Fushimi-ku, Out Of The Box, Temples-Shrines — January 31, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Chushojima: Overflowing with Ancient Customs!


Chushojima, in Fushimi Ward – among the many interesting things that lurk among its roads, there are a few which I visited the other day.

The first was, of course, Fushimi Castle, also known as Momoyama Castle or Fushimi-Momoyama Castle. Fushimi Castle is located on a hill, in other words a hilltop castle, which is known in Japanese as a ‘Teikakushiki’. Through numerous instances of being built, burned, and then rebuilt again – even dismantled and scattered throughout Kyoto – this modern replica was built in 1964 and stands today made of mostly concrete. Its history is long and complicated.

The very first version of the castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi – one of Japan’s most famous historical characters – in 1592, the year after his retirement from the regency. It took two years to build with a grand total of more than 20,000 workers from twenty provinces working on it, with many elaborate rooms, such as a tea ceremony room plated entirely in gold leaf. Though it looked like a Castle on the outside, it was really meant to be a retirement palace for Hideyoshi, and he had also planned to use it for peace talks with Chinese diplomats seeking an end to the Seven-year War in Korea. Through a stroke of bad luck, though, it was destroyed in an earthquake two years after its building.

Hideyoshi re-commissioned the Castle in 1597, 500 meters away from the original site; however, Hideyoshi died before he could see the second version completed and the Toyotomi clan moved to Osaka Castle in 1598. Thus, the castle came to be controlled by Torii Mototada, a vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu and a vital figure in Japanese history.

In 1600, during a war when Japan had split into two factions – the army of the East led by Tokugawa and the army of the West led by Mouri Terutomo – Fushimi Castle went under siege by Ishida Mitsunari. In an act of bravery, Torii Mototada defended the Castle for eleven days, allowing time for his lord Tokunaga to amass an army which would tip the scales in his favor at the final Battle of Sekigahara. This Battle marked the final victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu over all his rivals. At the end of the eleven days, Torii and his men committed suicide and the castle was destroyed by fire.

The castle was soon reconstructed in 1602 under the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. However, in 1619 a decision was made to dismantle the castle and incorporate its parts into temples all over Japan. Spectacularly, to this day you can see in several temples in Kyoto such as Yogen-in, Genko-an, and Hosen-in a blood-stained ceiling which was the floor of the corridor at Fushimi Castle where Torii Mototada committed suicide. Finally, in 1625, the castle was abandoned for what seemed to be for good.

In 1912 the tomb of Emperor Meiji was built on the original site of the castle, and in 1964 the final replica was completed. The castle had served as the museum of the life and campaigns of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but it was closed to the public in 2003.

Another place to visit is the Gekkeikan Okura Kinenkan, a museum of that so well-loved Japanese delicacy; sake. Chushojima is the sake capitol of Japan and it is said that they had been brewing sake here as far back as the 4th century. This museum was once a sake warehouse and is operated by one of the largest sake makers in Japan – Gekkeikan has been making and brewing since their foundation in 1637 and is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the world; they use sake-brewing techniques developed over 360 years of history. 

The rise to sake popularity is mostly associated with the Edo Period (1615-1868) and since then has had a long life of being loved by both nationals and foreigners all over the world. According to one of the oldest legends in Japan, sake had its beginnings as dragon lure. According to legend, once upon a time a prince of the heavens fell in love with a woman who was endangered by a cruel and merciless dragon. To save his love, the prince lured the dragon away with vats of sake he had prepared. The dragon, easily fooled, speedily got drunk and was slain by the hero. No doubt if more classical European fairytale princes had thought of intoxicating the villain, the stories would have had a much swifter ending.

Sake is a practically inseparable part of Japanese culture; a ‘must-have’ in parties, festivities, celebrations, and most popularly, sakura-viewing, a tradition of old. Sake has customarily symbolized the miracle of nature; also, because it is brewed from rice which was one time used as a form of currency in Japan, it also has represented a sense of abundance and wealth.

One of the most vital aspects of sake, however, is the tradition of pouring for one another. Though it seems to outsiders to be an excessively polite gesture, it is important in Japan as it creates a social opportunity by indicating recognition for another’s needs. Sake is indispensable as a mood-lightener, and not only because of its alcoholic tendencies.

In Chushojima, there are also a couple of temples which are worth visiting. Among them is Choken-ji Temple, dedicated to ‘Benzaiten’, the Goddess of Beauty and Arts, particularly the performing arts. Benzaiten is the only female among Japan’s Seven Gods of Good Fortune and is a descendant of the Hindu deity Sarasvati. The Choken-ji compound is surrounded by red earthen walls and is overflowing with ginko leaves. There are two large containers on both sides of the Chinese-style tiled roof – these are sake casks, said to be drunk by the gods and goddesses of the Shinto pantheon.

