Sengakuji: Tokyo temple serves as final resting place of the 47 Ronin
By JOSEPH DITZLER AND CHRISTIAN LOPEZ | Stars and Stripes | Published: July 25, 2019
Nestled away in the bustling capital of Japan, a temple memorializes an avenging story of loyalty by the fabled Loyal Retainers of Lord Ako, better known as the 47 Ronin.
Built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1612, the first shogun of the Edo era, Sengakuji dates to the age of the samurai. Only 29 years after its founding, fire claimed the temple, which was reconstructed in 1641.
A school of Soto Zen, one of three traditional Japanese sects of Buddhism, Sengakuji is the final resting place of the Ako Roshi — or 47 Ronin, the masterless samurai.
The oft-told story is to Japanese history and culture what the Alamo is to Texas. Starting with a kabuki play not long after the incident, the ronins’ story has been replayed on stage, screen and television. (The story is told as part of 1998’s “Ronin,” starring Robert De Niro, whose character declares that the ronin “chose wrong”).
The tale of the 47 Ronin starts with Asano Takuminokami, the lord of Ako — a region in feudal Japan just west of Kyoto.
The story goes that Asano and two other feudal lords, called daimyo, while preparing a proper reception for imperial envoys from Kyoto, sought advice on etiquette from Kira Kozukenosuke, an imperial retainer and expert on protocol. Accounts vary but according to one, Asano, unlike the other daimyo, offered Kira only a paltry gift (some accounts say bribe) in exchange for his help.
Kira was a bully, and arrogant. He taunted Asano, who held his tongue until finally venting his anger in the audience hall of Edo Castle (now part of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo). On April 21, 1701, Asano pulled his knife and attacked Kira.
Kira was only slightly injured, but to unsheath a weapon in the palace was considered a serious breach. Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ordered Asano to commit seppuku, or ritual self-disembowlment, the same day.
The Asano family line was also stripped of its titles and the estate was confiscated. Though custom dictated both parties to the quarrel be punished, Kira was not.
Believing Asano’s sentence was unjust, his chief counselor, Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshitaka, and 46 of Asano’s former samurai, the Ako Roshi, banded together to avenge their fallen lord. They bided their time. On Dec. 14, 1702, the ronin attacked Kira’s estate, located in today’s Ryokogu neighborhood of eastern Tokyo, and killed him.
Afterward, they took Kira’s head to Sengakuji to present it at Asano’s grave. A well on the temple grounds is said to be where the ronin washed the bloody extremity.
Soon after, the ronin surrendered themselves to the shogun, who, although sympathetic to their cause, to uphold the rule of law sentenced them all to death by seppuku, as well.
Approaching the gravesites today, visitors pass the well and mount a staircase leading to a gate. Inside, a vendor sells sticks of incense, small piles of which lay smoldering on stones set before each headstone.
The graves of the Ako Gishi, or loyal retainers of Lord Ako, are situated in rows inside the small plot beneath the skyscrapers of modern Tokyo.
Even on rainy days, visitors to the gravesites offer prayers, flowers, bottles of water and add to the mounds of incense from which rise a lingering plume of aromatic smoke.
Just before the gate is a small memorial museum, admission 500 yen (about $4.65), that displays period artifacts, including samurai clothing, weapons and writings, such as a scroll that served as a receipt for Kira’s head and a letter from Emperor Meiji praising the ronins’ loyalty.
Just across from the museum is an annex with wooden sculptures of each ronin that participated in the mission, and one that didn’t, along with the individuals’ names, ages, the roles they played and more. Admission to the museum includes the sculpture hall.
Just outside the two gates leading to the temple courtyard, several gift shops sell souvenirs, like miniature samurai sword letter openers, paper ninja stars, keychains inscribed with the ronins’ names and much more.
Not far from the temple — a 10-minute walk — is the site where Yoshitaka and 16 of the band committed seppuku. To reach it, retrace your steps from the temple main entrance to the street leading to the Sengakuji train station. Turn left instead of right to the station and continue up the hill. The walk will take you past the NHK Symphony Orchestra building on your right and Bella’s Cupcakes, a nice spot for a snack, on your left.
Just short of the hilltop, diagonally across the street from the Peacock grocery store, take a left at the intersection and continue along the street, past a small coffee shop on the left and the Takanawa Imperial Residence on the right, to a narrow, tree-shaded street next to an apartment building also on the right.
Follow the side street to the end of the building (time it right and you may encounter a river of children coming or going from a nearby school) and look for a spare archway over a path on the left. Follow the walkway to a locked gate with two windows in the doors. An English sign next to the gate tells what happened there.
DIRECTIONS: Address: 2-11-1 Takanawa, Minato-ku, Tokyo.
The street into the Sengakuji temple is a block west of the Sengakuji train station. Signs posted in English direct visitors to the temple.
TIMES: The temple is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through September and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. October though March. The museum’s hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., year-round.
COSTS: No charge to enter the temple grounds, including the gravesites. An informational sign at the entrance, near the statue of Oishi Kuranosuke, the ronin leader, explains the significant sites and etiquette on the grounds. Admission to the museum and sculpture hall is 500 yen.
FOOD: The neighborhood around the temple is worth exploring for food options alone. Within walking distance are a ramen shop, the Azu Natural Kitchen, Bella’s Cupcakes and several other options, including the Peacock grocery store.
INFORMATION: Online: sengakuji.or.jp/about_sengakuji_en