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The Enigmatic Zenigata Sunae – A Majestic Heritage of Feudal Japan


Japan is full of countless intriguing places and monuments from its rich and vibrant past. From centuries of rich, evolving history, to the devastating effects of the Second World War, Japan has certainly remained one of the most enigmatic cultures in the world, and, as such, it always offers new and unique details to be explored. One of Japan’s most mysterious places is the so-called Zenigata Sunae, an enormous three-dimensional sand sculpture, dated to middle of the 17 th century AD. Measuring an amazing 345 meters in circumference (1131 ft), it is certainly an inspiring and incredible sight to see, attracting countless tourists each year. But who created it? And for what purpose? Join us as we attempt to uncover the secrets of the unusual Zenigata Sunae sand artwork.

Understanding Zenigata Sunae: An Unlikely Piece of Art

The unique Zenigata Sunae sand artwork is located close to the town of Kanonji, in Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. Zenigata Sunae – literally translated as “ sand art in the shape of a coin” – is the central point of picturesque Kotohiki Park, one of Japan’s most scenic and lovely places, with an equally attractive beach. Kotohiki Hill overlooks the park and the sand artwork, offering the perfect viewing platform. Nearby Jinne-Ji Temple also offers a perfect vantage point from which the large sand artwork can be viewed.

Zenigata Sunae is a huge circular sand art sculpture depicting a traditional Japanese Kanei Tsuho coin. Kanei Tsuho was the inscription used on Japanese mon coins, which were in use from 1626 AD until 1868 AD. The Zenigata Sunae sand coin is really big. The edges and writing on the coin artwork are raised, giving it a three-dimensional look. The raised portions have an average height of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). Since it is so big, Zenigata Sunae is best appreciated from above and from a distance, as only then can you clearly see the kanji (Chinese ideogram) inscription. From the ground, the raised sand lines resemble a shallow maze, and the message written on it cannot really be seen clearly.

The sand artwork attracts many thousands of visitors every year. This is largely due to the widespread belief that visiting this sand picture of a mon coin will bring you great luck and prosperity, especially in relation to money. This belief was further established after a local man won the lottery; an event ascribed to the lucky properties of the sand sign. Through the years, Zenigata Sunae has become a fairly famous attraction, as a sacred spot for Japanese believers, and all those who seek longevity, wealth, and lifelong luck.

After detailed inspection, it becomes obvious that on the ground the kanji characters are intentionally elongated, and the circle is not perfect. This is not a design flaw, but actually an ingenious feature purposely added by the original creators. These imperfections might be obvious on the ground, but when the art is viewed from above the circle is perfect, as is the lettering.

For the perfect Zenigata Sunae viewing experience, visitors are encouraged to view it at around 14:00 o’clock, or around sunset, when the light casts perfect shadows. After nightfall, the whole sign is majestically lit up in different colors, which further adds to the impressive feeling it produces.

Both sides of the Kanei Tsuho Japanese coin. The left side is what is “written” on the Zenigata Tsuho sand sculpture. (Gary Todd / Public domain)

Both sides of the Kanei Tsuho Japanese coin. The left side is what is “written” on the Zenigata Tsuho sand sculpture. (Gary Todd / Public domain)

Who Was The Zenigata Sunae Built For? And When?

But what do we know about the history of this enigmatic art piece? Before we delve deeper into that, let us discuss the actual symbols it depicts. As we mentioned, this piece of sand art represents a Kanei Tsuho coin. These coins were first introduced in 1626, during the rule of the famous Tokugawa Shogunate. The coins themselves were still the traditional Japanese mon coins with a square hole in their middle, but the inscription they bore was Kanei Tsuho. The front of the coin has four Chinese ideogram characters: kan, ei, tsu and ho. Kanei is for the era these coins were first minted in. Tsuho means currency.  Such coins were meant to be a standardization of copper coinage in Japan in that period, to ensure the sufficient circulation of copper coins throughout the country. It also shares its name with the Kanei Japanese era, which began in 1624 AD and ended in 1643 AD. The coins with this inscription became the standard copper currency of Japan in 1636 AD, a decade after they were first introduced.

The four Chinese ideograms on the main side of a Kanei Tsuho Japanese copper coin. (chapinasu / Adobe Stock)

The four Chinese ideograms on the main side of a Kanei Tsuho Japanese copper coin. (chapinasu / Adobe Stock)

Why was the Zenigata Sunae built? There are no reliable documented historic sources that precisely pinpoint the date of its creation, but most scholarly sources agree that it was created in 1633 AD. The best-known tradition, and one that is widely accepted as being true, states that the Zenigata Sunae was created overnight in 1633. It was done in honor of the visiting Japanese daimyo (feudal lord) Ikoma Takatoshi (生駒 高俊), who ruled the significant Takamatsu domain during the early Edo period. It is said that Takatoshi was on an inspection tour of the area and that the villagers decided to erect this unique sand monument in his honor. At that time, Ikoma Takatoshi was the lord of the Takamatsu domain, which comprised the region where the sand art object was made.

Takatoshi was one of the most powerful daimyo of his time. This historic term, daimyo, denotes a feudal lord in medieval Japan, many of whom held enormous land holdings and had substantial power. Their significance lasted from the 10 th to the 19 th century AD, with numerous daimyo clans rising to prominence and power. There is no doubt that these feudal lords played a huge role in Japanese history during the middle ages. A daimyo lord was subordinate only to the shogun and the emperor himself.

