The temple in Japan where history’s alive

I will never forget Sengaku-ji… It was almost overpowering in its emotional intensity. I stood in frozen awe beside the final resting place of the famous 47 Ronin as mourners – more than 300 years after the event – flowed all around me to pay their respects.

The true tale of the 47 Ronin is well-known in the West, as it is in Japan. It is a story of loyalty, character, honour and revenge… A stoical acceptance of personal liability and accountability. It is a story of Japan, its people, and its culture, that is way beyond the creative power of the silver screen – but accessible to those with an open mind and the opportunity to visit Sengaku-ji.

Rice cakes enveloped by smoke from the incense sticks
Rice cakes enveloped by smoke from the incense sticks

The story of the 47 Ronin then…

It all started in the year 1701. Two nobles, Kamei Sama and Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, were appointed to receive an envoy from the Emperor at the Shogun’s court in Edo (Tokyo). The court appointed a high official named Kira Yoshinaka to teach them proper etiquette. Kira, angered at the lack of gifts from the two young nobles, as was the practice at the time, treated them poorly and neglected their instruction. Kamei responded in deference to Kira’s wishes, which won him the official’s approval. Asano, however, refused to humour Kira who reciprocated by ridiculing Asano as a country boor. Enraged, Asano struck the official down with a dagger, wounding him on the head.

Unfortunately for the young noble, this was done within the Shogun’s court – a flagrant contravention of strict rules prohibiting the brandishing of arms inside the palace. Asano was sentenced to seppuku (ritual suicide), his goods and lands confiscated, his family ruined and his Samurai declared Ronin (masterless).

At midnight, Oishi attacked the front gate while his son Chikara stormed the rear entrance

After Asano’s death, the dispossessed Ronin swore revenge and under the leadership of Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio they embarked on a patient plan to assassinate Kira. Well aware of the enmity his actions had provoked, Kira took elaborate precautions against potential reprisals. The 47 Ronin split up and and worked in various professions to lull Kira into a false sense of security. Oishi, who had moved to Kyoto, was so convincing in his role as a derelict drunk that a disgusted passerby once kicked him in the face – a grave insult to a Samurai.

Headstone of one of the 47 Ronin
Headstone of one of the 47 Ronin

As Kira’s guard eventually relaxed, the 47 Ronin stealthily gathered in Tokyo. On a bitterly cold winter’s night on the 14th of December 1702, they surrounded Kira’s residence, giving neighbors notice of their intentions. At midnight, Oishi attacked the front gate while his son Chikara stormed the rear entrance.

Chikara’s team was the first to breach Kira’s defenses and entered the rear of the house. After a fierce battle, the Ronin defeated Kira’s retainers but a search of the house failed to locate their quarry. They eventually found him hiding in a small building in a hidden courtyard. Oishi, respectfully, announced their intention as honourable Samurai to avenge their master’s death. Oishi offered Kira the opportunity to kill himself, but receiving no response from the terrified official, at long last killed him and removed his head with the same knife their master had used to end his own life.

One of the Ronin was ordered to travel to Asano’s old fiefdom bearing the message that their lord had been avenged. The remainder took up Kira’s head and embarked on a procession through the streets to their master’s tomb. Word spread like wildfire and crowds flocked to praise the Ronin and offer them refreshments. Arriving at the temple, they washed Kira’s head and placed it, along with the dagger, before Asaono’s tomb. After offering prayers, they handed the Abbot their worldly possessions with a request that they receive a proper burial after their deaths. As expected, the Ronin were ordered to commit seppuku, which they did. They were buried at the temple, in front of their master’s tomb.

In the aftermath, the passerby who had kicked and spat on Oishi in Kyoto, attended the graves of the Ronin at Sengaku-ji and overcome with remorse for dishonouring a true Samurai, he killed himself ritually on the spot. He is buried next to the Ronin graves.

The story of the 47 Ronin now…

In the late afternoon, shafts of sunlight spear down from the heavens, illuminating the devout faces of pilgrims paying homage to the Ronin. In front of the carved headstones, they place smoking senko (incense) sticks and rice cakes. With heads bowed and hands raised in supplication young girls and old men honour the dead… and Bushido, the moral code of the Samurai.

Honouring the 47 Ronin at Sengaku-ji
Honouring the 47 Ronin at Sengaku-ji

When I left Sengaku-ji that day, deeply touched with what I had experienced, I would not yet know this would remain with me as one of the highlights of my exploration of an extraordinary land. One day, I would like to return and light those  senko sticks myself…

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