We have finally reached the Fountainhead Palace, after all this time. I am super excited! We'll discuss everything: the Idols' original names, character art, environmental art, whatever items are left and whatever NPCs we meet. I will also share multiple theories and give you all the proof that I have so you can judge for yourself if these theories are even plausible. I think, Fountainhead Palace is meant to be vague and unclear so I don't really expect any straightforward answers. As for some interesting details that might lead us to some interesting conclusions... You'll see.
Disclaimer #0 — common sense is still everything. Please do not assume that I have access to some secret true knowledge; I'm just entertained by reading Sekiro in Japanese. My lore theories are just theories so treat them accordingly.
Disclaimer #1 —
trust me, I'm a professional if this fact is somehow important — I am a certified linguist. My major is English and Japanese as foreign languages, my minor is intercultural communication. Fun stuff!
Disclaimer #2 — I am not a professional translator, I have never worked in localization. Yes, I will say that something is translated poorly and something is not, and it will be my personal point of view. People have been complaining that I am picking on minor things or have weird opinions when it comes to "better translations". I want to emphasize that it's okay to have those :) Ultimately, my goal is to give you the information so you can see if the localization was good or not, whether something important was lost or not. My opinion is just that and I choose to share it, however odd it might seem.
Disclaimer #3 — I am not an expert on Buddhism or Shinto, so if I get something wrong in the religious side of things, I'm sorry :D I will leave links to the religious terms that we will undoubtedly encounter so you can read more on your own, if you are interested.
This is a popular question in the comment section. In a nutshell, Japanese kanji usually have two types of readings: on-reading and kun-reading, there might be a number of them in each category. On-readings have carried over from Chinese since kanji were borrowed from there, and kun-readings are native to Japanese. When a kanji stands on its own and is used as a single word, it is read with its kun-reading. When a kanji is used as a part of a multi-kanji word, it is read with its on-reading. It is slightly more complicated, but in broad strokes I think it explains it.
As far as I know, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was localized into English by Mugen Creations.
[:] — colon after a vowel means that it's a long sound;
['] — apostrophe after a vowel or before a vowel (or between two [n]) means that these are two different syllables, not a single long one.
The transcriptions I give do not follow all academic rules, and I don't think it's necessary. They are just here to represent the pronunciation.
For this research I mostly used Sekiro Shadows Die Twice Official Artworks, English wiki and a number of dictionaries.
First of all, we need to try and sort out Fountainhead Palace VS Divine Realm Conundrum because the game itself is not very consistent in distinguishing them. I've analyzed all the dialogue scripts and all the item descriptions I could think of to see how different characters use the words "Divine Realm" and "Fountainhead Palace".
Let's start with exploring the words themselves. 仙郷 [senkyo:], localized as "Divine Realm", is commonly translated into English as "fairyland" or "enchanted land". JP-JP dictionary specifies it as a place where hermits live, or a silent place removed from our earthly world. I think, Divine Realm is a great name for it in the context of Sekiro.
It's important to note that in the artbook 仙郷 [senkyo:] is specifically the place where Sakura Dragon resides. When Wolf arrives there and opens his eyes, he says exactly this word.
Fountainhead Palace is called 源の宮 [minamoto no miya], where 源 [minamoto] means "fountainhead" or "source, origin" (of a river), and 宮 [miya] has a meaning of "shrine" and also "palace", meaning imperial residence, and, as we'll see later, can be used to address an Imperial Prince or Princess.
So, let's analyze the dialogues. I have to say, people talk way more about the Divine Realm than they do about the Palace, making the whole thing very confusing.
Kuro, citing Takeru's notes, says,
「源の宮… 丈様が書き残されていた通りそこから、仙郷に通じているのだろうな」- "Fountainhead Palace... According to notes left by Lord Takeru, Divine Realm can be reached through [Fountainhead Palace]"
So, just as we've discussed, Fountainhead Palace leads to the Divine Realm. When we construct the aroma, Kuro says,
「岩戸の奥の輿に入れば、源の宮への道が開けるだろう」- "If you step into the palanquin deep in the cave, the path to Fountainhead Palace should open."
From this line it seems that the aroma is indeed a prerequisite for going to the Palace. After you construct it, the words "Fountainhead Palace" are burned into Wolf's mind or so he claims.
Pot Nobles are also a valuable source of this information, but they are very confusing. Here's what Harunaga has to say about his fellow nobles,
「…源の宮の、痴れ者どもめ…」 - "Those idiots at Fountainhead Palace..."
And believe it or not, these are all mentions of "Fountainhead Palace" in the scripts. People mention the Divine Realm way more often.
When Kuro gains access to the library, he says,
「丈様が、残されたものだ。仙郷に帰るため、源の香気について調べていたのだろう」- "Lord Takeru left these [notes]. Apparently, he was researching the fountainhead aroma in order to return to the Divine Realm."
When Kuro asks Wolf to bring the Dragon Tears, he says,
「狼よ、仙郷に向かい、竜の涙を取って来てくれ」- "Wolf, please head towards the Divine Realm and bring [me] the Dragon Tears."
There is also one more line mentioning that the tears are to be drawn in the Divine Realm. The words Takeru left behind are as follows,
「源の香気まといて、仙郷へ帰る」- "Wrapped in the aroma of the fountainhead, I return to the Divine Realm"
And then, when Wolf and Kuro continue discussing it, Wolf says,
「つまり、源の香気… それが仙郷に行きつく鍵、ということ」- "In other words, the fountainhead aroma... is the key to reaching the Divine Realm?"
Fountainhead Palace is hardly ever mentioned in the context of Takeru wanting to go back, it's usually the Divine Realm. Later Kuro says that he is going to look into Takeru's books that he collected because "he wished for a way to return to the Divine Realm". Then there are several mentions of how the aroma is the key to reaching the Divine Realm with no mention of Fountainhead Palace.
Then there's a mention of the Everblossom,
「その桜は、常桜と呼ばれる丈様が仙郷より持ってこられた桜…」- "That sakura is the sakura that Lord Takeru brought with him from the Divine Realm, it is called the Everblossom."
When Wolf returns after discovering the palanquin in Mibu Village, he says,
「九郎様… あの場は、仙郷の入り口なのやも、しれませぬ」- "Lord Kuro... that place might be the gateway to the Divine Realm."
No mention of the Palace. Then they conclude that the aroma must be constructed to enter the palanquin.
However, Harunaga calls the aroma 「仙郷の香り」― "aroma of the Divine Realm" when you show up after visiting the Fountainhead Palace but not yet the Divine Realm.
The same character calls the Great Carp 「仙郷の、ぬしの鯉」- "Carp Nushi of the Divine Realm", even though the fish, technically, is in the Palace.
Fragrant Flower Note says that Tomoe's relatives constructed the aroma and arrived in the Palace. But other documents, including Tomoe's Note and Immortal Severance Scrap, mention the aroma only in the context of returning specifically to the Divine Realm.
It was always confusing to me how the Palace and the Divine Realm are sometimes used interchangeably because I couldn't figure out if you needed the aroma to reach the Palace, or only the place where the Dragon lives. From Harunaga's dialogue it seems that "the Divine Realm" can be used as an umbrella term for denoting the Palace and whatever else is adjacent to it, but there is also the Divine Realm proper where the Dragon lives.
Another proof of the Divine Realm and the Palace being used interchangeably is Okami's Ancient Text. The place mentioned is "the Divine Realm", even though we arrive at the Palace after stepping into the palanquin. To receive it from Kuro you need to skip Rotting Prisoner's Note in the Abandoned Dungeon that also talks about reaching the village in order to find a sacred stone.
Its original name is 淤加美の古文書 [okami no komonjo] — Okami's archives or Okami's old manuscript. On the image we can see a tiny drawing of a Shelter Stone.
This item description tells us a couple of interesting things. Firstly, from this text we can derive that the Okami clan called themselves "Okami clan" before they departed to the Divine Realm, or the Palace. I always thought that it was specifically the name of those living in the Palace but turns out, it's just a clan name of people living in the Ashina Lands a long time ago.
