōmi Province are major hotbeds of contention.

The Seta River changes its name to the Uji River as it leaves Ōmi Province and approaches the settlement of Uji, whose major attraction is the Byōdo-in, a major Buddhist temple. Then the Uji River joins up with the Katsura (which flows past Heian-kyō) to become the Yodo River as it winds southwest to Naniwa Bay. Along its entire length, the Seta/Uji/Yodo River is used for trade and transport, carrying goods back and forth from Lake Biwa to Naniwa and places beyond.

The Lands of the Ninja: Iga and Kōga

The southern edge of Ōmi Province — generally, the stuff south of the Tōkaidō — is a sub-region called Kōga; just south of it is Iga Province, nestled among the mountains to the west of Yamato. Kōga and the province of Iga are essentially “where ninjas are from”. (There are occasional exceptions, but they’re rare. For example, Hattori Hanzō was born in Mikawa… but he hung out in Iga an awful lot!)

Both Kōga and Iga are pretty mountainous, and not easily accessible by outsiders. As mountainous highlands with small, hidden valleys and fields within them, they’re perfect places for ninja training grounds, as well as entire ninja villages. The closest thing Iga has to an actual city is the town of Ueno, the province’s capital.

Note also the town of Yagyū, near Iga but actually in Yamato. Yagyū doesn’t necessarily produce ninja, but it is famous for its swordfighters.

The ninja coder, about whom these tales are centered, is from Iga. Specifically, the village of Hoshiakari, where he lives with Akane, is about a half-day’s walk southeast of Ueno, in the mountains near the Ise border. (It’s too small to show on this map, aside from being fictional.)

The Western Seaports

Proceeding west from Nara — or downriver from Heian-kyō and Ōtsu — you come to the seaport of Naniwamodern name: Ōsakamodern name: Ōsaka, on the shore of a bay that’s named after it. Like Nara and Heian-kyō, Naniwa is a very old city, but unlike them, it’s not a cultural center. Instead, as a seaport, it has become a center of commerce, with ships and cargo flowing in all directions.

Just south of Naniwa is Sakai, which straddles the Yamato River in much the same way that Naniwa straddles the Yodo. Sakai is, if anything, bigger and more cosmopolitanSakai is now a neighborhood within Ōsaka. How things change, eh?Sakai is now a neighborhood within Ōsaka. How things change, eh? than its sister. Sakai is a favored trade hub of the Namban foreigners (i.e., European sailors), and hence a great place to pick up arquebuses and matchlock firearms. (If you’re into that sort of thing.)

Further northwest, along the curve of Naniwa Bay, Hyōgo-tsuModern name: Kobe. Yes, as in Kobe beef.Modern name: Kobe. Yes, as in Kobe beef. is another, smaller seaport. It also houses the Ikuta Shrine, one of the oldest and holiest shrines in the entire country.

The provinces of Settsu, Kawachi, and Izumi, where these seaports are, are all under the control of the Miyoshi clan.

At the southern border of Kawachi and Izumi, a spur of the Kii Mountains reaches out, forming a natural border with Kii Province to the south. Where those mountains meet the sea, you can find yet another seaport: Wakayama. Much like Hyōgo-tsu, Wakayama is a somewhat smaller town, rather than a big commercial hub. Also like Hyōgo-tsu, Wakayama has a major religious institution associated with it: On the mountain of Negoro, to the north of Wakayama, sits the Negoro-ji temple complex.

Rather than a single temple or shrine, Negoro-ji is a compound composed of many interconnected temples — nearly 2700 in all. The monks of Negoro-ji are also known as the Negoro-gumi“group”Japanese for “group”; can refer to anything from a “five-person group” (a common work-unit in Japanese corporations) up to an entire branch of the Yakuza such as the Yamaguchi-gumi.; they are a group of warrior monks associated with the yamabushi, and they’re known to be skilled in the use of firearms as well as other combat techniques.

The Outskirts of the Map

North of Settsu and west of Heian-kyō is Tamba Province, dominated by the Tamba Mountains. They’re very sparsely populated; Tamba is basically hicksville.

The entire southern edge of the Kii Peninsula is Kii Province. It hasn’t got any major cities, or even any towns larger than fishing villages. As you might guess, such fishing villages are scattered all over the coastline.

To the east of Iga and Yamato, the province of Ise (pronounced “EE-say”) slopes down from the Kii Mountain range toward the Bay of Ise and the little sub-peninsula called Shima. While Shima is technically its own province, it usually gets ruled by the warlord or daimyōA feudal warlord; the leader of a clan and/or army with a significant area of land under its control. Usually also has aims to expand his holdings; many daimyō are trying to become rulers of whole regions, or even of all of Japan. Pronounced “dime-yo”.A feudal warlord; the leader of a clan and/or army with a significant area of land under its control. Usually also has aims to expand his holdings; many daimyƍ are trying to become rulers of whole regions, or even of all of Japan. in charge of Ise during the Sengoku Jidai. (Lawless times like the Sengoku are bad for little guys and little provinces.)

On the Ise-Shima border is the Grand Shrine of Ise. “The Shrine” is actually a few hundred individual sub-shrines divided into two groups, roughly an hour’s walk from each other. The shrine is very ancient and holy, containing the Sacred Mirror called Yata no Kagami, one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. (The other two are the sword, Kusanagi, kept in the shrine at Atsuta, and the jeweled necklace called Yasanaki no Magatama, in the Imperial Palace in Heian-kyō.)

On the other side of Ise Bay sits Owari Province, home of Oda Nobunaga. At the time of the ninja coder, Oda is starting a drive to reunify Japan (with himself as shōgun, of course). Owari Province also holds the shrine of Atsuta, the home of the legendary Kusanagi-no-tsurugi, the mystical sword mentioned in the last paragraph. Near Atsuta, the town of Nagoya has recently grown large enough to be considered a city. This is the city that Ichirō complains about going to, as its roofs are steep and pointy, its streets are narrow and cramped, and its city guard implacably hostile to ninjas.

Beyond Owari is Mikawa, the home of the legendary ninja, Hattori Hanzō. (Although Hattori was born and mostly raised in Mikawa, he also spent a lot of time visiting Iga and Yagyū.) The peninsula that sticks out of the southern part of Mikawa encloses Mikawa Bay.