Thursday, October 1, 2009

Once upon a sword

Another airplane post. Look, I've got time to kill and can't sleep.

My last day in Tokyo, I was really torn about what to do, and ended up heading for a slightly off-the-beaten path site, the temple of Sengaku-ji. Off the usual path but celebrated enough to have its own metro stop. This temple is the site of one of Japan's most famous stories from the samurai era, this one the 18th century. The story of the Forty-Seven Ronin is a bloody tale of revenge, hara-kiri, and chivalry. Read the full version on wikipedia; I can't do it better. In very short, a band of forty-seven masterless samurai plotted for two years to avenge their dead master, led by the famous Oishi. They succeeded, carrying off the enemy's head in triumph, but were in turn condemned to commit honorable suicide, which all of them did except one, the youngest, who was pardoned, lived to a ripe old age, and was buried with his comrades. The story became a celebrated tale of loyalty and honor.

The temple is where their master was buried, and all of them with him. It was very quiet, with a few pensioners sitting and snoozing in the courtyard and then some young folks coming to eat lunch on the benches. Only a very few other tourists, all Japanese. The museum has many original documents and artifacts, including, most famously, the receipt the priests wrote out when Oishi returned the enemy's head to his family for burial. There are also letters and documents written by him, and the war drum that the ronin supposedly used on their raid. Most cool of all, I thought, was one of the copies of the ronin's objectives in the raid, which they left behind and also pasted on their enemy's gate the night of the action. What a tale.

I ought to end there, but will just add that I wish I spoke or read a little Japanese to get the most out of this place. The ticket seller barely spoke any English, so I couldn't ask him questions, but I wasn't sure who was buried where. I took photos and will have to ask friends for translations.

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