A small group of camphor trees stands on a corner along the small Dekimachi-dori near the Hakata Station. That is said to be the location of the grave of Xie Guoming, who promoted trade between Hakata and China in the 13th century. One camphor tree was planted next to his grave after burial, but with time the trees grew to envelop and hide the gravestone. Now the original tree has aged and only the large roots remain. The people of the community affectionately refer to it as Okusu-sama.
Xie Guoming was born in Lin’an, Hongzhou. After moving to Hakata, he became wealthy through trade with Song Dynasty China. He also made a great contribution through cultural exchange by bringing to Hakata many elements of Chinese culture, including Zen Buddhism. Joten-ji, one of the most well-known of Hakata’s Buddhist temples, was built by Xie using his personal funds.
One New Year’s Eve, many people in Hakata were suffering from starvation and illness. To help the poor, Xie brought his own supplies of soba to the temple grounds and served it. That’s why the custom of eating soba on New Year’s Eve is known as Un-soba (Luck soba), rather than Toshikoshi soba as it is everywhere else. After his death at the age of 88 in 1280, he was buried at a site east of where the temple was located at the time.
There was an international market in Hakata in those days. The most prominent of the many foreigners who frequented the market was Xie Guoming. He later became a naturalized Japanese citizen and took the name Shataro Kuniaki. For more than 700 years, the Okusu-sama Sentomyo festival has been held every year on August 21 in his honor. A second generation of camphor trees was planted next to the original withered tree, where they thrive today.
Originally published Aug. 2012.