Sengakuji – burial place of the 47 ronin

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 hugely famous in this country.  However, for being a relatively minor event, it emerged to have huge cultural and historical significance.

There isn’t enough space here to retell that famous story of the 47 ronin in detail ( you can read the accepted version in this Wiki article) as it is far too long.  Instead, we’ll look at where they are buried, the temple of Sengakuji.  Sengakuji is a major temple in Tokyo, but it is quite different to places like Sensoji, or Meiji (shrine) which are just huge tourist meccas.

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The grave of Naganori Asano the daimyo who death led to the story of the 47 ronin

 

This place is very quiet.  As you walk in through the front gate, there are a couple of souvenir shops and then just inside the main gate is a courtyard with the main hall.  The benches there seem to be occupied only during lunch times when workers from nearby companies use them to eat outside.  It is usually a pretty empty place unless some ceremony is going on.  Most visitors go there to see the graves of the 47 ronin.  Sometimes I get the feeling that the only reason for Sengakuji’s existence is due to the existence of the ronin’s cemetery.

It is a great little cemetery.  I really need to stress little, because even though the story is ultra-famous in this country and a Hollywood movie has been made about it, it is quite austere.  Nothing colourful or ostentatious about it.  The cemetery is basically a large square shaped area with graves arranged along the sides and in the middle.  Asano is outside the square, as his grave was created first of course, and next to him lies several members of his family including his wife and grandmother.  There is also a curator’s office there where you can buy incense if you wish to make an offering to the men, but the cemetery is pretty much just that.

It is quite incredible that the people who took part in one of the most important stories in Japanese history, are right before you.  You are so close to one of the biggest stories in Japanese history.  It is a simple place, but a very important one in this country.

1.  You can see the graves of the Daimyo Asano, Ōishi Kuranosuke, his son Chikara and all the men 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.  The other museum is filled with statues of the men who participated in the story;

 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, and;

4.  Next to the path between the two museums is the actual stone on which Asano committed seppuku (i.e. ritual suicide).

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 museum has a movie that runs for about fifteen minutes.  If you don’t speak Japanese you can ask for it to be shown in English;

4.  The graveyard of the forty-seven ronin is completely free, and;

5.  It is very easy to get to.

 

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The staute of Ōishi Kuranosuke that is found at the entrance to Sengakuji

1.  Unless you are a Japanese reader, you won’t be understanding very much.  Very little is explained in English (except for that movie) on the displays in the museums and in the cemetery itself;

 2.  Due to its small size and the problem mentioned above, you might find yourself heading to you next destination extremely quickly after a few photos;

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.

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 (which is on the Yamanote line), which takes about 15 minutes along Dai-Ichi Keihin road.

Here is a Google map to give you some help:

The cemetery is open from 7am and is open until 5pm, but until 6 during the summer months.

Both museums are open from 9am to 4pm, closed on the last Wednesdays of February and August.

The cemetery is free, but the entry to both museums costs 500 yen for adults.

All year round is great for the temple. However Spring would be probably the best, as the cherry blossoms will be in bloom.  December might be best for most people as there is a ceremony held there every year on the 14th in tribute to the men.

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.  Ōishi and his men, with Kira`s head, walked to Sengakuji Temple (a distance of nearly 10 kilometers). They 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.

Final words

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.

However, 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 the characters in a different light.

The last thing is that every tombstone of the 47 ronin, has this kanji on it.  It is read, “nin”, and means that the person buried under it committed ritual suicide.

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The kanji, pronounced “nin”, that denotes death by ritual suicide

 

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.

Currently the temple is having trouble with a local development, an big apartment building that is going up right next to it, please read this article about that story.  It is very important as that construction will have a massive impact on the area, and especially on the temple.


Rohan Gillett

Rohan Gillett

I’ve been living in Tokyo for close to 20 years.  Originally, I`m from Australia and made the move here in 1991 on a working holiday visa, when I was about 25.  At that time I worked for NOVA (the defunct English school).  In 1993 I returned to Australia to finish my university degree.

Returning to Tokyo in 1996, I have been living here ever since.  I really love the city and am constantly exploring it to find out new things.  When not out walking or exploring, I’ll be in front of my computer looking for some new place to … have my next walk in the city.

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