KYOTO — Stepping onto the outer corridor of Shodenji Temple in Kyoto on a recent afternoon, I marveled at the view from the neatly laid out garden. Perfectly framed between the surrounding trees stood a spectacular view of Mount Hiei.
|Ceiling boards in Kyoto's Genkoan Temple, whose gate is seen below, bear bloodstains that legend has it were from the mass suicide of samurai at Fushimi Castle over 400 years ago.
After a few minutes, a young woman walked up to me and pointed to the overhang above our heads. Clearly discernible was a footprint. What, I asked, was that? "Chi," she said, pointing to a vein in her arm. Blood? I had to investigate.
The story that unfolded is one rarely told in history books, even though it involved the most powerful figures of the late 16th century.
It turns out that the boards in the ceiling of Shodenji's walkway were once the floor of the main hall of Fushimi Momoyama Castle in southern Kyoto. On these boards on Aug. 1, 1600, over 380 samurai warriors committed seppuku.
Their blood spilled thickly over the wooden boards, capturing in gore the last moments of their noble act.
The tale begins on the deathbed of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598. Having waged war incessantly during his 16-year reign, he was determined that his family stay in power. He made each of the most powerful leaders of the country swear allegiance to his 5-year-old son, Hideyori, in a five-man regency.
The most powerful of these five was Tokugawa Ieyasu, the soon-to-be founder of the Edo shogunate. It was an uneasy regency. The second-strongest leader, Ishida Mitsunari, was based at Osaka Castle, while Ieyasu was encamped at Fushimi Castle.
Strongly suspicious of Ieyasu's designs on absolute power, Mitsunari fomented rebellion among leaders in the Aizu region of Tohoku. Setting out for Tohoku to quell the rebellion, Ieyasu left a garrison of 1,800 samurai under the command of Torii Mototada to literally hold the fort.
On July 16, Mitsunari set out with an army of 40,000. Arriving at Fushimi Castle, he demanded that Mototada abandon the fortress. Mototada, of course, refused, despite being greatly outnumbered.
The fighting raged nonstop for nearly two weeks until July 30, when one of Mitsunari's informers, purportedly a ninja, directed other ninja to set fire to the castle. As the flames began to consume the outer buildings, the 380 or so remaining troops under Mototada gathered in the keep. What happened next is not clear, but according to Ryuyu Takamine, chief priest at Genkoan in Kyoto, Saiga Magoichi, the captain of Mitsunari's riflemen, managed to penetrate the keep.
Magoichi came rushing into the keep where he encountered Mototada and the remaining troops. Mototada demanded to know who he was and Magoichi identified himself as a captain of the attacking forces. Mototada then chided Magoichi to chop off his head as a trophy, which Magoichi proceeded to do in full view of the other samurai. Mototada’s troops, preferring to die than be captured, followed their leader in death, committing seppuku to the last man.
Though considered merely a skirmish, the capture of Ieyasu's stronghold brought Mitsunari the support of other leaders who soon joined his troops and headed for Sekigahara, about 100 km northeast of Kyoto, where on Sept. 15, they were routed by Ieyasu.
The keep of Fushimi Castle survived the fire. As was common in those days, the sections of the castle that had not been burned or pulled down were dismantled for use in other buildings. The disposal of the floorboards fell to a Zen priest named Kouchiin Suden, who was a close confidant of Ieyasu, having once saved his father's life. The floor boards of the 13-meter-long hall were cut into sections and stored for over 20 years at a subtemple of Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto.
Over the next 30 years they were parceled out to seven temples — Genkoan, Shodenji, Yogenin, Myoshinji in central Kyoto, Hosenin in the Ohara area, Jinouji in Yawata, and Koshoji in Uji. The best place to view such "chitenjo" is at Genkoan in north-central Kyoto city. The patterns on the darkened boards in most places resemble little more than water stains, but here and there can clearly be seen footprints and handprints that stand as a testament to that fateful August day 400 years ago.