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Sengaku-ji and the 47 Ronin

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On a wintry night in 1703, the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano fought their way into the home of Lord Kira and struck him down. With the decapitated head of their enemy in tow, they marched slowly back through the streets of Edo, headed for Shinagawa and the Sengaku-ji temple, where they would lay Kira’s head at the foot of Lord Asano’s grave. Their mission of revenge complete, the ronin would soon take their own lives.

Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin

The true story of the 47 Ronin, or the Chōshingura as it’s known in Japan, has become the country’s most beloved legend. Everyone likes a good tale of honor and revenge, and this is as good as they get.

Lord Asano Naganori had been asked by the Shogun to receive emissaries from Kyoto. It was a delicate task, and Asano first had to be trained in proper court etiquette by Edo official Kira Yoshinaka. A corrupt and arrogant man, Kira despised having to deal with Asano, whom he considered a country bumpkin, and constantly berated and insulted him. Asano bore the abuse as long as possible, but eventually became so enraged that he snapped, striking a glancing blow with his katana across the back of Kira’s neck. Unsheathing one’s sword in Edo Castle was absolutely forbidden, and punishable by death. Honorable Asano recognized his crime and committed the ritualized form of suicide known as seppuku.

The 47 samurai who had been under the charge of Asano now became ronin, meaning “masterless samurai,” and they swore to take revenge on the man who had brought about the death of their lord. On January 30th, 1703, the ronin stole through Edo and fought their way into Kira’s house. They killed sixteen guards and, after finding Kira hiding in the courtyard, hacked off his head with a dagger.

As they returned to Shinagawa with Kira’s head, the ronin were hailed by the townspeople on the streets as heroes. Kira had been a reviled figure, and the story of Lord Asano’s death was familiar to most of Edo at the time. On arriving at the Sengaku-ji, they washed Kira’s head in a fountain and laid it on Asano’s grave. The ronin fully understood what the punishment would be for the premeditated murder of a court official and, like their master, met their fate honorably by committing seppuku. Also like their master, they were buried in the Sengaku-ji.

Today, you can visit the graves of both Lord Asano and his loyal samurai in a small cemetery on the temple grounds. The Sengaku-ji itself is a lovely place of worship, and its central role in one of Japan’s most historic tales makes it even more special. Standing before the tombstones of the ronin, all of them equal in size and shape, it’s nearly impossible not to feel moved.

The tale of the 47 Ronin is a popular subject of Kabuki theater, and has been brought to film a number of times, most recently in 2013, with Keanu Reeves starring as a fictional half-English ronin named “Kai.” This rendition was savaged by critics, and the best film treatment of the story remains Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 version.

Location of the Sengaku-ji on our Map

Read All About The 47 Ronin

Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
Sengaku-ji Temple & 47 Ronin
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June 20, 2014 at 4:15 pm Comment (1)

Shibuya Crossing and Hachiko

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A statue of the loyal dog named Hachiko stands eternally vigilant before Shibuya Crossing, an intersection which has become one of Tokyo’s most iconic sights. When the lights turn red, the zig-zagging crosswalks are buried under an avalanche of footfalls as thousands of people try to cross simultaneously. It’s hypnotic, especially when witnessed from above.

Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko

The first couple times we ran the gauntlet of Shibuya Crossing, it was for the thrill; we’d seen the intersection in movies and on TV, and it was fun to dive headlong into such a famous mess. Although the novelty soon wore off, we continued making frequent use of the intersection during our 91 days in Tokyo. The reason it’s so busy, is that it’s extremely practical. If you’re in Shibuya, crossing this crazy street at least once is almost unavoidable.

Between Shibuya Station and the intersection, sits a statue dedicated to Hachiko, who lived from 1925 to 1938. Every single morning, this friendly Akita would walk to the station with his master, a professor at Tokyo University. And every afternoon, he’d be there waiting for his master’s return. One day, though, the professor did not come back. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage while at school, and suddenly died. But Hachiko never lost faith. Every single afternoon, he went to the station to await the train which might finally bring his master home. And he did so until his own death, nine years later.

By demonstrating such unwavering loyalty, Hachiko became a celebrity. His stuffed remains can still be seen in Ueno Park’s National Museum of Science, and his story was the subject of a well-received film by Lasse Hallström, starring Richard Gere. Hachiko has also been credited with rescuing the Akita breed which, at the time, had been in danger of disappearing. Strong, intelligent and brave, Akitas have since become the country’s most popular dog. As a fun bit of trivia, the first two brought to America were owned by Helen Keller, who had visited Japan in 1937.

Today, Hachiko’s statue is one of the most popular meeting-spots in Tokyo, because everyone knows where it is. It’s fitting that Tokyo’s most famous spot to wait for people, is next to the dog who became famous for waiting.

Location of Shibuya Crossing on our Map

Great Hotels In Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
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Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
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Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
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June 19, 2014 at 3:22 pm Comments (2)

The Edo-Tokyo Museum

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After noticing the white hulk of the Edo-Tokyo Museum from atop the SkyTree, we wondered how even the world’s biggest city could justify such a monstrous history museum. But when exhibits include full-scale reconstructions of theaters, houses and even a publishing house, the extra room comes in handy.

