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Japan's Most Beautiful Armor Rests in Aomori

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Japan's Most Beautiful Armor Rests in Aomori

Kushihiki Hachiman-gu is a historical shrine in Hachinohe, Aomori, dating back to 1166. It's considered the most prestigious shrine built by the Nambu Clan, a samurai clan originating in northern Japan. The Nambu Clan descended from the Minamoto Clan, a famous warrior class in Japan.

Last winter I visited the shrine, a popular place for hatsumode , or a New Year’s visit to a shrine. Because Aomori Prefecture is at the very top of the island of Honshu, winter is quite cold. The day I visited was freezing, and the road was icy. Once on the grounds of the shrine, though, I found large old cedar trees that are more than 100 years old.

Because of its long history, the shrine owns many treasures, including two sets of armor designated as National Important Cultural Properties. I was surprised to learn that some of the country's most beautiful samurai armor could be found in a small city in Aomori.

The armor made with red thread was most impressive. The style is called kiku Ichimonji (kiku means chrysanthemum and ichi means one, while monji is character or kanji), denoting designs of chrysanthemums atop thread forming the single-stroke kanji for “one.” Known as Akaito Odoshi Yoroi (赤糸威鎧), it was made in the late Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and along with two similar suits at Kasuga Shrine in Nara, it's considered one of the most beautiful suits of armor in Japan.

The designs were so intricate and the color so vivid that it was hard to imagine anyone actually wearing it. It looked more like art on display than equipment for war (the image above is actually from a replica; you can see a 360-degree view of the original here).

A woman at the shrine told me the armor was often sent to special exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe! It's said that once an American billionaire offered US$4 billion for the armor, but of course, they couldn't sell it to him. It’s a national treasure, after all!