Miho no Matsubara

A Scenic Spot

Miho no Matsubara, or the Pine Grove in Miho, has long been known as a place of scenic beauty. And it is actually a nationally designated scenic area in Shizuoka, Japan. The pine grove stretches about 7 km (4.3 miles) along the Miho Peninsula and has over 30,000 pieces of Japanese black pine trees.

Miho Pine Grove, one of the famous sightseeing spots in Shizuoka, Japan

We Japanese have an old expression, Hakusa Seishou (白砂青松), which literally means “white sand and green pines.” It is a term describing the beauty of pine trees lined along a white sea shore. And we can see from the term how our ancestors loved and valued this kind of natural beauty from a long time ago (well, I know some people say that the sand of Miho beach is not that “white” nowadays, but I hope you will use your imagination).

"Hagoromo Pine Tree" at the Moho beach (Summaron 35mmF3.5)
The legendary Hagoromo pine tree.

Miho no Matsubara was chosen as one of the “New Three Views of Japan” in 1916 along with Onuma Quasi-National Park in Hokkaido and Yabakei in Oita Prefecture. It is also considered to be one of the “three outstanding pine groves of Japan” along with Rainbow Pine Grove in Saga Prefecture and Kehi Pine Grove in Fukui Prefecture.

Mt. Fuji and UNESCO World Heritage

However, the recent popularity of this pine grove really came about when it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 as one of Mt. Fuji’s “component parts.” Since then, the number of tourists increased, and the city even moved the location of the bus parking lot to a distance of about 500 meters from the entrance of the beach after it was found that the exhaust fumes from large buses were causing a harmful effect on the pine trees.

Mt. Fuji as seen from the Pine Grove in Miho (Summaron 35mmF3.5)
Mt. Fuji in October, as seen from Miho no Matsubara.

Here is a question: Why was Miho no Matsubara chosen as one of Mt. Fuji’s component parts, even though they are 40 km (27 miles) apart from each other? The main reason is that “cultural connections” between them were strongly considered. The grove and Mt. Fuji have often been depicted together in various art forms, including ukiyo-e works by Hiroshige, paintings by some famous artists and Japanese traditional waka poems. In addition, there is a religious painting called “Fuji Mandala” created in the Middle Ages, and Miho Pine Grove is included in it as if it is a part of a religious pursuit to reach the sacred Mt. Fuji.

Legend of Hagoromo

Miho no Matsubara is also known for the “legend of Hagoromo.” Hagoromo (feather robe) is an article of clothing worn by a celestial maiden in a folk tale which is considered to have been around since at least the eighth century. Although there are some variations in this folk tale, one of the stories goes like this: Once upon a time, there lived a fisherman named Hakuryo in Miho. One day, as usual, he was fishing near the pine grove.

Miho beach in Shizuoka, Japan (Speed Anastigmat 25mmF1.5)

Then he noticed a beautiful robe hanging from a branch of a pine tree. It was such a beautiful and unusual robe that he thought about bringing it back to his home. He was about to take it and head for his home when a voice called out to him to stop. There is a beautiful lady standing in the shadow of a pine tree.

Miho Pine Grove (Speed Anastigmat 25mmF1.5)

She said, “I am a celestial maiden, and that hagoromo belongs to me. I have just descended here to frolic because the scenery around here is so beautiful. Please give it back to me! I can’t go back to my world above without it!” She looked sad, so Hakuryo gradually felt sorry for her. He said, “OK. I will give it back to you, but in exchange, you have to dance a celestial dance for me.” And he returned it to her.

Dressed in her hagoromo, she looked glad and began to dance gracefully. Then she started to float in the air, gradually getting higher right before his eyes, and, mixing with a spring mist, finally vanished into the air in the direction of Mt. Fuji.

Helene Giuglaris

The Hagoromo legend set in Miho was adapted into a Noh play in the Muromachi Period of Japan, which, since then, has become one of the most popular and frequently performed Noh dramas. But it is not well-known that this Noh play inspired a sort of cultural exchange between Japan and France in the 1950s.

Miho Pine Grove in the rain (X-T1 & Xenon 25mmF1.4)

In the early 20th century, there was a dancer in France who was passionately studying the Noh play Hagoromo. Her name was Helene Giuglaris. Born in the Brittany region in 1916, she is said to have been taught the basics of dance from Isadora Duncan, a legendary American dancer, sometimes described as “the founder of modern dance.” Influenced by Duncan, she grew up to pursue her own style of dance and stage art, and along the way, she discovered Japanese Noh dramas. 

Miho Pine Grove in the rain

She was especially intrigued by the Hagoromo play based on the Hagoromo legend in Miho, and started research to perform her own Hagoromo on stage. That was in the 1940s. Due to the paucity of information about things in Japan at that time, it must have been difficult for her to do research, and it also cost her an enormous amount of money to obtain stage costumes, Noh masks, and other stage props.

But at last she succeeded in performing Hagoromo for the first time in the hall of the Guimet Museum in 1949 to acclaim, and she went on to tour France with it. But it was during this tour that a terrible tragedy struck her. During a show, she suddenly fell down on stage and was carried to the hospital; and without ever returning to the stage again, she passed away in 1951 at the age of 35 from leukemia.

Helene's monument in Miho near Shimizu Port

It is said that visiting Miho, the birthplace of the Noh play, was her lifelong dream. So after her death, her husband, Marcel, her hair and stage costumes with him, visited Japan in her stead, and consoled her soul in Miho. And this story moved the hearts of local residents in Shimizu so deeply that they planned to erect a monument to commemorate her.

With the help of donations from local people, the monument was completed in November 1952, and was erected near the legendary Hagoromo Pine Tree on Miho beach. The relief embedded in the monument is a work by Kyoko Asakura, a Japanese female sculptor, and it depicts Helene gazing at a Noh mask. And beneath the relief, a six-line poem written by Marcel is inscribed.

Masrcel's poem inscribed in a monument at Moho, Japan

At the unveiling ceremony of the monument, which was attended by many people, including the French ambassador to Japan and the chairman of Japan’s House of Representatives, Hagoromo was performed by Umewaka Manzaburou (who subsequently became a Living National Treasure) and his theater troupe.

Years later in 1984, the first Hagoromo Festival was held in Miho, and it has been held every October since then. Festival events include the ceremony in honor of Helene, and an outdoor Noh performance of Hagoromo by the light of bonfire from evening to night.

Photographs: taken at Miho no Matsubara, by Koji Ikuma,
with Fujifilm X-T1 equipped with a couple of old lenses:
Summaron 35mm f3.5, Speed Anastigmat 25mm f1.5, and Xenon 25mm f1.4.

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