Under the beat of the Taiko in Kyoto

by Ted Taylor

Special To The Japan Times

Kyoto’s long history has ensured that it has seen its fair share of giants. Yet few of these legends have marked the city’s physical appearance to the extent of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, despite the man’s reputedly smallish stature.

The most obvious of these landmarks was the Odoi, or old protective wall built to ring Kyoto at the end of the 16th century. Nine meters wide in some places, it was built in less than 18 months. Some of the larger portions can still be seen in the city’s northwestern corner.

Another obvious landmark is Daitoku-ji’s massive Sanmon (mountain gate). The gate was built long before Hideyoshi came onto the scene, although the man did boost the fortune of the temple itself by burying his predecessor, Oda Nobunaga, there. However, the gate plays a large part in the Hideyoshi legend. Fellow students of tea master Sen no Rikyu had a life-size statue of their teacher installed above the gate. Some of Hideyoshi’s military advisers, unhappy at the growing importance that Rikyu was receiving in the eyes of their lord, reminded him that every time he was walking through the gate to take a lesson from his teacher, he was passing beneath Rikyu’s feet. An insult that led to the tea master being ordered to commit seppuku not long afterward.

However, the majority of sites related to Hideyoshi lie across town, not far away from the Kyoto National Museum. I started in fact from that very building, tracing a short counter-clockwise arc on a sunny but cold winter’s morning. I quickly head east, crossing the broad Higashi-oji and cutting through the grounds of Chisahaku-in. This temple offers one of my favorite tofu lunches, but it is still early. Beyond the temple is Shin Hiyoshi Jingu.

Today, the grounds of the shrine are somewhat hemmed in, but the layout hints at a grander scale in the past. I find a monkey statue, a reminder of Hideyoshi’s nickname when he was still a low-ranking soldier. There is also a photograph of an early Meiji Period cannon that had presumably been used in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The limited signage doesn’t mention where the cannon itself is today, but it’s likely to have been melted down during World War II a half century later. Acorns litter the base where it once stood.

I pass Kyoto Women’s University and its accompanying cafes. On one corner is a beautiful Meiji-era building that is a nod to the antebellum American South and is apparently the University’s Founders Hall. A set of steps takes me above it, onto a vast open space of trees and stone. Off to one side is a large paved section where the Princess Line parks its red buses. It’s a point not entirely incongruous as Hideyoshi once had the audacity to demand that the Ming Emperor marry a daughter to the Japanese monarch, a demand that was naturally ignored.

There’s a steep flight of steps before me, leading up Amida-ga-mine. I begin to climb up the not insignificant number of stairs — 522, I later find. Atop the mount is Hideyoshi’s mausoleum. After his death in August 1598, he was buried here, within a massive shrine complex. A massive annual festival was once held here around the date of his death but after the victory of the Tokugawa over Hideyoshi’s son in 1615, the shrine was destroyed and the number of mourners quickly diminished.

Today, too, I find myself alone. There is a small pagoda, built in 1898 to mark the 300th year of his passing. It is of simple grey concrete, far from the gaudy glitz that the man himself was known to appreciate. Instead, the simplicity of the monument, along with the bare trees and the accompanying cold wind, is a reminder of the poverty into which the man had been born.

I circumambulate this plain stone edifice. If you squint through the trees to the north, you might be able to make out the sightseers standing on the famed deck of Kiyomizu-dera. Behind the mausoleum are a series of trails running in a number of directions.

However, I return the way I came, in the direction of Hoko-ji Temple. Just to the east is a small park with a handful of structures and a great deal of cracked tile. It was here that Hideyoshi built his massive Buddha to rival that of Nara. Eighteen meters high, the Buddha’s fortunes lasted longer than that of the Toyotomi family, though these fortunes could hardly be called good.

Repeatedly destroyed by fire and earthquake, the Buddha would be rebuilt again, in a near parody of that ancient Zen proverb: “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” However, the great statue fell for good in 1973, destroyed by fire. (This finality is so seemingly complete for I can’t even find a photo on the Internet, despite the recent date of demise.)

The temple itself is pretty small and nondescript. The shinbutsu bunri, or separation of Buddhism from Shinto in the opening days of the Meiji Period, allowed the grounds of neighboring Toyotomi Shrine to envelop what had once belonged to the temple. The only truly interesting feature is an old bell, which was cast in 1614. As Richard A.B. Ponsonby-Fane wrote in his 1956 masterpiece, “Kyoto: the Old Capital of Japan”:

“[T]he tablet over the Daibatsu-den and the bell bore the inscription ‘Kokka ankō’ (meaning ‘the country and the house, peace and tranquility’), and at this Tokugawa Ieyasu affected to take umbrage, alleging that it was intended as a curse on him for the character (an, ‘peace’) was placed between the two characters composing his own name 家康 (ka-kō, ‘house tranquility’) [suggesting subtly perhaps that peace could only be attained by Ieyasu's dismemberment?]

This perceived slight gave Ieyasu yet another pretext for which to dismember the Toyotomi clan itself.

The neighboring shrine, Toyokuni Jinja, was built in 1599 and dedicated to Hideyoshi. This honor was, of course, revoked under the Tokugawa, but once again renewed by the Meiji Emperor himself. The Karamon, an ornately carved gate that has been designated a national treasure, unfortunately flanks a built-up ground that seems to function solely as a parking lot. I find no real reason to linger.

Around the corner is one final site that is more a monument to Hideyoshi’s infamy. Beneath the gently sloping grass hill of Mimizuka are the severed noses of allegedly 38,000 Korean soldiers and civilians killed during Hideyoshi’s ill-advised invasions of Korea (1592-98). Remuneration was usually paid to warriors according to the number of heads taken in battle, but as this campaign took place such a long distance away, noses seemed a fair substitute. Dedicated in 1597, it is most telling that the information written on the plaque is in Japanese and Korean. The mound is unknown to most Japanese, but Korean tour buses can be frequently seen nearby.

As I walk back toward the subway, I wonder at the thoughts of the locals, living in modest suburban houses around the Mimizuka site. However, as these modern homes themselves attest, despite the rich legacy of this city, most Kyoto-ites don’t really seem to live much in harmony with the past anymore, and seem content to instead give it a curt nod as they move forward with their lives.