Secondly, this text shows that they likely had to descend into Ashina Depths themselves to get the stone, so the Okami clan, in fact, was not from Mibu Village or the Depths. Does it mean that they constructed the palanquin there when they came for the stone? Again, I don't think that the game offers much explanation for the past events, not to mention that both this note, and the Rotting Prisoner's Note are likely here for a more utilitarian purpose of persuading you to drop down half a mile from a cliff.
We know for sure that the women of the Okami clan were the ones who came up with the aroma recipe and ascended. How did all the nobles get in? The Carp Attendant?
As Wolf and Kuro construct the Fountainhead aroma, Kuro asks Wolf to unsheathe the Mortal Blade for him which could imply that dying from unsheathing Fushigiri is supposed to happen every time. I wonder if a Dragon Heir can die from unsheathing the Mortal Blade... Anyway, the sword is twice the size of Kuro so it would be very awkward if he handled it himself.
As soon as we step into the palanquin and pray, a giant shimenawa rope guy grabs the palanquin and carries us up above the Ashina Lands. As we discussed in one of the previous posts, in the artbook the strawman is called 輿入れのお迎え [koshiire no omukae] — the one sent to meet/greet/pick up the procession.
In the artbook there is a whole spread dedicated to this scene, titled 異郷へ — "to the far-off land".
He drops us off near the Idol that I think many of us were excited to reach for the first time: 源の宮 [minamoto no miya] — Fountainhead Palace.
Her original name is 宮の破戒僧 [miya no hakaiso:] — Corrupted Monk of the Palace, and her remnant's description says,
「破戒僧、源の宮に至る」— "Corrupted Monk who has reached the Fountainhead Palace."
It also says that she is a mushitsuki — an infested. Not sure how it escaped my attention the first time I read it but the original description compares Priestess Yao to a kadomori (門守). It is a type of an omamori amulet that is supposed to grant protection from evil spirits, demons and fire and it is usually placed at the entrance of shrines or temples. This word can also mean "gatekeeper" if taken more literally but I just find the omamori implication amusing.
"Indeed, immortality would seem a fitting option for the eternal watcher of the palace".
This line (localized correctly, by the way) never made sense to me. Why is she protecting the Palace? How did she even get here? How and why did she break the buddhist commandments?
But I think I get it now. I guess I just never zoomed out the story far enough to really see.
What is the main conflict between Buddhism in Ashina Lands and Fountainhead Palace? Is there one? Yes, and we know it from our Senpou Temple studies. Senpou monks wanted the Dragon's Homecoming, they wanted to uproot the Dragon from the Palace and send him back to the West. Okami clan, who had been worshipping the Dragon for hundreds of years, did not want that. However, at some point in time, Senpou monks did something that prompted the Palace to act.
They stole and hid the Mortal Blade.
The wooden case of the Mortal Blade bears Fountainhead Palace shrine crest so it belonged there. However, somehow, as per Tomoe's note, "it was hidden by the High Priest of Senpou Temple who has no desire to sever the immortal ties..."
I think, if there ever was an established connection between the lower world and the Palace, it was severed because of that. Someone in the lower world possessed the Mortal Blade now, which meant that the Dragon could be uprooted. Okami knew who stole the sword — which is evident from Tomoe's Note — and it further reinforces my theory that when the Hall Monk in the Halls of Illusion mentions someone who once came to catch the monkeys but ultimately couldn't and left, he was talking about Tomoe. She knew where the Mortal Blade was, but she couldn't get it.
However, there was one infested monk, or should I say priestess, who switched sides during the whole operation and allied herself with the Okami clan, breaking the buddhist commandments and severing ties with Senpou Temple. The centipede made the nun giant, like it did Guardian Ape, and she swore to protect the Palace against the invader who will one day come with the stolen Mortal Blade to try and take the Dragon away. She took the Mibu Breathing Technique from the Mibu village founder, closed the stone doors of the wedding cave and placed her illusion to guard it. She also took Dragon's Tally Board, bringing an end to all trading that was apparently happening between the Palace and the lower world. Also, there is a possibility that the priestess herself was a merchant of the dragon rank because there's a whole bunch of Senpou sugars up in the Palace including the forbidden Yashariku Sugar.
High priests of Mibu village burned the Buddhist temple and prohibited the practice. Maybe it was revenge for how they lost access to the Palace, or maybe by doing that they tried to gain enough favor to be allowed back in. Anyway, the Mortal Blade was forever lost, and it was too dangerous to let anyone ascend.
This is just my theory of what happened and why Priestess Yao is involved in the Palace defenses at all, but I think it makes sense, at least most of it does. She wields a naginata, a pole weapon most popular during Heian and Kamakura periods, notably used by warrior monks called sōhei (僧兵). Interestingly, sōhei continued to be depicted with naginata even past Kamakura period just as a means to distinguish them from other warriors rather than portray them accurately.
The Idol's original name is 朱の橋 [ake no hashi], "Vermilion bridge" is a great localization for more reasons than one. The beautiful red trees are called 紅葉の木 [ko:yo: no ki] — trees dressed in autumn colors.
I bet you noticed that even though beyond the bridge lies Fountainhead Palace, the land of perpetual spring and sakura bloom, here, on the bridge, it's autumn season and the first snow, just as it is in the Ashina Lands. Is the bridge a part of the mortal world?..
Fountainhead Palace in many aspects follows the layout of Heijō, and, subsequently, Heian Imperial Palaces. For a little historical background, it's important to note that Heijō Palace was the Imperial Residence located in today's Nara from 710 to 784 (Nara period). Then it was decided to move the Imperial Palace to Nagaoka-kyō and then ultimately to Heian, modern day Kyoto. Even though some palace structures were actually moved from one city to another, many of them were left behind and suffered many disasters throughout the years: fires, earthquakes. Nowadays no traces of the former Heijō Palace remain, even though its location is known.
The Heian Palace served as the imperial residence for most of the Heian Period (794–1185). It was not ready when the Emperor moved in and the construction continued for many, many years. It inherited some parts from the Heijō palace: Suzaku Gate, Daigokuden and others, but some major parts had to be built anew. The problem was that newly constructed buildings were quickly falling into disuse and constant fires destroyed parts of the Imperial complex. In 1177 a major fire destroyed the majority of the Greater Palace and the whole complex was abandoned; emperors started to reside in smaller palaces in the city, and the Heian Palace fell into complete ruin.
Vermilion Bridge is much, much more important than we give it credit for, and it becomes apparent as we look up and see a plaque that says 淤加美門 [okamimon] — literally "Okami Gate". This place is meant to be an alternate version of the main gate built in the center of the south end of Heijō-kyō, Nara's Imperial Palace, and later Heian-kyō, Kyoto's Imperial Palace. It is exactly the same. The plaque on the real-life gate said 朱雀門 [suzakumon] — Suzaku Gate, according to the Chinese palace model requirements. Suzaku, the Vermilion Bird, was the Guardian of the South. Despite the fact that here it's "Okami Gate", Suzaku is still present here in spirit because of the Vermilion Bridge. And these are, indeed, the south gates.
As for the Vermilion Bridge being in a different season than the rest of the Palace, I think it might be a much more important detail. You see, Suzaku Gate is supposed to lead directly into the Palace, and yet here its alternate Okami version is much higher and to the side in relation to the rest of the complex. The stairs are all broken, as well as the cliff where the strawman drops us off; it appears to be broken off of something bigger.
I think that in the ancient times Fountainhead Palace was actually connected directly to the lower world. Maybe even to Mibu Village since there is Mibu Manor in the Palace. Because some of the Palace's buildings ended up in Guardian Ape's Watering Hole, I'd wager that Sunken Valley probably wasn't all that sunken a few hundred years ago and was possibly more levelled with the Palace. My theory is that during the alternate Heian period in Sekiro something happened: might have been an earthquake (there were several devastating earthquakes in the region during Heian period), might have been another terraforming event that tore the land apart; as a result, the Palace was flung high up, and what's now Sunken Valley was plunged way down. Parts of the Palace were torn away and destroyed, as we can clearly see from the edge of the waterfall. Since that time the Palace was transformed into sort of a Divine Realm, a land removed from the mortal world. That is why, in my opinion, the Palace seems to be stuck in Heian period — because that's when the whole terraforming occurred around it, and it was disconnected from the lower world.