The feudal lord or daimyo Ikoma Takatoshi. (Public domain)

The feudal lord or daimyo Ikoma Takatoshi. (Public domain)

A Sand Artwork To Honor A Great Feudal Lord

Ikoma Takatoshi was certainly a historic figure that would deserve a majestic sand monument erected in his honor. He was the son of Ikoma Masatoshi, a famous samurai of the late Sengoku and early Edo periods. Takatoshi succeeded his father as the ruler of the vast Takamatsu domain, an important feudal domain in Sanuki province. He belonged to the cadet branch of the wealthy and prominent Ikoma clan, a samurai clan that claimed descent from Fujiwara no Fusasaki, of the highly influential Fujiwara clan of regents. This branch was called the Tsuchida-Ikoma clan. Interestingly, Ikoma Takatoshi was also the son-in-law of Doi Toshikatsu, one of the most powerful men of the period, a top ranking official of the early Tokugawa Shogunate, and the chief advisor to its shogun.

But even this important family connection didn’t bring luck to Takatoshi. After failing to subdue an uprising within the territory he ruled over, he was condemned by the shogunate, and lost his fiefdom. Instead, he was transferred to the much smaller and less important Yashima domain.

Up to that point, the Ikoma clan was very powerful, with an annual income of 171,800 koku. A koku was roughly calculated as the amount of rice one family would need for an entire year. But after Ikoma Takatoshi’s big failure, his clan only received 10,000 koku per year. The Yashima domain that he was transferred or exiled to was insignificant, located in an inhospitable mountainous area of Shikoku island. Moreover, Takatoshi was also sentenced to 20 years of house arrest. His son and heir, Ikoma Takakiyo, also suffered from his father’s misconduct, when he was forced to divide his inheritance with a younger brother. After this, the Ikoma clan lost its position of power as a daimyo clan, and was reduced to the title of hatamoto, meaning a samurai family. Even though Takatoshi later lost his power, in 1633 he still had enough land and influence to warrant the erection of Zenigata Sunae in his honor.

A slightly stylized version of the Toyotomi clan mon or family symbol, which may have been on the Zenigata Sunae sand sculpture before it was changed to its present version in 1633 AD. (Sakurambo / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A slightly stylized version of the Toyotomi clan mon or family symbol, which may have been on the Zenigata Sunae sand sculpture before it was changed to its present version in 1633 AD. (Sakurambo / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Enigmatic Origins Of Zenigata Sunae

There are a few theories related to the origins of the Zenigata Sunae sand monument. The second most popular maintains that the sand art piece was located here previous to the current version. In this theory, the original work depicted the mon (clan emblem) of the legendary and powerful Toyotomi clan. By 1615, the entire Toyotomi clan, which built and ruled from Osaka Castle, was destroyed. As a former enemy of the Tokugawa clan, the Toyotomi clan lost all significance and the original sand art mon was considered an offense to the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu.

In order not to cause the wrath of the rulers, and not to be suspected of high treason, the citizens of the Takamatsu domain decided to change the symbols on the earlier sand coin into those written on a Kanei Tsuho coin. This theory is the second most popular one, but it also bears many accuracies. The rivalry between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans was famous throughout the land, and “rewriting” the Toyotomi sand emblem may have been a crucial decision for the people of the region. This may also explain why both leading theories say the artwork was created in a single night.

One of the least accepted theories about the Zenigata Sunae is found in the 1962 book “ The History of the City of Kan’onji.” In this book it is stated that the actual time of the construction of the Zenigata Sunae was not 1633, but more than 200 years later! The date listed is 1855, which is when the Tokugawa shogunate gave instructions for all the daimyo in the land to strengthen their coastal defenses.

Ariake beach, where the artwork is located today, was also the location of important coastal military defense installations. When the powerful daimyo of the late Edo period, the 7 th lord of Marugame, Kyōgoku Akiyuki, decided to visit the beach and witness the defense improvements for himself, he was surprised by the freshly erected sand picture. It pictured a coin that was created to amuse the powerful lord, according to this theory. However, this theory is the least probable one, with plenty of clues pointing towards the fact that the Zenigata Sunae is much older.

A “closeup” of the Zenigata Sunae sand sculpture. (Sanga / Adobe Stock)

A “closeup” of the Zenigata Sunae sand sculpture. (Sanga / Adobe Stock)

Preserving History Through Hard Work

During World War II, the huge coin in the sand mystified American soldiers, who landed on the beach as part of several reconnaissance missions. Scouts were deployed with the intention of uncovering the meaning of the inscription, as it was believed that the huge sand sign was a coded military message for aircraft flying overhead. It can be assumed that this was all a big misunderstanding, as the Americans would have realized before long that the coin was not a secret military messaging device. Luckily, the war ended and the Zenigata Sunae remained untouched and unharmed.

But how do you preserve a sand sculpture for hundreds of years? Thanks for this goes to the hardworking Japanese people and their incredible attention to detail. They regularly maintain and touch up the art in the sand to preserve it for posterity. Even today, there is a special event that occurs twice a year. Known as the Kesho-na’oshi (“makeup touch-up”), this biannual event attracts hundreds of volunteers from across Japan, who work together to carefully touch up the raised sand formations and maintain its original appearance. With a people devoted to their history and proud of their past, all works of art can be preserved.

Raised In The Sand For Centuries to Come

There is no doubt that the history of Japan and its truly complex medieval period are a never-ending source of inspiration for history buffs. From the unification of Japan, achieved by the work of powerful historical figures such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the history of this remote island nation never ceases to impress.

The Zenigata Sunae sand artwork is certainly a testament to this exotic historical legacy, and dates to one of the most important periods of the Japanese middle ages. Perfectly sculpted and enormous in its size, this piece of sand art is a huge inspiration for thousands of tourists. But more importantly, it managed to remain untouched for centuries, even though it’s constructed from nothing but sand!

Top image: Japan’s enigmatic Zenigata Sunae sand sculpture of an ancient copper coin, on the island of Shikoku. Source: nnh / Public domain

By Aleksa Vučković


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Aleksa Vučković's picture


I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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