Keanu Reeves made the movie, but the graves of the men who made the original story 300 years ago can still be visited today. The 47 Ronin is one Japan’s most famous tales and has been made into many movies, TV dramas and Kabuki plays. I think it would difficult to find a Japanese person who doesn’t know it. It is that famous in this country. What started as a relatively minor event, emerged to have huge cultural and historical significance. There isn’t enough space here to retell the story of the 47 ronin in detail ( you can read the accepted version in this Wiki article) as it is far too long. Instead, I’m going to tell you about their graves at Sengakuji, a temple which houses their final resting place. The cemetery there is a great little place (and I stress little) to visit for history lovers. It is quite incredible that the people who were responsible for what became one of the biggest stories in Japan, are right before you. You’ll be so close to one of the biggest stories in Japanese history. It is a simple place, but a very important one in this country.
What can you see there?
1. You can see the graves of the Daimyo Asano, Ōishi Kuranosuke, his son Chikara and all the other ronin who participated in the attack. There are also the graves of Asano’s grandmother (on the right of his grave), his father, wife and several other family members;
2. There are two museums, just before the graves, one on each side of the path. One is filled with implements, letters, weapons, armour etc. that were connected with the story (including a receipt that for the return of Kira’s head). The other museum is filled with statues of all the ronin;
3. The well where Kira’s head was washed before it was presented to Asano. As you walk up the path to the graves the well is on the right side between the two museums.
What’s good about Sengakuji?
1. It’s small and compact, so you won’t be tied up there all day;
2. I think you can get a real feeling for how highly thought of this story is in Japan when you see regular people walk in and burn incense and pray before the graves;
3. The graveyard of the forty-seven ronin is completely free, and;
4. It is very easy to get to.
What’s not so good …?
1. Unless you are a Japanese reader, you won’t be understanding very much. Very little is explained in English on the displays in the museums and in the cemetery itself;
2. Due to its small size and the abovementioned problem, you might find yourself heading to you next destination extremely quickly;
3. The museums are also tiny, literally one room each;
4. Remember it is just a cemetery with its graves, so that is all you’ll see (other than the museums). People who are expecting to see something a little more might feel disappointed.
The museum is open from 9am to 4pm. It is closed on the last Wednesdays of February and August.
The cemetery is free, but the entry to both museums costs 500 yen for adults.
How to get to Sengakuji
To get there, you need to use the Toei-Asakusa subway line to get to Sengakuji station. The Toei-Asakusa line can be reached several lines along the Yamanote line (Gotanda, Shinagawa, Nihonbashi and Shinbashi stations). Leave Sengakuji station using the A2 exit and look to the right. Up the hill and across the road will be the temple. It is just a few minute’s walk from the station. Alternatively, you could also walk there from Shinagawa station (on the Yamanote line), which takes about 15 minutes along Dai-Ichi Keihin road. Here is a Google map to give you some help:
All year round is great for the temple. However spring would be probably the best, as the cherry blossoms will be in bloom.
How long would you expect to spend there?
Even though it is a place of great historical interest in Japan, you wouldn’t need to spend a great amount of time there. Most people seem to come, take a few pictures and then move on to the museums or their next destination elsewhere.
A very brief history of the 47 Ronin
For reasons that can only be speculated upon, on March 14 1701, the daimyo Asano Naganori attacked Kira Yoshihisa at Matsu-no-Oorooka (Great Pine Corridor or Hallway) at Edo Castle, which resulted in Asano being ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). His lands were confiscated and the samurai which he had commanded became ronin (masterless samurai). Swearing to avenge his lord, Ōishi Yoshio (also known by his title Ōishi Kuranosuke) led forty-six of Asano`s men in a succesful attack on Kira`s house after waiting for nearly two years for the right moment.
The attack culminated in Kira`s death and Ōishi and his men, with Kira`s head, walked to Sengakuji Temple (a distance of nearly 10 kilometers). The men washed Kira`s head in a well at Sengakuji before presenting it to their dead master. They were arrested and like Asano, were ordered to commit seppuku, then buried alongside him. Since that time, the tale of the 47 Ronin has become one of the most popular stories in Japanese history. It has been made into a movie at least six times, numerous TV-movies and dramas as well as kabuki and bunraku.
Final words about Sengakuji
To understand the importance of this story in Japanese society you need to understand that the story is the best example of the samurai code of bushido (way of the warrior) which centred around loyalty, sacrifice and honour. These men are seen to have completely embraced those values, which made them the ultimate examples of what samurai should be.
Lastly, I think it is just as important to know that no one really knows why Asano attacked Kira. The historical records no longer exist, and the first stories were written about fifty years after the incident took place. So when you watch a movie about it, or read a book about it, it will only tell you how the story ended (plus any embellishments the writer added of course), but no one will truly be able to tell you why it started. How the characters have been portrayed in cinema and literature are the accepted versions, not necessarily factual versions. You could have a look at this story on the SamuraiWiki that paints them in a different light.
Sengakuji is worth a visit, as long as you are prepared for something small, quiet and dignified. You can see the temple’s homepage here.