Suzaku Gate, or Okami Gate, is supposed to be the main entrance to the Palace so it doesn't make sense for it to be so much higher than the actual Palace. I bet it was in a different place before the land was rearranged by a natural or unnatural disaster of some sort. Since as you enter the gates, you're considered to be inside the Palace, it makes perfect sense that until then you're still in the lower, mortal world where it's late autumn.
Okami are written in Japanese as 淤加美 [okami], which is a shorter form of 淤加美神 [okami no kami], a legendary Japanese dragon and Shinto deity of rain and snow. It's also known as 闇龗 [kuraokami] or just 龗 [okami], the last word is written using a simpler 24-stroke variant of a 33-stroke Chinese kanji and it means "rain dragon". You can see this kanji on the banners in front of Ashina Castle gates as you go up the stairs; it's not in any item descriptions but I think this is how Ashina people defined Sakura Dragon, with this 龗 [okami] kanji. Kuraokami is regarded as a "Headspring God" that is in charge of supplying precious water to all living creatures, essentially a fountainhead of life force.
As for the difference between 淤加美 [okami] and 闇龗 [kuraokami], the form of this word basically depends on the source. Kojiki, an early Japanese chronicle of myths, legends and traditions, writes this god as 淤加美神 [okami no kami], with the same kanji used in Sekiro to define Okami clan. On the other hand, Nihon Shoki, the Chronicles of Japan, which came after Kojiki and is much more detailed, uses 闇龗 [kuraokami] and 龗 [okami] kanji when describing this dragon god, and this kanji is on one of the Ashina banners. I wonder if this difference implies that the Okami clan is just much more ancient since their writing uses the more archaic kanji.
All Okami we see in the Palace are women and whether or not it is the same group that ascended for the first time hundreds of years ago is up for debate. I personally think not because Tomoe was certainly an Okami but she didn't seem to know exactly where to find all the components for the aroma, so I don't think she was from the original group that created it.
Let's look at Okami character art. The most curious thing is that some artbook images pertaining to the Palace don't correspond exactly to what we see in the game. They are not marked as "early concept arts" or anything, so I'm guessing the changes might have been made last minute. We'll get into that.
The artbook calls them 淤加美の武者 [okami no musha] — Okami warriors. As for the armor they wear, it's certainly inspired by either ō-yoroi (大鎧) or dō-maru (胴丸). They are quite similar and existed at the same time: starting in mid to late Heian period and gaining popularity during the Genpei War in the 12th century. Dō-maru was a lighter version of ō-yoroi that was cheaper to produce, and it was more suitable for soldiers on foot than ō-yoroi, mostly indended for mounted archers. Okami are wearing incomplete sets of armor, their headpiece is not even a helmet. Regular Okami wear a golden accessory, and elite purple Okami in addition to that accessory wear a samurai eboshi — a type of headwear that was commonly worn from Heian to Muromachi period. Shinto priests use them to this day. In the artbook a regular Okami is depicted wearing an eboshi so maybe they were all supposed to wear it.
Another interesting thing is that on the character art Okami have long thin beards and in the game they don't. You know who has the same type of beard? Old Dragons of the Tree, but not those that you meet before the Dragon, but those depicted on the folding screens. For some reason, their appearance was changed, and it was done apparently pretty late into the development so in the artbook I have character art for those Old Dragons that are on the folding screens, and not those we actually see in the game. Interesting that the previous iteration of the Old Dragons was still left on folding screens, I wonder if it was intentional.
Okami from the art also seem to have long roots growing from their fingers and toes, further linking them to the Old Dragons. You might say that in game they do not have these roots but they do, just not all of them.
The swords Okami wield are specifically, as recognized by their very unique hilts, 毛抜形太刀 [kenugata tachi] — Kenugata tachi swords, said to have been worn by the guards of the Imperial Palace. These swords were created during Heian period as a transition from ancient types of tachi to more modern ones. There are only a few of these in the world now.
Okami have long black hair but the front part of it is white.
We'll look at the elite Okami warriors in purple when we first meet them, meanwhile let's continue exploring.
Before we start walking around the Palace, I want to explain the sigil that we'll be seeing all over the place. I feel like previously I gave some information on it that might have become confusing over time so let's set this straight.
The sigil present on the Palace banners and on different fabrics as a pattern is called 源の宮神紋 [minamoto no miya shimmon] — Fountainhead Palace shrine crest. It is also on the wooden case of the Red Mortal Blade. The crest has a hidari mitsudomoe as a central element, it was a popular part of many sigils of real-life Japanese families. The emblem established itself in Heian period and was very popular up to Kamakura period. This specific mitsudomoe symbol is closely associated with Shinto shrines, in particular with those dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war and archery, and Amaterasu. The other part of the sigil that encircles the mitsudomoe, I think, is supposed to convey the water element, it's kind of reminiscent of waves.
The Palace is not looking its best: many buildings were washed away, some are covered in moss or rotten, fabrics torn. If I am not mistaken (because it's quite tricky to match some artbook pages to in-game places), the first area where we meet out first blue noble is called 居住区 [kyoju:ku] — residential area.
Let's talk a bit about the blue nobles. Their original name is 宮の貴族 [miya no kizoku] — palace nobles. Their character art looks a bit different to what they look like in the game; the length of their fingers on the character art is staggering, and this particular noble tries to tear the skin from the back of his hand with his teeth, there is blood everywhere. I wonder what that is about. Also, the art depicts a blue noble wearing an eboshi, like a purple Okami, while in the game they wear kanmuri (冠), standard headwear for men at the imperial court worn from Heian period and up to Meiji Restoration. Nobles also seem to wear sokutai (束帯), an outfit that goes together with kanmuri; it was worn by aristocrats and the Emperor at the imperial court. The color of the outfit denoted court rank, and those wearing a light blue garment were or the lowest, basic rank, and those wearing a dark blue garment were of the eighth rank, the lowest of ranks that had a number. Crimson and maroon indicated the fifth and the fourth court ranks respectively, and the highest three ranks wore purple.
As for the type of flute these nobles play, it's hard for me to say since I am not really a music expert. This is, undoubtedly, an instrument of the fue family, a type of bamboo flute, but it doesn't look like any particular fue I am familiar with or was able to find. It is a transverse flute since the nobles hold it to the side. Transverse fue such as komabue, kagurabue, minteki and others were used either at the imperial court or in Shinto shrines for accompanying kagura dances or rituals. These facts already fit quite well with the instrument the nobles are playing; it's enough for us to see that it is a transverse flute. Personally, I like to think that it might be a ryuuteki — dragon flute used in Shinto classical music associated with imperial court; it represents dragons ascending the skies.
It is also worth noting that nobles have not 4 but 6 arms, the last pair is just really low, close to their tail part, and they use it to walk around. I'd like you to keep this fact in mind because it will become very important for us a little bit later.
In-game nobles also carry a blade on them that the artbook doesn't depict; interesting that even when robbing Wolf of his youth a noble would assault him with the sharp edge of his flute, rather than with a blade. Maybe, they are too weak to wield it.
Sekiro story doesn't seem to mention the Emperor or the Imperial Court that still very much existed during Sengoku period, and there were multiple Emperors throughout this era. Fountainhead Palace is sort of this ephemeral realm that pulls from different sources: historical and in-game so I don't think it's rational to try and explain EVERYTHING. We'll just take a walk around and see what different things we can find.
