By noon of March 14, 1701, Edo was abuzz with rumors about what had happened earlier, in the “Great Pine Corridor” of the shogun’s castle. Officials posted wooden signs around the city stating that Asano Naganori, lord of Ako Domain, had attacked and wounded his former tutor, Kira Yoshihisa.
A number of explanations have been suggested for the attack, but exactly why Asano unsheathed his sword on that fateful day in Edo (now modern-day Tokyo) remains a mystery. Inspector Okado Denpachiro, who interrogated both parties after the incident, said that Asano admitted to holding a grudge against Kira and that Asano’s only regret had been his failure to kill the man.
To draw a weapon within the castle was a great breach of etiquette and Asano was sentenced to death by his own hand the same day.
This started a chain of events that led to the most famous vendetta in Japanese history — the story of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai). To many, the actions of these loyal retainers — who avenged their master’s death and were then sentenced to die by their own hands — are a prime example of samurai virtue. Over the past three centuries, the story’s popularity has not waned; it has been retold (sometimes inaccurately) many times through plays, artworks and movies, including the 2013 Hollywood film “47 Ronin,” starring Keanu Reeves.
The Ako Domain, where Asano presided, is now part of what is known as the Hyogo Prefecture and it lies more than 600 km west of Tokyo, near the Seto Inland Sea. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the journey from Tokyo normally took around two weeks, however, it took the two Ako retainers — Hayami Tozaemon Mitsutaka and Kayano Sanpei — only 4½ days. They travelled nonstop to bring back news of Asano’s fate to a samurai named Oishi Kuranosuke, who was to become the leader of the ronin.
Thanks to the bullet train, the same journey today takes less than four hours, yet Ako is still considered a remote backwater.
Before taking this journey, there was one stop I had to make in Tokyo — Sengakuji Temple, a quiet sanctuary not far from bustling Shinagawa Station and the last resting place of the 47 ronin.
I first noticed the smoke and sweet smell of burning incense wafting through the air upon arrival at the ronin’s tombs, which appropriately stand in close proximity to their lord’s grave. I watched as an elderly couple holding a bunch of incense sticks solemnly placed one stick in front of each tombstone, a rite that visitors have been repeating since the winter of 1703, when the men were sentenced to perform ritual suicide after offering Kira’s severed head at Asano’s tomb. The incense at Sengakuji has been burning continuously for more than 300 years.
After a train ride to Banshu-Ako Station — the home of the ronin — I disembarked and saw the faces of the 47 warriors staring at me from painted wall tiles as I went down the escalator leading out of the station. Low buildings lined the main street leading to the ruins of Ako Castle and, beyond that, the Seto Inland Sea. A short distance down the road from the station I came upon the Ikitsugi Well, where Mitsutaka and Sanpei quenched their thirst after a rapid journey from Edo.
Continuing, I saw something familiar in a nearby shop window: shiomi manjū — the red bean paste-filled sweets that Ako is famous for, but which are popular all over Japan. The Ako version differs, in that a slight amount of salt is added to the bean paste — just enough to make it delicious. During the Edo Period, about 7 percent of the nation’s salt came from this area, and the clerk told me that Ako had been producing salt since the Yayoi Period (300 B.C. to A.D. 300). The roots of these salty Ako manjū go back to the days of Asano, who enjoyed them during tea ceremonies and would present them to the shogun as a gift when he traveled to Edo.
I eventually reached the outer walls of Ako Castle. An old tower stood guard over the busy road below and a small bridge crossed a moat where a young boy was feeding turtles swimming in the water. There had been a number of castles on this site since the 15th century, but when Asano Naganori’s grandfather came to power (he was the first Asano to rule over Ako) he began building a new one, which took 13 years to complete. Unlike many castles in Japan, Ako Castle was built by the sea and was designed as a flatland fortress.
Inside the walls is a local museum, housed in a building designed to look like a row of Edo-era earthen storehouses. The museum elucidates the three pillars of Ako’s history: salt, the 47 ronin and waterworks.
Early in the 17th century, a sophisticated system of tunnels and pipes was constructed to conduct water to the castle town and this has given Ako a respectable place in the history of waterworks in Japan. A number of wells, such as the Ikitsugi Well, can still be seen today.
Like many other castles, Ako Castle was dismantled in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and left in ruins. After passing through the imposing double gate — reconstructed in 1996 — and strolling through the now placid gardens, I noticed there were no standing structures, save for the fortress walls and the forlorn stone base that had been erected for the fortified main tower of the castle which was never built.
My next stop was Oishi Shrine, rebuilt in 2002 but still dedicated to the spirits of the 47 loyal retainers. Since the vendetta was a crime in the eyes of the government, the shogunate could not honor the warriors by deifying their spirits. However, a small, secret shrine within the castle grounds may have existed before Oishi Shrine was officially established in 1912, on land that was part of Oishi Kuranosuke’s estate. In fact, a gate from Oishi’s manor still stands not far from the shrine.
The approach to the shrine is lined with stone statues of the ronin, armed and in full battle gear. As I entered I was greeted by the sounds of Japanese court music, wind chimes and cicadas. The shrine was busy with activity. A small shop by the main gate advertised salty udon noodles to hungry pilgrims. Some visitors were offering their prayers at the main hall, others were reading the omikuji (fortune slips) they had purchased and a few were writing their wishes on ema (wooden votive plaques), which were hanging in large numbers on the shrine grounds.
On my way back to the station, I passed Kagakuji, the Asano family temple. The Ako Domain and the castle were confiscated by the shogunate after Asano Naganori’s attack on Kira Yoshihisa bringing three generations of Asano rule over Ako to an end. However the name of Asano and the actions of his loyal retainers will remain forever etched into the memory of this place.
But I wondered whether Ako would still be an interesting destination without its link to the 47 ronin. It’s important to remember that the most dramatic events of the vendetta — Lord Asano’s assault on Lord Kira, the ronins’ winter beheading of Kira and their ritual suicide — occurred far away in Edo.
Even though Ako is dotted with reminders of these masterless samurai, I felt that the town only played a minor role in the story and wished that I had found something more that might have shed some light on these ghosts — who were they and what drove them to do what they did?
I imagine that in many ways the differences between old Edo and the Ako Domain remain similar to those between modern Tokyo and Ako City. Edo was one of the largest cities of its time, and today Tokyo is the world’s largest. The experience of traveling to Ako still retains something of what I imagine the first ronin experienced on their hasty return home.
Arriving at the small, sleepy town you enter a place where the locals have time to chat and where, during the afternoon heat of summer, the streets are as empty as a ghost town. It is a place where buildings don’t obstruct your view and where the air is scented with the smell of the sea.
Getting there: Ako is located in the western part of Hyogo Prefecture not far from the border with Okayama Prefecture. Banshu-Ako Station is on the JR West Ako Line, which connects to the JR West Sanyo Main Line. For information in English, see ako-kankou.jp/free/index.html?id=1426.