Photo:Don Kelloway

Samurai in the City – A Tokyo Tour of Legendary Warriors

For fans of the samurai, a visit to Tokyo is rarely complete without a trip to one of the many museums, galleries and exhibitions dedicated to the warrior's weapons and armour. But layered between the civic surface of Tokyo’s landscape lie scores of dedicated shrines and graves dotting the city, each one offering a much more intimate view of the samurai. Home to vengeful spirits, ninja protectors and aristocratic war heroes, here are five resting places of Tokyo’s legendary warriors.

1. Taira no Masakado – The Headless Ghost

About 20 metres from the C5 Exit of Otemachi Station, amongst a proper concrete jungle of some of the most expensive real estate in corporate Tokyo, lies a small open space that is home to one of the strangest samurai legends to still haunt the city.

Over one thousand years ago, Taira no Masakado, a samurai of the Kanto region, led a rebellion against the government in Kyoto. Proclaiming himself the new Emperor after a couple of initial victories, things turned sour for Masakado. His rebellion was defeated, his supporters rounded up and Masakado himself captured and executed.

But then a strange thing happened. Masakado got mad. Or so they say. After having his head paraded as an example to others, the story goes that Masakado’s separated dome began haunting the streets before eventually returning home to Kanto to settle in what is now Tokyo.

It’s one thing to be admired for standing up to authority. But it’s another thing to turn a blind eye to a vengeful spirit. And so it is with Masakado and his shrine. A place given its due with centuries of nervous deification and tradition behind it.

2. Maresuke Nogi – The Last Samurai

A man of letters, General Nogi’s poems show a man who was seemingly haunted by the excessive loss of his own soldiers’ lives. Taking to heart their deaths, the man sometimes known as the last samurai was refused permission by the Emperor to take his own life in atonement. The general finally got the chance to expunge his guilt though when he (and his wife) chose to enact the classical samurai edict of junshi ritual suicide and not outlive his master upon the passing of the Meiji Emperor.

His death caused a sensation throughout the country. A celebrated war hero, at a time when Japan had just emerged from centuries of feudal isolation, Nogi’s resort to an anachronistic death ritual signaled him to be a man of fierce loyalty and called to mind the recent era of feudal ethics. It wasn’t long before he became a figure of reverence.

The Nogi Shrine is a short walk from Exit 1 of Nogizaka Station on the Chiyoda Line. The immaculately kept grounds of the shrine feature the actual residence of the general. The very room where he and his wife ended their lives in ritual fidelity is visible. Hauntingly solemn, the view of the room is one that gives pause.

Photo by KENPEI [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] from Wikimedia Commons

3. The 47 Ronin – Romantic Avengers

A quiet Zen temple, Sengakuji is only a few short moments from the A2 Exit of Sengakuji Station on the Toei Asakusa Line. The serene exterior of this temple, however, belies one of the most celebrated stories of feudal samurai loyalty and revenge in Japan.

In 1702, 47 now masterless samurai spent over a year and a half hatching a plot to avenge their unjustly executed lord. The men succeeded, were soon arrested and like their master before them, ordered to commit ritual seppuku suicide to end their lives in the traditionally honourable way.

The almost surreal level of loyalty and self-sacrifice of the 47 ronin is recounted at the temple through artifacts and videos in its small museum. However, the temple’s main feature are the graves of the men involved whose tragically honourable tale is remembered each year with the Ako Gishiai Festival on December 14. Featuring traditional street food stalls, a solemn procession of 47 men dressed as the 47 ronin march from Tokyo Tower to the temple.

4. Hattori Hanzo – Ninja Protector of Leaders

The final unification of Japan after the country’s Warring States period in the 16th century was ably assisted by the canny negotiating skills of Japan’s most famous ninja leader, Hattori Hanzo. Organizing safe passage through lands occupied by rival ninja clans, Hanzo was able to ensure that Tokugawa Ieyasu survived his journey and become the eventual ruler of Japan.

The wily ninja was rewarded for his services with lands and income and his band of ninjas began serving the Tokugawa government as guards. A master of tactics and the spear, Hattori was also known as Demon Hanzo and tasted success in his first battle at the ripe young age of 16 years old.

All of his battle experiences may have left their mark on this brilliant and loyal warrior because Hattori spent the last few years of his life as a monk by the name of Sainen. A small Buddhist temple was named after him and the ninja master’s grave is located there. Sainenji Temple is about an 8-minute walk south-east from Yotsuya Station on the JR and Metro Subway lines and along with his grave, houses the almost 3m remains of Hattori’s famous 4m long spear and his battle helmet.

Photo by 三人日 [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

5. Kondo Isami – Leader of a Rebellion

Times were turbulent during the latter half of the 19th century in Japan and the young samurai swords master, Kondo Isami, was in the thick of it. Leader of a pro-Tokugawa shogunate police force known as Shinsengumi, it was Kondo’s job to weed out and smother the rising support for the Imperial Court.

Despite some earlier successes that gave Isami and his swordsmen real notoriety, his task was an impossible one. The Tokugawa administration was on the brink of collapse and Japan was changing. It would not be long before the Imperial House would be restored to political power and unfortunately for Kondo, his support for the shogunate landed him on the wrong side of history.

A fan of the story of the 47 ronin, Kondo shot to fame for fighting off a group of thieves, he was captured during the final battle between the shogunate and Imperial forces in 1868, held under arrest and then executed in Itabashi, in the soon to be renamed Tokyo. His grave is located across the road from the East Exit of Itabashi Station on the JR Line, along with a memorial for him and his Shinsengumi swordsmen.

These five memorials to five of the most famous of Japan’s warriors are easy to visit and provide a much more human and personable experience of the samurai. Whatever side of history these men found themselves on, they all demonstrated a profound willingness to live and die for their beliefs, the results of which are still felt to this day.

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