And one of these things is a shikiban divination board, just in the first building where we meet out first nobles. Yes, we're still there; this will be quite a slow walk :D On the table you can see a board with a dome in the center and an image of the Big Dipper on it. The square board represents earth, and the dome represents heavens; together they are universe. The shikiban board is an item of onmyōdō — a system of astronomy, magic, natural science and divination that developed in Japan as early as in the 5th century; it was heavily influenced by Chinese philosophy. The practitioners of onmyōdō were called onmyōji, they specialized in divination, protection from evil spirits, predicting lucky and unlucky directions for an individual and could even curse opponents using paper dolls that we can also see on the table just to the side of the shikiban board. They also used various paper talismans. Onmyōji were extremely influential during Heian period when Emperor Kanmu relocated the capital to Heian because of his fear of demons. This fear was caused by a series of disasters and deaths around the Emperor, and it then spread through the entire imperial court, giving rise to the search of powerful magic that could drive demons and evil spirits away. Onmyōdō and onmyōji rose to prominence and soon the life of Heian nobles was organized around practices recommended by onmyōji; depending on the season, time of day, alingment of the stars and many other circumstances they advised an individual on what they should do. For example, on a given day a particular direction, say, a path back home, might be bad luck, so a person was advised by an onmyōji to spend the night someplace else.
In later times, as imperial court fell into decline, so did onmyōji and their practices.
Nearby there is a number of what I think are gohei (御幣) — wooden wands decorated with paper streamers called shide. These are used by shinto priests or shrine miko for blessing, sanctifying and exorcising, and in purifying rituals.
Oddly enough, on the floor we can often see red robes, I wonder where these come from...
Almost everywhere in the Palace there are these beautiful engravings with lotus and sakura motifs; that's how we figured that the small shrine in Kuro's room was actually from the Palace. They are called 飾り彫刻 [kazari cho:koku] — ornamental carvings.
There is one more gate, albeit closed, with two Okami patrolling it and a noble playing the flute around the corner. The plaque below the roof says "Okami Gate" too.
The grappling points on the roofs that look like Old Dragons of the Tree are called 飾り瓦 [kazarikawara] — ornamental roof tiles.
Okami on the roofs are either just sitting still as if in meditation, or drinking what appears to be sake, or maybe Water of the Palace. One of them is on the bridge below; it's quite calming to observe her movements, and she also laughs a lot. The item behind her, however, is a Lump of Grave Wax, a worrying omen.
As we go further towards Mibu Manor, we meet dogs :3 They are transformed now but they are more like Okami than nobles, they don't have fish barbles or tentacle tails. They seem to be happy little dudes. The artbook does not depict them, unfortunately :C Some dogs wear a blue magatama around their necks. These dogs can summon lightning, and as they jump, you can see that it's the magatama that lights up and conjures lightning; I'd like you to remember that for future reference. And I hope you haven't forgotten about nobles having three pairs of arms, we're still keeping that in mind...
This Idol's original name is 水生の御屋敷 [mibu no oyashiki] — Mibu Manor or Mibu estate. Apparently, this is the main living place of those who came to the Palace from Mibu Village. Interestingly, the artbook never refers to it as "Mibu Estate" but calls it just "Estate".
Heijō and then Heian Imperial Palaces had 12 gates in total; the main Palace gate and the biggest one was Suzaku Gate, as we have already learned. The eastern gate, second in size only to Suzakumon, was called Mibu Gate (壬生門 [mibumon]) supervised by Mibu clan. Mibu Manor, on the contrary, is positioned on the western side so I don't think that it's a direct reference, just an interesting detail that I noticed.
There isn't much in the artbook about Mibu Manor so we're going to rely on our observation skills and good judgement. There are the most beautiful sakura and Japanese iris wooden carvings to add to those that we have already seen, I just couldn't take my eyes off them.
As we enter the manor, we are immediately greeted by an elderly woman with a shakujou scepter that addresses Wolf as "young man"; apparently, because those are hard to come by in the Palace. She is present in the artbook, there she is called 宮の老婆 [miya no ro:ba] — old woman of the Palace. The one with the red sash is marked as 妹 [imo:to] — younger sister. Her dialogue is very interesting, she claims that the only thing nobles want to do now is to suck youth from whoever crosses their path, but they do so because 仕方がないのです — "there is no other choice". When talking about her father she says,
「我が父は、貴族になりましたが…そのとき、鯉に魅入られてしまいました」- "My father became a noble, but as soon as he did, he was entranced by carp."
She doesn't specifically say "Nushi Carp" or "Great Carp", she just says 鯉 [koi] — carp, but since we know the context, it's bound to be the Great Carp. And then she asks Wolf to free her father from 鯉の呪縛 [koi no jubaku] — carp's binding spell.
All this information is quite curious. How much agency do the nobles even have over their actions? It seems they can't help themselves: as soon as they become nobles, at least the blue regular ones, they fall victim to the Nushi Carp's binding spell and have to suck youth from whoever gets in their way. They also install one noble to feed the Carp for eternity. Interestingly, the nobles in red that are of a much higher rank, do not have the youth-sucking attack. Are they not under the Carp's binding spell then?
The presence of Carp Attendant's daughters in the Palace is surely a notable occurrence by itself: they are still both unchanged, both fully human. Were they not offered Water of the Palace upon arrival? But all nobles are men, what happens to women that arrive in the palanquin? Were these sisters... much younger when they came here?
Throughout Mibu Manor we see Okami warriors following the nobles; they seem to be protecting them. At the same time, there are white smears on the floor suggesting that Okami have been eaten in here too.
I think, since we are in some version of the Imperial Court, Okami have been integrated into it to serve as 随身 [zuijin] — bodyguards that were a part of Imperial Guard during the Heian period and followed nobles to guard them whenever they went out. Zuijin guards were most often armed with bows and occasionally with other types of weapons. Since there are a lot of stands with Okami bows inside Mibu Manor, we can assume that this hierarchy has been in place for centuries. Apparently, all was fine until the nobles developed this craving for youth.
In one of the larger buildings there is a little seclusion draped over; inside we find one more Lump of Grave Wax.
Nearby there is a little water cave you can dive into and then emerge inside a small room where Water of the Palace is. It's interesting to look around: the same red garments are scattered on the floor as well as a whole bunch of Treasure Carp Scales. Did someone turn into a treasure carp here?..
In Mibu Manor we meet out first Red Noble. He is of a higher rank but looks mostly the same. The only thing different about him is the form of his very pointed headpiece — it is a type of eboshi worn by Shinto priests.
On our way out we meet an elite Okami lady wielding a naginata. Naginata is a very fitting, and should I say obvious, choice of weapon here since Okami were most likely inspired by the legendary onna-musha (female warriors) from Heian period, like Tomoe Gozen and Hangaku Gozen. Onna-musha of those times often chose naginata because of its versatility and effectiveness.
This elite Okami lady looks much like regular Okami warriors, only in addition to her crown-like headpiece she wears a warrior eboshi secured by a purple string. Here we come across our first instance of The Other Sleeve Conundrum. You see, the right sleeve of elite Okami warriors is of a different color, and of a different pattern. Initially I thought the sleeve lost color because they caught lightning with their right hand and it damaged the fabric but the elite Okami playing kemari also have different sleeves, even though they catch lightning through the ball and their feet. Besides, this theory doesn't explain the pattern difference. Then I thought it might be a kote (籠手) — an armored sleeve, or an archer's sleeve but, first of all, those are supposed to be put on one's left arm, and second of all, all these types of sleeves are supposed to be detacheable. The Okami clothes just seem to have a sleeve sewn in from a different garment. The only one who has symmetrical sleeves is Shizu, they are both purple. Maybe it's a hierarchy thing?
As for the five-storey pagoda immediately outside the Mibu Manor, I think it is very much inspired by the legendary five-storey pagoda of Tō-ji Temple. This Shingon temple was founded in 796 and was one of three buddist temples allowed in the city of Heian. The other two were Sai-ji (西寺), its partner western temple, and Shingon-in (真言院) — a Shingon chapel built next to the Inner Palace for conducting ceremonies held on the Emperor's behalf, which shows the rising influence of the Shingon sect during this period.
The original pagoda was built in the 9th century, then it was destroyed and rebuilt many times until fully reconstructed in 1643. Now it is recognized as a National Treasure, and it is the tallest wooden tower in Japan.
宮の桜牛 [miya no sakuraushi] — Sakura Bull of the Palace. A poor creature stuck here after years of loyal service. What kind of service? Well, the answer to that is just around the corner.
