Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

History Preserved In Blood : A Look At Kyoto’s Chitenjo Temples

History Preserved In Blood : A Look At Kyoto’s Chitenjo Temples

Nicky Magas

In the year 1600, aggressions between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari were reaching their peak. Mitsunari had taken Osaka Castle and refused summons to the Shogun to explain his actions. He was intent on capturing the old capital of Kyoto and, consolidating his power from there, building a force to crush his rival successor to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s legacy. Between him and his goal stood Fushimi Castle, under the control of Torii Mototada—a Tokugawa loyalist. At the time, much of Ieyasu’s military might was focused in the east and Mototada was thus on his own. Realizing that the coming battle could neither be avoided nor won, Motodata assured Ieyasu of his commitment to defend the castle to the last man, and suggested reducing the garrison so that the inevitable loss would not be quite as costly to the Eastern Army. Satisfied that this would delay Mistunari long enough for the Eastern Army to arrive in Kansai, Ieyasu began marching west toward Gifu while Mototada prepared for Mistunari’s advance.

Mitsunari’s Western Army arrived at Fushimi Castle on August 27th. For twelve days Mototada’s garrison held the castle, until a betrayal from within set in motion his eventual defeat. A tower was set on fire and in the confusion Mitsunari’s men breached the fortress. More fires were set and Mototada’s men were quickly overwhelmed. True to his loyal promise to Ieyasu, Mototada refused to be captured and when the battle was definitively lost, he, his family and the three hundred and seventy warriors still remaining committed seppuku, ritualistic suicide of the samurai class. Their blood soaked into the floorboards, immortalizing their final moments.

Mitsunari pressed on after this victory, but poor weather forced him to fortify at Sekigahara, where he was eventually defeated. The sacrifice made by Torii Mototada and his garrison would not be forgotten. Ieyasu had what could be salvaged from the castle preserved for later use in the construction of temples across Kyoto. There, the spirits of the fallen warriors could be prayed for in a place of peace, and the footprints in blood would remind visitors of their uncompromised loyalty to their lord.

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Four hundred years later, the blood of these samurai still remains in four temples throughout Kyoto Prefecture: Yogen-in, Shoden-ji, Genko-an, and Hosen-in. Like much of the rest of Japan’s tangible cultural history, these temples and their memorial ceilings are open to be viewed by the general public and most allow photography.



Starting from the south, Yogen-in is a relatively small temple tucked almost invisibly behind Sanjuusangen-do, the more famous location housing one thousand golden statues of Kannon. From the front, Yogen-in doesn’t look like much, but it has an important place in the history of the Tokugawa clan. It was established in 1594 by the sister-in-law of Ieyasu’s son third, Hidetada. In 1621, Hidetada’s wife reconstructed the temple, using the preserved Fushimi Castle floorboards. After Hidetada’s death, he and all successive Tokugawa shoguns were enshrined at this temple.


Yogen-in has been allowed to age in natural grace. Aside from a few strung electric lights and protective glass covering priceless works of art, the temple is untouched by modernity. Therefore, unlike the other temples in this article, the interior of Yogen-in is dark with an almost oppressive atmosphere commanding of respect.

For five hundred yen visitors are given a guided tour through the temple’s hall and three main rooms. Listening quietly to the old, recorded voice, guests feel the weight of history all around them, and the importance of this place to Japan’s cultural heritage. Beautiful paintings on sliding cedar doors of Chinese lions, white elephants and mythical kirin are explained, before the guide directs guests’ eyes upward to the red ceiling.

If you didn’t know where to look, you might not be able to distinguish anything in the dark; the boards are stained with age as much as they are with blood. With a pointer, however, the guide draws attention to familiar shapes in the ceiling: an eyebrow, a nose, a shoulder, an elbow, a knee. Gradually the mind fills in the blanks and with startling clarity one realizes that the outline is that of a whole person.

Guests are reminded, however, that these stains are memorials, which were moved to Yogen-in for the purpose of praying for the spirits of those who left them. The darkness of the interior takes on a new meaning of subdued recognition and respect.

From the main hall, guests are taken through each successive room, where original landscape paintings cover the walls. Because of the delicate nature of these paintings, photography is not allowed anywhere within the interior of Yogen-in. Guests are also invited to view the memorial tablets of the Tokugawa shoguns enshrined here.

The tour is short but impressive, and guests leave Yogen-in with a deeper, solemn understanding of Japan’s history. The tour is entirely in Japanese, however English-speaking guests are given a sheet of paper with the temple’s history upon entrance at no cost. For an additional five hundred yen, guests can purchase a small photography book of the notable attractions of the temple, the chitenjo included.



From Shichijo, follow the Kamo River along its western bank to Kitayama Dori and then turn left. After climbing up through a heavily residential area, visitors will find themselves outside the clean white walls of Genko-an. The day I went it appeared to be deserted, and with no English signage, I mistook myself for lost. But far from uninhabited, Genko-an is instead a quiet, dignified beauty of a temple, modestly aware of its own fair appearance. Despite its original foundation date of 1346, Genko-an has a new, pristine feeling to it that speaks of many dedicated hours (and yens) worth of preservation and restoration.

There are many small rooms and religious items to view in Genko-an, and guests have the unrestricted ability to take photographs. Like most temples, Genko-an offers guests a tranquil seat on one of many garden terraces, and small rooms with wall prints and simple, elegant decoration. The main hall has an open viewing of the momiji garden—a stunning attraction for guests in the months of October and November. To the right of the main hall are two windows. The round window is the Window of Realization and represents Zen maturity, completeness and enlightenment. The square window is the Window of Delusion, representing confusion, ignorance, and samsara.


