I find it much easier to have faith in the dead than in the living. The dead don`t let you down, don`t cancel at the last-minute and don`t go home without buying their round. They don`t do anything really except appear in memories.
Being remembered is much simpler when you are lord of your own kingdom. The lords of Yonezawa are memorialised all over the city. The two pin-up celebrities are the founder of the kingdom, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578), a warrior general nicknamed the God of War, who once donated to his arch-enemy crucial supplies of salt – all in the spirit of fairness, and the 9th lord of the clan, Uesugi Yozan (1751-1822), who governed Yonezawa through a famine in which neighbouring regions were devastated without one death. I like Yozan best for encouraging the hedge-eating.
Yonezawa`s small, mountain-ringed kingdom lost its independence in 1871. The dead lords from its 300 year history now lie in a grove of skyscraping cedars. In the centre lies the God of War, buried in his armour. His successors, some buried and some burnt rest each side of him in order of succession.
Called a mausoleum, the tombs look more like garden sheds on stilts. Very ornate sheds mind you, with neat wooden steps leading up to the entrance. You would reserve it for your favourite shovel. Most self-respecting 20th dictators wouldn`t bury their toenails there though.
Two white flags each marked with one Chinese character fly either side of the gravel path running down the centre of the grove. A bored-looking volunteer guide explained their meaning to me: Bi 毘 represents the first character of Bishamonten 毘沙門天, the God of War; Ryu 龍 represents the first character of Ryujinsama 龍神様, the Dragon God of Water and Agriculture.
Farming and fighting are given equal importance; the spud is as mighty as the sword.
A group of out-of-town tourists disturbed the peace in the deserted shrine. My bored-looking guide briefly came to life: “Can I guide you around?” he called out hopefully.
“No need!” one man yelled back as the all-male group rushed past. They made straight for the main pin-up boy, the God of War, perhaps hoping to suck up some of his legendary power that could still be lingering in the soil.
Crestfallen, my guide leant against a stone lantern and limply gestured for me to explore the other sheds alone. Some of the lords are still alive but this guide was definitely dead.