An old cart turned on its side. It's called 牛車 [gyu:sha] — ox carriage or oxcart. It's a historic term that denotes carriages for Heian-era nobles pulled by bulls. It was a common vehicle used by aristocracy; the carts were heavily decorated to emphasize the noble's status. In my initial playthroughs I kept walking past the cart and being like ah, this Sakura Bull seems kind of random...
Well. Not random at all.
Let's visit the Mibu Priest, shall we? He is very excited about Water of the Palace (his neck is kinda weidly long already, even before you give him the water) and when you come back to him after, you see that he has fully transformed into a Red Noble. He even got the eboshi hat and the flute, I wonder if those are included into the noble starter pack. The artbook, by the way, depicts him not with a regular noble flute but with the sakura branch enshrined up above in the attic that he uses as a flute, which is interesting.
The priest drops 5 Treasure Carp scales upon death. His transformation allows us to establish a nubmer of important facts: firstly, Water of the Palace transforms people into nobles; it's unknown whether it always did that but it certainly does now; secondly, priests gain a higher noble rank — it doesn't mean that all red nobles are shinto priests but shinto priests do transform into red nobles; and finally, the nobles, at least the red ones, do have some carp properties and already possess a number of scales. It's the perfect time to remind you that they have 3 pairs of arms, I hope you haven't forgotten that...
Its original name is 花見舞台 [hanami butai] — flower viewing stage or hanami stage. Hanami is a yearly Japanese tradition of enjoying the time of sakura blooming. Sometimes Hanami can also refer to plum blossoms but usually it's specifically sakura blossoms. I am sure you've seen stunning photos of otherwordly sakura trees covered in all shades of pink and white flowers during spring. The inhabitants of the Palace are fortunate to enjoy hanami season for eternity which must be a comfort of sorts.
The bridge that gets destroyed by the Great Carp is called 太鼓橋 [taikobashi] — an arched bridge. These are often used in Chinese or Japanese gardens; their curve is reminiscent of the body of a drum called taiko.
As we move across the bridge, we meet our first kemari Okami, the one playing ball. 蹴鞠 [kemari] game was popular among aristocracy, spreading later to samurai class. It was widespread from Heian to Kamakura period, then declined with the rising popularity of sumo, then brought back in the Edo period again, and it is played even nowadays during seasonal events at many Shinto shrines. Kemari is not competitive; the objective is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible using any body part except for arms and hands, or only the right foot, the rules varied there. If played as a group activity, all players should cooperate on this task. Okami mostly play kemari solo using their feet. And yes, it is also a weapon, and it will smash you into the ground. The ball, mari, was traditionally made of deer skin; all mari that Okami are playing with have a golden stamp in the form of the Palace Shrine sigil.
There are several stages, each one a little bit higher than the previous one, climbing all the way to the Great Sakura tree. These are gagaku stages. Gagaku (雅楽) is an ancient art of music and dance permormed initially in Japanese Imperial Court. The prototype of this art was introduced to Japan in the 6th century together with Buddhism, and gagaku reached its almost final form closer to the 10th century atduring Heian period. I assume these stages are also used for performing dances for the Dragon, as Dancing Dragon Mask tells us.
On each stage there are banners with the Palace Shrine sigil marked in the artbook as 旗 [hata] — banners.
The place in front of the ancient hokora shrine with a spirit emblem floating just above it is marked in the artbook as 祠前 [hokora mae] — "before the hokora". We already discussed hokora shrines in one of the previous posts, it is one of the most ancient types of shrines in Japan. A number of kami might be enshrined there; Jizo is also a frequent deity for hokora. It can be used to enshrine yorishiro, an object that can attract kami. Usually, hokora don't have torii gates in front of them or have really small ones, like in our case here.
By grappling up the waterfall we arrive at the door that does not open from this side but through the walls we can see red nobles devouring Okami warriors. This scene has a separate, very surprising name in the artbook, and we'll get back to it as soon as we find our way inside. There's a Shichimen Warrior nearby but we expected him to be here, didn't we?..
As we pass a stone basin — for purification purposes, I guess — we step into what the artbook calls 大極殿 [daigokuden]. Daigokuden was the Great Hall of State, one of the most important buildings in the former Heijō Palace and then in the Heian Palace as well. The Imperial Court's main ceremonies took place in Daigokuden. Behind it, as replicated in-game, runs Konrō (軒廊) — a roofed corridor with open sides.
Inside this Daigokuden we can see one more stone basin and no less than six smaller shrines. Or, rather, five: one of them is missing. Do we know where it might be? Of course, we do! The missing one is located in the Dragon Heir's room down in Ashina Castle. Honestly, this little detail amuses me greatly. How did it get there? How long has it been in the Dragon Heir's room? Do people of Ashina even know where it comes from? I guess, we'll never know.
This Idol's original name is 大桜 [oozakura] — literally "big sakura". Interestingly enough, it is a real name for three main sakura trees in Japan: one in Fukushima prefecture, one in Yamanashi, and one in Gifu. They constitute Japan's Three Great Sakura Trees (日本三大桜). These trees are more than a thousand years old and also gigantic in size. Sometimes two more sakura trees are added, a couple hundred years younger, to constitute Japan's Five Great Sakura Trees: one in Saitama prefecture, and another one in Shizuoka.
淤加美の長・静 [okami no osa・shizu] — Okami leader, or Okami chief Shizu. Her name is written in kanji and it's a beautiful one: it means "calm" or "quiet". Shizu is an exception in The Other Sleeve Conundrum, both her sleeves are purple. She is a kemari-type elite Okami. Interestingly, her appearance is a little different from other elites: her hair is completely white, and she has a three-magatama necklace. She also has tiny roots growing out of her toes. It is my firm belief that Shizu is from the original group of Okami women who recreated the fountainhead aroma and ascended.
Now with Shizu gone we can finally explore the underwater area. While we do that, let's theorize a little bit about how it was created. I think, the lake wasn't here originally: the bottom of it is covered in palace remnants and tree branches. I know it might sound utterly bizarre, but I think... a meteorite hit the Palace at a certain point in time. Yes, I know, it sounds like I've lost my mind, but we can kind of see the tragectory. Look at the big branch of the Great Sakura tree, right where Shizu was — it has been broken off, and directly below the broken branch there is the deepest chasm of the lake. As if something fell from the sky through the branch, creating this layered crater, destroying buildings and transforming the landscape. I think, the chasm was immediately flooded with fountainhead water because the Dragon was already here. Maybe this meteorite thing is the source of the Palace's lapis lazuli that is also called "sky stone".
The underwater parts of the Palace are not really identifiable as parts of the Heian Palace, at least to me, and in the artbook they are marked as 水没した宮殿 [suibotsu shita kyu:den] — submerged palace.
One of the deepest parts of the lake where the Headless and the fish skeletons are is just called 水底 [suitei] — the bottom of the river or the lake. We are going to spend some time here, if you don't mind.
There are two Nushi Carp skeletons and a whole bunch of unique luminescent worms that we haven't seen anywhere else in the game. These are not to be confused with the poisonous bait: those horned slugs look very different and also fulfill a different purpose. What are these caterpillars?
First of all, let's talk about the carp skeletons. They suggest that there were more giant Carps before the current one which is not new information: we know about at least two White Serpents so there can be generations of nushi. Death of these carps raises questions though: from the description of Great White Whisker we know that nushi are immortal, but if they die, parts can be harvested from them. Nushi can be killed: we kill one of the White Serpents for Fresh Viscera, then we poison the Carp with bait. But how did these die?
Now, let's talk about the giant caterpillars. To try and figure out what these are, we need to learn about something called 常世の国 [tokoyo no kuni], literally "everlasting land". In Japanese mythology, Tokoyo-no-kuni is a distant land where time passes differently to the mortal world, a sacred place where gods dwell, a paradise of eternal youth and immortality. Usually Tokoyo-no-kuni is thought to be located somewhere overseas; many historians debate that at some point Tokoyo-no-kuni referred to China, but in a broader mythological sense Tokoyo-no-kuni might be somewhere up on the mountain, or deep underwater like the Palace of the Dragon King from Urashima Taro tale, or otherwise far removed from the mortal world. In a sense, Fountaihead Palace can be considered a Tokoyo-no-kuni because it is far removed from the mortal world and houses gods. Even though time doesn't appear to pass differently here, the place itself is stuck in Heian period. It is also twilight hour here, the border between day and night, which is one more characteristic of Tokoyo-no-kuni.