Another temple is Gokonomiya Shrine, dedicated to the deity of rice ‘Inari’. As rice has long represented wealth, this shrine is extremely popular, particularly among business people, and can be visited by three million people in the three short days after the New Year – January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. You can see statues of pairs of stone foxes all over the compound, emissaries of Inari.

You can also climb Mount Fushimi, or Mount Inari, which is 233 meters high – the path is a lot like a maze. Follow the lines of brilliant orange torii (gates), and when in doubt, turn right. At the top you are rewarded with a magnificent view of Kyoto, and at the backside of the mountain you can see many more interesting statues and beautiful sceneries.

The last historical building I went to visit was the Teradaya Inn, the site of a failed attempt on the life of one in 1866 of the most idealized and popular figures in Japanese history, Sakamoto Ryoma. Ryoma’s life was short but profound; he almost singlehandedly overthrew what he thought to be the oppressive Tokugawa Shogunate and helped with incorporating western ideals into Japan in only five short years.

Sakamoto was born in 1835 in Tosa, present day Kochi Prefecture; a powerful clan. At that time in Japan the caste system was very severe – Sakamoto’s family was the lowest class of the samurai, a ‘goshi’. He enrolled in a private school at the age of twelve, but because of bullying and a remarkable lack of academic dedication, that was short-lived. His sister enrolled him into a Japanese fencing, or ‘kenjutsu’ school when he was fourteen, and this he excelled at, quickly becoming one of the best sword fighters in his dojo and becoming an accredited practitioner when he was nineteen. That same year he moved to Edo, where he enrolled in the Kyobashi Fencing Academy. Perhaps it was fate, but that same year was when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed up to the coast near Edo in his black ships to willfully drag Japan out of its self-inflicted exile, a sight which Ryoma was said to have witnessed himself. Only a year later, Japan was made to sign the Convention of Kangawa, the first of many so-called ‘unfair treaties’ which the Tokugawa Shogunate was forced to agree to.

The kenjutsu circle which Ryoma was a member of was extremely passionate in their hate of westernization – most were young, radicalized samurai eager to rid Japan of what they considered to be foreign ‘barbarians’. Ryoma returned to his hometown of Tosa in 1858, and four years later his friend, Takechi Hanpeita – or Takechi Zuizan – organized the Tosa Loyalist Party, ‘Kinnoto’. Their reed was “Revere the Emperor, expel the foreigners” – 200 samurais were among their ranks and all insisted on reform in Tosa. Since the Tosa lord refused to comply to their wishes, they plotted to assassinate Yoshida Toyo, though Ryoma was a part in name only, as he disagreed with his friend’s idea of reform only in Tosa – from this time he had started believing that not only his hometown, but the whole of Japan needed to be reformed. Because of this belief, Ryoma left the Tosa clan; at that time it was forbidden for a person to leave their clan without permission on pain of death, and his sister committed suicide at his sudden departure. Later, Ryoma would come to use the alias of ‘Saitani Umetaro’ as he worked against the shogun.

While a ronin, Ryoma decied to assassinate Katsu Kaishu, a high-ranking official in the Tokugawa shogunate and supporter of both modernization and westernization. However, Katsu Kaishu managed to persuade Ryoma that a long-term plan was needed to boost Japan’s military strength. In a happy twist, Ryoma, instead of assassinating Katsu Kaishu, came to work as his assistant and protégé.

Ryoma was unhappy with the Tokugawa shogunate, which he saw as unfair; he believed in strengthening the Japanese military (he was often known as the ‘father of the Imperial Japanese Navy’) and was inspired by the United States’ belief that all men were created equal. in 1864, as the shogunate started taking a hard stance, Ryoma fled to Kagoshima where he negotiated a secret alliance between Choshu and Satsuma provinces, two long-time enemies. His presence as a neutral bystander was crucial in bringing forth this historical treaty. When the Choshu clan overcame the Tokugawa army in 1866, the collapse of the shogunate followed shortly, and Ryoma was recalled back to his clan of Tosa with honors. The Tosa domain was anxious to negotiate a settlement between the Emperor and the Tokugawa shogunate, prevent the powerful ‘Satcho’ Alliance from overthrowing the shogunate by force and becoming a ruling power in Japan. In the end, the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu voluntarily resigned in 1867, bringing about the Meiji Restoration.

Ryoma was assassinated at the age of 33 at the Omiya inn in Kyoto, not long before the Meiji Restoaration took place. Though numerous groups and individuals were accused of his assassination, the true culprit has never been proven in a court of law.

Ryoma was a true visionary, envisioning a Japan with no feudal trappings or strict caste systems, and his dream did, eventually, come true. He is always portrayed as an eccentric, raucous, hot-blooded, yet intelligent man; a remarkable person who brought about so many crucial changes in Japan at a time when it was in danger of occupation by outside powers. He has been seen as an intriguing mix of the traditional and modern, symbolized by his preference for samurai dress while favoring western footwear.

Chushojima is a place overflowing with traditional and ancient customs and sites to see – I recommend it highly for anyone hoping for a long, relaxing, very Japanese experience.

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