Guests are permitted in most areas of this temple without a guide, and are free to look around at their own pace. Spend a few moments roaming the rooms and taking in the gardens from the many terrace views available. When you’ve had your fill of the beauty of Genko-an, return to the main hall for a look at the remains of Fushimi Castle on its ceiling. Here you can distinctly see footprints as well as smudges left behind by fingers and hands. The best view is from the corridor surrounding the main hall, but the boards from Fushimi Castle make up the entire ceiling.



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Continuing north, Shoden-ji sits a short distance from Genko-an on the southern slope of Funa-yama. It has a long history of rise and decline, and has been rebuilt and relocated many times. First established in 1268 near the Imperial Palace, it was destroyed by the adherents of Mt. Hiei’s Enryaku-ji. It was relocated in 1282, but was destroyed yet again in the Onin civil war of the mid 15th century. Ieyasu re-established in once more in 1615, and in 1653 it inherited its ceiling from the doomed Fushimi Castle.

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Tucked into the mountain, Shoden-ji is surrounded by nature and offers a fantastic view of Mt. Hiei from the terrace overlooking its rock garden. The whole complex has an air of tranquility surrounding it, and such an open, relaxed atmosphere that guests feel completely comfortable to stretch out their legs and enjoy the view at their own pace. While taking leisure on the terrace stretch the tension out of your neck and look up to see the stained floorboards of Fushimi Castle. The outlines here are much less pronounced than they are at Yogen-in and Genko-an—a few handprints and some indistinct red smears are all that give visitors a hint that the ceiling is made from anything other than ordinary planks.

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While Shoden-ji is undeniably a more relaxed temple than the previous two mentioned, the sight of the blood on the ceiling remains sobering, and a few moments spent in reflective silence would not be inappropriate.

Guests are free to wander the permitted rooms as they like, and will find the architecture and layout very pleasing. Having been destroyed, renewed and preserved so many times, Shoden-ji has elements of both the old and the new in its design, giving guests a comfortable look into the past. Near the terrace, guests will see a large ink drawing of a sleeping Buddha. Use the magnifying glass provided to see that the ink ‘lines’ are really tiny calligraphy characters. There is Japanese literature available to read in the temple’s interior, but by far the place to be in Shoden-ji is looking out over the mountains with history staring down from above.


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Further north still, all the way up in the mountains is the village Ohara, and Hosen-in. While Sanzen-in is the most famous, the area boasts a cluster of temples, of which Hosen-in is the last along the path. From the Ohara bus station, visitors can pick up an English map that gives the locations of each of Ohara’s main attractions. Following a path canopied in momiji leaves and flanked by a stream on one side and small local craft stores on the other, the walk up is nothing if not picturesque. Take the path past Sanzen-in, and when you reach the impressively large Shorin-in take a left through the momiji forest and across a small bridge.



At first glance, Hosen-in appears to be a small villa and this cozy quality is prevalent throughout the entire temple. Eight hundred yen will buy you admission and a ticket for a serving of green tea. Upon entering, to the right guests will see a modern rendition of a traditional tearoom. To the left a terrace overlooks the garden of the crane and the turtle. Supposedly the pools are shaped like the wings of a crane and the stones in the middle are its body. There is a ceramic turtle head as well, with plants growing out of its ‘back’ which are supposed to be its shell.

From there the corridor turns into the main hall, a vast, open air room which opens up completely on two of the four walls to showcase the garden outside like a framed picture. On the left side is a seven hundred year-old pine tree. Its canopy is shaped like Mt. Fuji, though this can’t be seen from the room itself. On the other side is the equally beautiful momiji forest with a backdrop of bamboo. Here, also is Hosen-in’s singing sekiban well. Two bamboo pipes lead down under the balcony to a well of stones. The dripping water creates a beautiful, distinctive ring that novice monks use to properly pitch their voices for chants. For an example, please see this video.

The alcoves in this main hall are very beautifully appointed. While taking in the majesty of the pine tree, the beauty of the momiji trees and the simple elegance in each decoration, the small devotional chamber goes almost unnoticed compared to the very prominent chamber in the main hall at Genko-an.


Once you’ve had a look around, take a seat on the red mat and temple staff will bring you a bowl of green tea and a sweet for enjoyment at your leisure. The quiet atmosphere and the beautiful garden scenery make for an exquisite respite with a nice bowl of tea.

Leave your dishes where they are when you’re finished and turn your gaze upward. In the same style as Shoden-ji, the chitenjo of Hosen-in is in the corridor just in front of the garden. On the pine tree side half a woman’s face can be seen, along with the imprint of arm guards and several footprints. On the momiji side, smears of fingerprints indicate the place where a samurai struggled across the floor before he was inevitably put to death.

As we were taking it all in, one of the temple monks met us and explained the history of Fushimi Castle and how its infamous boards came to be at Hosen-in. He pointed out the forms in the stains and explained each one carefully before asking us to pray for the spirits of the fallen samurai. Like the three temples visited before, this was a surreal experience. While the quiet of the temple instills a deep relaxation in guests, it’s hard to forget the pain and suffering that is written into the boards above. One finds comfort in the thought that, just as we find the gardens and the ambiance of chitenjo temples peaceful, perhaps so do the spirits of those whose blood stains the ceilings.

Two thousand people lost their lives during the siege of Fushimi Castle. Of those, nearly four hundred made the hard decision to take their own lives in dignity and loyalty to Tokugawa Ieyasu rather than be captured or killed by the enemy. These days it’s hard to imagine such a fatal dedication to a cause, but while observing Kyoto’s chitenjo it’s equally hard not to feel strong emotions for those who did.