On the other hand, as we're going to see later, the Dragon's dwelling place behind the Palace has even more attributes of Tokoyo-no-kuni, this time more formal ones, like the iwakura rock that lets us pass into the Divine Realm.
The second thing that we need to learn about is 常世神 [tokoyo no kami] — God of Tokoyo, or God of the Everlasting Land. One of the chapters of Nihon Shoki, the Chronicles of Japan, mentions a short-lived cult founded in 644 in today's Shizuoka Prefecture. A man named Ofube no Ou from one of the villages along Fuji River encouraged his fellow villagers to worship a sertain insect claiming it to be Tokoyo no Kami. According to him and his preachers, those who worship this god, if poor, will become rich, and if old, will become young again. Some people figured that if they become even poorer than they are now, they can become richer down the line so many of them cast away their belongings and threw away food. The insect was worshipped through song and dance and even enshrined. But what kind of insect was it?
Nihon Shoki has a lot of information and descriptions of this sacred insect, but it took scholars a while to come up with a strong enough theory, mainly because of the specific language used in these ancient chronicles. The insects were said to feed on tachibana trees, which appear to be citrus trees that were not native to Japan but were first introduced through China. The insect was also said to feed on Japanese pepper plants. Having considered these facts as well as many others, researchers came to the conclusion that the sacred insect was most likely the larvae of swallowtail butterflies. In Nihon Shoki Tokoyo no Kami (God of the Everlasting Land) and Tokoyo no Mushi (Insect of the Everlasting Land) are used intergangeably; moreover, in the chapters that document the introduction of citrus, "tokoyo" is used to refer to the land from which citrus was obtained, which was China.
The cult spread quickly but then was just as quickly suppressed by the authorities; if you'd like to learn more about it, you can read about it here.
Back to these caterpillars. They don't look exactly like the swallowtail butterfly larvae, but they do correspond to the description given in Nihon Shoki: "It is over four inches in length, and about as thick as a thumb. It is of a grass-green color with black spots, and in appearance entirely resembles the silkworm" as translated by W. Ashton in 1972. These caterpillars are sort of a full match, except they are a fair bit larger and glow in the dark.
As for what role these insects play in the larger picture of the in-game world, I honestly can't tell you :D If these are indeed supposed to be a reference to Tokoyo no Kami, then the main relevant thing about them is that they also came from the West, just like the Dragon. This is the only place we ever encounter them; they clean off dead carp's bones but otherwise don't seem to affect anything else. They are not poisonous to the Great Carp or even lesser Treasure carps, they do not engage in anything, they just kind of hang out there on the bones. I don't think they have any effect on Fountainhead waters. I know, insects are kind of a big part of Sekiro lore, but these caterpillars are fully contained here. As I see it, it just might be a reference to Tokoyo no Kami. It doesn't have to fit somewhere or make sense, even if we imagine for a moment that my theory about these caterpillars is correct.
On one of the roofs poking above the water level we meet the other old lady of the Palace, this time it is 姉 [ane] — elder sister. Her dialogue is interesting because of two things: first, she asks you if you're going "to the palace". Sounds weird in English, doesn't it? You're already in the palace. Well, in Japanese she asks if you're going into 内裏 [dairi] — inner palace, a part of the imperial complex where Emperor's living quarters were located, along with Throne Hall and the pavilions housing imperial consorts. She also says that the doors to Dairi have been closed for a very long time (もう永い間).
Another interesting line is about the cave through which you can reach Dairi. The woman says that "Nowadays it's under water" which directly corresponds to the original line: 「今は水の中。。。」. I think it speaks to my theory about the lake not having always been here. Nowadays the cave is under water, but it wasn't always.
The cave in question is just called 水中洞窟 [suichu: do:kutsu] — underwater cave. As we escape the Carp and swim to the shore, let's grapple up and touch the Palace Grounds Idol but immediately grapple up again and go to the Feeding Grounds.
This Idol is called 餌やり場 [esa yariba] — feeding grounds. The only other item that the artbook lists here is 呼鐘 [yobigane] — calling bell, the one you ring to call the Carp.
The Carp Attendant is a remarkable NPC. He is a giant noble, and he retains more human characteristics: he has appropriate number of limbs and no tail, although his barbels are more pronounced. He is also much more glowy than the regular nobles and he can speak. In Japanese the subtitles for him are in katakana, an undoubtedly stylistic choice to emphasize his transformation.
According to one of the daughters, Carp Attendant was deceived into becoming a noble by the promises of a noble status and eternal life, when in reality he became bewitched by the Carp's powers and got stuck feeding it in perpetuity. And now we arrive at one of the most important questions: what is the relationship between the nobles and the Carp? Let's go meet Koremori.
This Idol is called 壷の貴人 [tsubo no kijin] — literally "Pot Noble". Koremori tells us a tearful tale of Harunaga, a shame of their clan who committed "high treason" by trying to kill the Great Carp for his own benefit and was banished for it. When he asks us to bring treasure carp scales to him, it's of particular interest how he says it in Japanese. He calls Treasure Carps 宮様の宝鯉 [miya sama no takaragoi], and the word 宮様 [miya sama] is usually used to respectfully address the imperial family, for example, an imperial prince or princess. This implies an interesting connection between the Nushi Carp and the small Treasure carps, as well as a curious theory that in this alternate version of the Heian Imperial Palace the Great Carp might represent the highest rank nobility or maybe even the Emperor.
I've always been curious about why the Carp doesn't seem to be worshipped in the lands of Ashina outside the Palace and Mibu Village. White Serpent Nushi is omnipresent: it travels along the Sunken Valley visiting Ashina Outskirts, Gun Fort and even the other side of Mt. Kongo. It is worshipped down in the Valley and up above in Ashina Castle. Carp Nushi seems to be unpopular in this regard: Mibu villagers offer him horned slugs in their village but outside of it the Carp is not really worshipped.
If you look closely at his character art from the artbook, you can see three scar-like spots on his side: he has them on the other side too, they are symmetrical. At first, I thought that he might be missing some fins but no, as a carp he has a full set of fins.
How many arms does a noble have?..
This must be one of the most fascinating discoveries I've ever made in Sekiro. A noble can, indeed, evolve into the Great Carp Nushi. The details of this cycle are not all there but I think it's safe to assume now that this current Great Carp used to be a noble before. But who was the first, the original carp? I wonder if being inside a pot is somehow another stage of transition, like a cocoon phase, or Harunaga and Koremori are just weirdos who stuffed themselves into pots for no reason.
The Carp cycle seems to be self-contained in the Palace and Mibu Village, and it doesn't appear to have any meaning. The villagers below grow the horned slugs for the carp bait; then they ascend and become blue nobles, slowly transforming into fish; then some of them receive or otherwise get the treasure carp scales and apparently just stick them onto themselves until one noble has enough to become the next Carp. Do they murder the current one? I think so, yes. As soon as one of the nobles has enough scales to become the new carp, they give the poisonous bait to the current Carp Attendant and then succeed the Carp just to be poisoned in a few decades or centuries by one of their kin and be replaced again. Meanwhile, they sleep in the cavern, eat carp bait to their heart's content and lead seemingly eternal but utterly meaningless life.
It's interesting that the cycle appears to be sort of self-resetting: with the death of the Great Carp and plucking of the Whisker the Carp Attendant and other aspiring nobles die, and the new Carp swims the Fountainhead waters, until the cycle comes around again.
We seem to break the cycle by poisoning the Great Carp because neither Harunaga nor Koremori transform successfully. They do become tiny Great Carps, the coloring matches perfectly, but their eyes are red, and they are way too small. Incomplete creatures. As to why that happens, I think it mostly has to do with the stagnation and corruption that have accumulated in the lands of Ashina over the centuries and now started disrupting the order of things. Thus, the Great Carp Nushi is no more as we killed the last one and a successor was never found.
