On the evening of Sept. 13, 1912, a cart decorated in gold leaf and lacquer and solemnly hauled by a team of oxen left the Imperial Palace in Tokyo along with a phalanx of people carrying banners, torches and weapons and beating drums and gongs. After midnight, a special train left Tokyo Station bound for the old Imperial capital of Kyoto. Crowds gathered at the main stations along the way and bowed in reverence. On board was the coffin of Emperor Meiji, bound for Fushimi Momoyama no Misasagi in Kyoto.

The next day, his body was interred in the Fushimi Momoyama Tomb in the Fushimi area of southeastern Kyoto. It is a place of great natural beauty, and according to Donald Keene, who wrote a book about the Emperor, it may have been his own wish for his last resting place to be there among the quiet green hills.

So it was that one fine day last summer, being curious to experience the charm of Momoyama and wanting to explore the area and learn more about its history, I headed off that way. It was also a chance to visit a part of Kyoto I’d never been to before.

Emperor Meiji was born in Kyoto in 1852, less than a year before U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japanese waters with his squadron of so-called Black Ships and demanded that — after more than 200 years of sakoku (self-imposed international isolation) under a succession of Tokugawa shoguns — the nation should open itself to foreign trade.

This event — and the demand Japan had little choice but to accede to — started a chain reaction that led to the overthrow of the feudal Tokugawa regime and the restoration of Emperor Meiji to the position of head of state.

The Meiji Era that followed, spanning 1868 to 1912, was one of rapid and radical change. In 1868, the Imperial family moved from Kyoto, its base for 1,000 years and more, and took up residence in Tokyo, the newly renamed Edo (Eastern Capital) that had been the seat of shogunal power. Nonetheless, Emperor Meiji was the last of the Imperial line to be entombed in the old capital.

Down in Kyoto, a 10-minute walk from Fushimi Station transported me from the hustle and bustle of a weekday morning to a broad gravel-topped avenue lined with tall Japanese cedar trees. A man with a water bottle in his hand and a towel around his neck walked briskly by as I looked at a stone marker announcing the Fushimi Momoyama Tomb. That avenue leading to the tomb itself — with a number of large stones lying as if scattered beside it — streched out for nearly a kilometer, so allowing visitors to leave the mundane behind and prepare spiritually for their visit.

When I finally reached the tomb and turned north to face it, I saw that behind me a grand stone stairway offered an alternative approach. A number of locals were walking up and down the 230 stairs for their morning exercise.

The tomb itself is a work of art that visitors may only admire from a distance. A number of torii gates stand before it and it is surrounded by an inner and outer stone fence. Behind a gate bearing the Imperial seal, the two-tiered burial mound rises up with its rounded gravel-covered top.

Numerous well-groomed pine trees stand both in front and to the sides of it, the lighter greens of the pines contrasting with the darker greens of the trees on the mountains in the background.

I next entered a small building that houses the offices of the Imperial Household Agency to inquire about the tomb and the Emperor.

“It’s too bad you weren’t here a few days ago,” the official said before explaining that they had just held a big festival to mark the 100th anniversary of the Emperor’s passing. I also learned that the tomb was constructed in accordance with Chinese geomancy. Hence a river flows to the south; it is surrounded by mountains on three sides; and a shrine stands for protection in the unlucky northeastern direction.

The old name for the hill on which the tomb now stands is Kojosan, meaning “Old Castle Mountain.” In the past, it was the site of the Fushimi Momoyama Castle of great general and acclaimed unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98). And those large stones I’d seen beside the path leading to the tomb are thought to have been part of the castle’s stone walls.

In 1964, however, the castle was rebuilt in concrete and sited a little to the northwest. It was a pleasant walk up to the fortification as most of the path was in the shade, though when I got there I circled it like a wary foe, looking for a way in that was to elude me. The sun was blazing and I needed a rest, so I sat on a bench under a tree and chatted to a man out with his young grandson. He told me that in the past the castle had been open to the public, but that it was closed several years ago as it didn’t meet earthquake safety standards.

As I sat there gazing at the impressive but empty edifice, I could incongruously hear the sounds of students at baseball practice somewhere nearby. Then, after I began walking northeast to see the shrine that protected the old castle, in a park made where a moat had once been I saw a few young kids swinging nets as they tried to capture dragonflies while their mothers stood by and chatted among themselves.

Unfortunately, the gods had not favored the castle, as it was destroyed by an earthquake two years after its completion. Then, after being rebuilt under the aegis of the powerful warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1600 — when his retainer, Torii Mototada, was guarding it — it was besieged by Tokugawa’s enemy, the warrior-lord Ishida Mitsunari. After holding out for as long as he could, Torii committed seppuku (ritual suicide) along with his men. The castle was then dismantled and parts of it were given to various temples and castles in Japan. One gruesome artifact — still on show to this day — is the blood-stained wooden floor that became the ceiling at the Yogen-In Temple near Kyoto National Museum.

After visiting the small shrine, I retraced my steps and began walking south again en route to see another shrine — this one much more recent and with a strong connection to Emperor Meiji.

The Nogi Shrine is dedicated to Count Nogi Mareske, a general and decorated hero of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War who made the ultimate gesture of loyalty when he and his wife committed ritual suicide straight after the funeral of Emperor Meiji.

In front of one of the buildings in the extensive shrine grounds, where you might expect to see stone sculptures of guardian lion dogs on both sides, there are instead two copper horses fashioned to look like the general’s favorite steeds. There is also a hall with illustrations depicting major events in his life, and a small old house like that he lived in with his family in Edo when he was young.

With his spirit enshrined there, just a short distance from the Imperial tomb, the famed warrior can watch over and protect his late Emperor for eternity. As for me, it was time to head back to Osaka.

A poem by Emperor Meiji on the occasion of his visit to the tomb of his father, Emperor Komei, sums up (in this translation by Donald Keene) my visit nicely and gives us a more personal glimpse of the man himself:

“When I visited/ The tombs at Tsukinowa/ On my sleeves / Old needles from the pines / Kept falling”

The Fushimi Momoyama area has three railway stations: JR Momoyama, Keihan Fushimi Momoyama and Kintetetsu Momoyama Goryo Mae. While in the area, don’t forget to sample the fragrant water of Gokonomiya Shrine and taste the famous sake of Fushimi.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.