Edo Museum Tokyo

We had recently briefed ourselves on Tokyo’s history, and felt prepared for the museum, which is adjacent to the National Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku. The saga of how an insignificant fishing village evolved into the megacity of Tokyo is a fascinating one, and the museum doesn’t skip any of it. If you’re the kind of person who feels compelled to read every scrap of information you come across, prepare for a long day in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

From the days of Edo and its samurai, shoguns and daimyos, through the rapid modernization of the Meiji Era, the city’s dizzying expansion, the catastrophes of fire, earthquake and war, and up into the modern day, the museum is absolutely comprehensive. For newbies like us, it was exceptionally instructive, but even those most knowledgeable about the city would surely learn something new.

You enter the museum by crossing a wooden replica of the original Nihombashi Bridge, which marked the Zero-Mile of Tokyo and was once the center of the city life. Beyond that are dioramas which replicate life in Edo. Like everything else in this museum, they’re big. Let’s just say binoculars are included so that you can take in all the detail. Further on, you can peer inside life-size replicas of eighteenth-century homes, and even a full-scale reconstruction of the Choya Newspaper Publishing Company’s headquarters.

The museum continues through the days of the Meiji Empire, the industrial revolution, and into the modern era. It was all fascinating, but I became fatigued somewhere around 1930. However, I wasn’t too tired to overlook one strange omission. Throughout the museum, there had been excellent English translations of every exhibit. Up until a particular story from World War II…

After bombing Pearl Harbor, Japan floated 9000 weaponized balloons over the Pacific Ocean, into the USA and Canada. One of the balloons succeeded in its deadly mission, killing five children and a pregnant woman in Oregon. This early form of terrorism is a captivating piece of history, which I hadn’t yet known about, but it was almost the only exhibit in the museum which lacked an explanatory panel in English.

Despite that “oversight,” we enjoyed our time in the museum, and came away with a much deeper understanding of Tokyo. It’s big and time-consuming, but for those looking to learn about the city’s history, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is the place to go.

Location on our Map
Edo-Tokyo Museum – Website

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March 24, 2014 at 7:42 am Comments (0)

A Concise History of Tokyo

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Old Tokyo Photo

Unlike many of the places we’ve visited, Tokyo doesn’t have a history which stretches far into the past. In fact, before the close of the nineteenth century, Tokyo didn’t even exist; it was known instead as Edo. But the rapid ascension from village to “World’s Biggest City” has been as catastrophic as it has been meteoric. Growing pains are always the hardest for those who mature too quickly.

3000 BC Humanity arrives late to the Kantô Plain. At this point, the Egyptians had already established a civilization around the Nile.
628 AD Fishermen brothers discover a Buddhist icon in the waters of the Sumida River, and the Sensō-ji Temple is established in what would eventually become Tokyo.
12th Century Clan leader Edo Shigenaga establishes his castle on the shore, bequeathing the town his name.
1590 Shortly before establishing the shogunate which would rule Japan for 268 years, Tokugawa Ieyasu chooses Edo as his home, irrevocably changing the destiny of the heretofore unimportant fishing village.
1657 Rumored to have started with the burning of a cursed kimono, the great Meireki Fire burns most of Edo to the ground and kills over 100,000 people.
1707 Covering Edo in volcanic ash, but no lava, Mount Fuji erupts. It’s since lain dormant for over 300 years, but remains an active volcano.
1853 Commodore Matthew Perry (not the guy from Friends) lands in Edo Bay and forces a previously isolationist Japan to open its borders to American capitalism, under threat of war.
1868 The era of the Japanese Shogun comes to an end with the rise of the Meiji Empire. Edo is renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital,” and the emperor moves into the city’s Imperial Palace
1923 Striking at noon, when the stoves of the city were ablaze for lunch, the Great Kantō Earthquake ignites fires across Tokyo, destroying most of its housing and killing a significant percentage of its populace. Oh yeah, and sets off a tsunami.
1945 The Pacific War isn’t a rousing success for Japan. In its waning stages, the USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then fire-bombs Tokyo to within an inch of its life. Debates can (and have) been waged on whether the American submission technique was a necessary evil, but what can’t be questioned is its horrible toll on innocent Japanese life.
1964 Japan’s postwar healing comes full-circle with Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Olympics. The games are a source of pride for Japanese citizens, and Tokyo’s infrastructure is rapidly modernized. It’s a much-needed success story in this city which has known so much tragedy.
1995 Ten members of the fanatical Aum Shinrikyo cult unleash a sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways. Thirteen die and thousands are injured in the worst assault on Japan since World War II.
2011 The completion of the Tokyo SkyTree brings the world’s tallest tower to the world’s biggest city, and solidifies Tokyo’s place in the architectural vanguard. Days before the tower reaches its final height, the Tōhoku earthquake ravages Japan.
2014 and Beyond It takes a single glance at the cranes and construction around Tokyo to understand that Japan’s capital isn’t done growing yet. The Olympics are slated to return in 2020, which will give the world an excuse to turn its attention towards its largest city. As though another excuse were needed.

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March 21, 2014 at 6:47 am Comment (1)
Sengaku-ji and the 47 Ronin On a wintry night in 1703, the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano fought their way into the home of Lord Kira and struck him down. With the decapitated head of their enemy in tow, they marched slowly back through the streets of Edo, headed for Shinagawa and the Sengaku-ji temple, where they would lay Kira's head at the foot of Lord Asano's grave. Their mission of revenge complete, the ronin would soon take their own lives.
For 91 Days