Well, at least we released the Carp Attendant from his duty, and he can finally pass now with his daughters.
Let's return to Palace Grounds. This Idol's original name is 宮の内裏 [miya no dairi] — Palace Dairi. We already know what Dairi is so let's move inside.
This scene left a lasting impression on me when I was playing for the first time. Mainly because of the sheer brutality of it — it was just startling — but also because I was at a complete loss as to why this was happening in the first place. In this locked away building Red Nobles, who were nowhere to be seen since Mibu Manor, eat Okami warriors...
This harrowing scene has a name in the artbook, and whatever you might expect, I'm sure it will surprise you anyway.
生贄喰らいの儀 [ikenie kurai no gi] — "the ceremony of consuming living sacrifices".
Let's start with the word 生贄 [ikenie]. It specifically denotes a sacrifice (usually an animal) offered to a god. In ancient Japan, for example, cows and horses were offered to gods as a part of a rain-making ritual. At different times and to different gods people also offered deer and fish. Interestingly, this word can denote sacrifices killed after offering them to the god, sacrificed killed before offering, or those who are not supposed to be killed at all: they just live on the shrine's territory being an offering to a god.
I think, the regular Okami were not supposed to be killed; rather, they were supposed to cross through Dairi to the Sanctuary. If we look closely at these Okami, we'll see that they have long roots growing out of their toes and fingers, just like on their character art. Maybe they are supposed to cross the border into the Divine Realm to commune with the Dragon, and turn into Old Dragons of the Tree. I don't think they are supposed to be murdered in Sakura Dragon's name. It's more likely that Dairi is the point of transition between the Palace and the Sanctuary, and the Red Nobles, driven mad with their hunger for life force and youth just intercept Okami halfway. Carp Attendant's Daughter says that Dairi has been locked up for a very long time now; I'd say by the Red Nobles so they can munch on Okami. There is a whole bunch of Okami masks in the corners of the room so we can only imagine how many they've consumed already. Apparently, they even call it a "ceremony", which is just an extra level of unsettling.
It's super dark inside Dairi even with Wolf's vision, that is why it took me a while to match the in-game places to environmental art. There are two types of folding screens, we've seen them before: 翁竜図屏風 [o:ryu:zu byo:bu], a folding screen with Old Dragons, and 桜竜図屏風 [sakuraryu:zu byo:bu] — a folding screen with Sakura Dragon.
The bigger room that we enter immediately after the Idol is called 宮の内裏・謁見の間 [miya no dairi・ekken no ma] — palace Dairi — audience room.
The smaller room at the back is called 宮の内裏・寝所 [miya no dairi・shinjo], palace Dairi — bedchamber.
Whether there was ever an Emperor at the Palace or another authority, this is the place where they would reside.
As we exit the bedchamber, we get into 神域 [shin'iki] — sanctuary, or Shinto shrine precincts. This word denotes a place where the god resides inside their yorishiro vessel.
Passing through multiple ancient torii gates with lightnings striking down, we meet yet again elite Okami warriors. These all have a different-colored sleeve so I'm going to say that it probably really is a hierarchy thing. The court rank before purple is maroon and the only Okami fully dressed in purple is Shizu, the clan leader.
Around the sanctuary there are multiple shimenawa ropes with paper streamers going around big rocks, marking the sacred space.
The shrine itself at the very top is called 岩社 [iwayashiro] — stone shrine, and from the look of it — and further we'll have proof — I think we can agree that it is incredibly ancient. Let's step inside.
Oh, there is someone in here...
Let's now discuss probably the most enigmatic character in the game — a young lady leaning on a big stone inside the Sanctuary, seemingly sleeping.
In the artbook she is called 巫女 [miko] — shrine maiden, not to be confused with 御子 [miko] — divine child, a term used for addressing Kuro and the Child of Rejuvenation. "Shrine maiden" English translation is not entirely accurate and might be deceiving because it offers no historical context. Yes, nowadays miko are "shrine maidens" you think about: young priestesses working in Shinto shrines performing kagura dances and sacred cleansings, wearing their stark outfits. However, it wasn't always like that: in ancient times miko were female shamans. In fact, the word means just that: 巫 — sorcerer, or shaman + 女 — woman.
Miko have been around since the prehistoric Jōmon period and in those ancient times they were known as women who could communicate with the gods and convey their will by entering a trance-like state. The alternative writing of "miko" is actually 神子 [miko] — kami + child. Miko also served as yorishiro: a vessel that is able to hold kami in one's own body. Rings a bell, doesn't it?..
They also did fortune-telling, performed various rituals and dances. Later they were institutionalized — it was a long and complicated process that took centuries — and now miko are known as young priestesses who perform specific duties at Shinto shrines. However, now we know it wasn't always like that.
Let's get back to this particular young lady. Is there a way for us to find out what historic period she is from? You'd be surprised but we can say exactly what time she's from and not just because of the clothes she wears. It's difficult to see in the game but in the artbook this miko is depicted in detail; the necklace that she wears is a magatama necklace with tubular beads, which is almost an exact replica of one of the necklaces found on archeological excavations of Kofun period sites. The magatama shape has a lot of significance in the history of Japan: apart from it being one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, in later periods the image of magatama evolved into a shape of tomoe — a comma-like swirl that we know very well. Kofun period spanned from about 300 to around 538, it ended with the introduction of Buddhism.
This miko has been here for a thousand years.
The main thing we need to keep in mind about Kofun period is that it was an era of massive cultural import, when China and Korea exerted great influence over Japan. The period ended with introduction of Buddhism and Chinese writing system. A lot of powerful immigrant clans emerged and soon found themselves in a position of power at the Yamato court. It makes sense that the Dragon and his arrival happened during Kofun period: Japanese dragons developed as an amalgam of native myths and imported Chinese and Korean legends; especially the appearance of a typical Japanese Dragon was in many aspects borrowed from that of a Chinese Dragon. Suddenly it makes more sense for the Dragon to wield the Seven-Branched Sword which was a gift from the king of one of the Korean kingdoms to a Yamato ruler. Although that, I think, happened just before Kofun period.
Initially I thought that this miko was the first Dragon Heiress, and she was the one who lent her blood to the Okami clan so they could ascend. However, with our new timeline findings, I think we need to discuss other possibilities. Maybe she was the cradle who carried the Dragon into Ashina Lands, which would imply that she herself came from the west. Possible, but from item descriptions we know that the Dragon was washed up here accidentally and took root, there doesn't seem to be a clear intention or purpose in him residing in this particular place. He was washed up here, the land was ancient enough and the conditions fit, so he took root.
But let's take into consideration the fact that during Kofun period miko were not yet institutionalized and filled the role of a female shaman, a vessel for the kami to relay their will. When the Dragon took root, she might have become the first to worship him, his yorishiro vessel. She has a sakura branch crown on her head and a sakura branch on her sash which instantly reminded me of Takeru, who took a sakura branch from the Divine Realm as a parting relic and grafted it onto a mortal sakura tree, thus creating the Everblossom. It doesn't make much sense for her to have a plucked off branch now but a thousand years ago maybe she was the one who created all the eternal sakura trees in the Palace by grafting the Divine Realm branches onto mortal trees. Maybe the one in Mibu Village too?..
If we come back after collecting the Dragon Tears, while trying to interact with her we'll get the message 「巫女は静かに眠っている」— "Miko is sleeping peacefully". She is still alive, and she hasn't transformed into a dragon-like, or a fish-like creature. She is basically immortal, like a Dragon Heir. Her hair is completely white, as well as her eyebrows and lashes. Maybe that's what a Dragon Heir looks like after a millennia has passed. We can't really say because we've never seen Takeru and Kuro is way too young for his appearance to change dramatically, he only has a couple white streaks in his hair. All of this leads me to believe that she, indeed, was the proto-Heiress, the very first vessel of the Dragon. I never wanted to appeal to the "miko and miko" argument when supporting my theory about her being a special kind of Dragon Heiress but now I think it fits even better. Because she is so incredibly ancient, she likely lived before the kanji writing system was adopted into Japanese, and it is possible that in time the word 巫女 [miko] (female shaman) or alternatively 神子 [miko] (child of kami) for denoting Dragon Heirs turned into 御子 [miko] (divine child) as the Dragon became more widely worshipped and his Heirs were both male and female.
If any of this is actually canon and I am right in any aspect of this whole description, it will absolutely blow my mind. You can't even see the necklace all that well from the in-game angle and I am sure most players don't even approach her close enough. She has no dialogue, and no other NPC ever mentions her, that is why telling all this story feels to me like describing to you an insane fever dream :D But I hope you found it interesting. Also, on a related note, I think that magatama beads mark the most ancient ascended creatures like Shizu and the lightning-wielding dogs who use this symbol to channel lightning.
The stone she is leaning onto is an 磐座 [iwakura] rock, something from Old Shinto, also called primitive Shinto, and ancient form of native Shinto before it was influenced by other religions. Such stones were considered sacred objects where gods resided, and the stone itself was the border between the divine realm and the mortal realm. As you can see, everything makes sense.
仙郷 [senkyo:] — enchanted land or Divine Realm, the first word we hear from Wolf as he opens his eyes. It's also the name of the scene in the artbook.
As I already mentioned, Old Dragons of the Tree in the game are different from those in the artbook, the only thing that stayed the same is the wooden rod they hold; there are a few suzu bells strapped to it. As for why they are spewing poison and seem to have a bad case of pneumonia, I think it is Dragonrot. We know that when enough stagnation accumulates, even Dragon Heirs can die from it, so I suppose it influences the Dragon too. The black-and-red Old Dragons seem to indicate the worsening of the disease, and it's only when Wolf cuts them down Sakura Dragon is able to appear. As for who the dragons are... We've seen them on folding screens, on Palace's roofs fashioned into grappling points; they are obviously a part of the lore. I would be inclined to think that they are a part of the Dragon, like maybe the skins he shed when Dragonrot got too bad, if it wasn't for the piety the Old Dragons express, if it wasn't for their worship. The theory I personally gravitate towards is that this is what happens to Okami when they reach the Sanctuary. I think, that's the hidden meaning behind being 生贄 [ikenie] — a living sacrifice. To step into the Divine Realm and accept a part of the Dragon's sickness to lighten his burden so he may live. Thus, Red Nobles, feasting on the chosen Okami for their own selfish purposes, bring harm to the Dragon and make stagnation and Dragonrot worse.
As for the Dragon, I used to think that he looks like this because of Wolf; like Dragon is a vision that mirrors the one who looks at him, and for someone else he would look different. Now, however, I think it's the other way around: it's Wolf who looks like the Dragon.
The arm is somewhat of a coincidence, but the eye certainly isn't. We have talked about how those who worship a god, in time, become like that god in some aspects. While Wolf might not worship the Dragon himself, he is nonetheless tied to him through Kuro, and that is why the immortality mark falls on his eye. The Dragon is missing his right eye, and Wolf's immortality mark is on the right side too; interestingly, the mark that Miko has is on the left side.
As for why the Dragon misses an arm, there are several theories we can put forward. Maybe his arm was torn off when an unknown comet or a fallen star broke off the branch from Great Sakura. I also know that many players associate his missing arm with the Everblossom branch that was plucked off. I personally don't find these theories satisfactory because I don't think the Dragon is immediately connected to anything in the mortal world, even to sakura trees created from his branches. I think, his missing eye and his missing arm are the very reasons he decided to uproot — or he was uprooted — from his home in the West. Maybe he had a fight with another deity, or maybe his followers back home didn't treat him kindly. As weird as it sounds, I think he drifted away to find a place to heal.
In the artbook on his character art we can see that he is, indeed, the fountainhead, the source of all waters: it's streaming from a crack in his chest. Interestingly enough, there is also a torii gate on Dragon's sakura branches, implying that there is a shrine inside the tangle somewhere. I don't think it's present in the game though.
So, I think, this is the story. A wounded god from the West lifted his roots and drifted away to the East. Accidentally, he ended up in an ancient land and took root there. A local miko established a connection with a newly arrived god and became his yorishiro, his anchor. People living on this ancient land started worshipping the Dragon and the waters that flowed from him, because he was, after all, a god of rainfall and water. In time Dragon's presence overwhelmed smaller local deities and they went into hiding; a powerful remedy called Divine Grass was lost. Some centuries later Fountainhead Palace was built below the Dragon's shrine. Sakura Dragon continued granting his powers to other miko vessels through centuries; those were Dragon Heirs who descended from the Divine Realm and into the mortal world, possibly to reinforce the worshipping of the Dragon and, in turn, to channel more power for him to heal. The more followers you have, the stronger you are as a god.
Then, a terraforming event of some sort occurred: maybe a fallen star, maybe not; and Fountainhead palace was torn from the mortal world — the connection was severed. However, soon it was established anew as the Okami clan recreated the aroma of the Fountainhead with the help of an unnamed Dragon Heir and ascended with a wedding procession to continue worshipping the Dragon. It might be that they left the source of the aroma behind so the Mibu villagers, the aspiring nobles, also could travel upwards as they used to.
Then an unspecified conflict occurred between Fountainhead Palace and Ashina lands; Sabimaru blades were produced to ward off the lightning-wielding Okami warriors with blue rust. It might be that the conflict was triggered by the Senpou monks stealing the Mortal Blade because they desired to uproot the Dragon and sent him back home. Then the path was closed again, with Corrupted monk's illusion guarding the Wedding Cave Door.
Later in the timeline a new Dragon Heir arrived into Ashina Lands post-Isshin's rebellion — lord Takeru with his oathbound, lady Tomoe, an elite Okami warrior. Takeru grafted the branch he took with him from home onto a mortal sakura tree, creating the Everblossom. However, by that time, after almost a thousand years after the Dragon took root, the accumulated stagnation and the upset balance between him and native deities started to spill over. Dragonrot epidemic swept the land and took the Dragon Heir's life. Takeru and Tomoe could not return to the Divine Realm because mortal parties aggressively pursued their own interests: Tomoe could not get the Mortal Blade, even though she knew where it was; and Owl, seduced by the prospect of immortality, plucked off the sacred sakura branch, destroying the Everblossom. The powers clashed. Mortals did not want Takeru and Tomoe to leave for their own reasons, so they never did. Tomoe tried to take her own life to make Takeru human but failed; he died of Dragonrot, the oath was broken, and Tomoe perished too.
Fastforward a few years, and a little boy ends up in Hirata family's care, the new Dragon Heir named Kuro. Owl jumps at the opportunity and installs his adopted son Wolf as young lord's bodyguard. A few years later Owl orchestrates the assault on Hirata Estate, hoping to get Wolf out of the picture and kidnap Kuro for himself. However, Wolf defeats lady Butterfly, obtaining Sakura Droplet in the process — the mark of a broken Dragon Heir's oath left by Tomoe years ago. Owl murders Wolf but loses the opportunity to take Kuro, likely because Ashina forces have already entered Estate grounds. Owl leaves. Unbeknownst to him, Kuro, moved by Wolf's actions, saves him from certain death, making Wolf his oathbound.
This is a speedrun of a thousand years of Ashina history as I see it. All of the weird immortality mechanics like the rejuvenating sediment, giant insects that possess different creatures, stem, in my opinion, from the accumulated stagnation and the ruined balance of the land. The immortality being distributed unevenly, nobles that cannot turn into a Nushi Carp, the many broken cycles: all of it looks like the end of the world, echoed by the massive transformations of the mortal world being torn apart by feudal wars.
Well, this is all I have to say about Fountainhead Palace and its inhabitants. I hope I didn't bore you to death because this post has turned out to be the longest out of all I've ever written on Sekiro. I just constantly stumbled upon things I wanted to research more in-depth and see how they fit into the picture. I've been waiting to write this post for about two years, and it turned out just as I imagined it.
And just like that, we're nearing the very end of the project; next time we'll discuss both Ashina invasions and all the endings, and it will be the last one.
As usual, stay tuned here and on the Lair's YouTube channel not to miss out on anything.
Thank you for your time.