Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

A Chance Encounter with a Komuso Zen Priest – A Vision from Japan’s Past

Komuso – Japanese Zen Priest
A chance encounter with a vision from Japan’s past 

 
A vision from the past – A Komuso Zen Priest

While I was in Nagoya last month, I was walking to my temporary home for the night (i.e. an internet cafe) when I encountered a vision out of Japan’s past – a Buddhist priest playing a Japanese flute known as a Shakuhachi.

The Shakuhachi player was dressed as a Komuso, a type of Zen Buddhist priest who once wandered throughout Old Japan playing their flutes for alms and meditation. Like some kind of ghost, the komuso just stood there playing his flute while people walked around the him practically ignoring him as he ignored them. It seemed a thing unreal.


Komuso used to play the Shakuhachi (Japanese Bamboo flute) for alms and meditation

Centuries ago in Old Japan the streets of cities and villages were accustomed to the sight of a Buddhist priest playing a bamboo flute with his head completely covered by a straw hat. This was the Komuso. Komuso were Zen Buddhists priests who wandered about Japan playing the Shakuhachi for both meditation and alms.

Komuso belonged to the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Fuke Zen comes from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen teacher from China in the 9th Century. Fuke however is the Japanese name for Pahua one of Linji’s peers and co-founders of his sect. Pahua would walk around ringing a bell to summon others to enlightenment. In Japan, it was thought the Shakuhachi could serve this purpose.


Komuso means “Priest of Nothingness”

Fuke Zen came to Japan in the 13th Century. The priest were known first as komoso which means “straw-mat monk.” Later they became known as Komuso which means “priest of nothingness” or “monk of emptiness.” Fuke Zen emphasized pilgrimage and so the sight of wandering Komuso was a familiar one in Old Japan.

Komuso practiced saizen which is meditation through blowing on the Shakuhachi as opposed to the sazen which is meditation through sitting as practiced by most Zen followers.


Komuso wore straw hats which hid their ego and their identity

The shakuhachi flute was the instrument used to achieve this desired state. Shakuhachi derives its name from its size. Shaku is an old unit of measure close to an American measurement of a foot. Hachi is eight which in this case represents the measurement of eight-tenths of a shaku. True Shakuhachi are made of bamboo and can be quite expensive going upwards to $5,000 in modern times.

Komuso wore a woven straw hat which covered their head completely looking like an overturned basket. The concept was that by wearing such a hat they removed their ego. What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes. It’s no wonder that komuso was a popular disguise for spies and supposedly the deadly ninja.


Old and New Japan blending together

When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power over a unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, the komuso came under the government’s wary eyes. Many komuso had formerly been samurai during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (16th Century) and were now lay clergy. The potential for trouble was there because many of them had turned ronin when their masters were defeated – most likely by the Shogunate and their allies.

The Shogunate instead of destroying this potential menace instead turned the komuso into a positive force, at least from their perspective. Therefore komuso were granted the rare privilege of traveling through the country without hindrance. The reason for this special permission was that many komuso had been co-opted into becoming spies for the Shogunate. And some were outright spies in komuso disguise.


Many Komuso were former samurai

Only true Komuso, though, could play the honkyoku which were musical pieces of such complexity that only those adept with the Shakuhachi could perform them. Sometimes komuso were asked to perform these pieces to see if they were true komuso or the Shogun’s spies in disguise. However, it mattered little as some of the true komuso were also on the Shogunate’s payroll.


Komuso could move freely throughout Old Japan unlike Ronin (masterless samurai)

In 1868 when power was relinquished by the Shogunate to the Emperor, the komuso bore a significant brunt of the animosity from Imperial forces. Komuso were so synonymous with spies for the Shogunate that the Komuso were utterly abolished in 1871 and even the playing of the shakuhachi as a solo instrument was prohibited for several years.

The komuso had meddled in the affairs of the secular world and ultimately paid the price for it. The practice of the Komuso did not die out entirely though and shakuhachi continues to be played for both entertainment and meditation.


Modern Komuso are faint echoes of their past

May 8, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, buddhism, culture, flute, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, komuso, life, ninja, ronin, samurai, shakuhachi, spies, travel, zen | , , , , | 12 Comments

Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review: Travels, Festivals, and Events

Another year has come and gone and in soppy melodramatic fashion, it’s time to look back on all we’ve done and didn’t do. Instead of focusing on love or lack there of or personal growth, I’ve look back through the magic of film and video on all the places and things I saw in 2007.

January
I rang in the New Year between the traditional area of Asakusa and the sleazy area of Roppongi. Needlessly to say the 1st of January did not see me until much later in the day, in fact it was evening. My first activity of the New Year then was the following day after sleeping off an all-nighter in Roppongi. I went to the Imperial Palace on January 2nd to hear the Emperor’s New Year address. Didn’t understand a word he said (my New Year’s Resolution is to fix that problem by next year).

A week later I went to Meiji Shrine for Seijin-no-hi (Coming of Age Day) to see kimono-clad girls strut their stuff.

That weekend I went to Kanda Shrine to watch Shinto adherents prove their mettle by drenching themselves in freezing cold water. However given the unusual warmth that month, the normally chill-inducing spectactle looked rather refreshing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlFqaUYA_T4

The next week I went out to a temple in east part of Tokyo – Kameido. There they had a type of Noh performance. This was the first time for me to see Noh but by the end of the year while I would be no expert in Noh, I would at least know Noh much better than before.

February
The 3rd of February is one of my favorite times of the year. This is Setsubun which is like a mix of New Years, Groundhog Day, and Halloween rolled up togther. Every year I attend the mami-maki (bean-tossing) at different temples. This time I hit three temples – Senso-ji in Asakusa, Zojo-ji in Hammatscho, and Kichibojin in Ikebukuro. I always enjoy watching old ladies knocking people over for thrown washcloths, beans, and other trinkets.

I mainly stayed in Tokyo and when I wasn’t killing zombies and Nazis on my Playstation I was visiting gardens such as Hama-rikyu.

The end of February brings out the plum blossoms, the heralds of Spring. To see them I took daytrips to Kamakura which due to the warm winter had already shed its plum blossoms and I went to Mito in the Ibaraki Prefecture to see Kairaku-en Garden with its hundreds of plum blossoms.

February was a good month for armor. I got the chance to wear samurai armor twice. Once in Odawara in front of the castle for 200 Yen and another time in Ikebukuro at a store’s opening week for free. My inner geek was pleasantly sated.

I took another daytrip out to Chiba to watch another type of Shinto ritual where half-naked men wrestled in a cold muddy pond to ensure good fortune for all – its a Shinto thing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeXKz3L6fx8

February-March
The next day I embarked on an ardous journey into the heart of the urban jungle of Tokyo. Along with my comrade, Zen Master Jeff, I hiked around the Yamanote Line for five days. We stayed at an ryokan, an internet cafe, a karaoke box, and a capsule hotel. Our outfits were a mix of samurai, old style Yakuza, pilgrim, and backpacker. We met quite a few people and had several interesting adventures because of these costumes.

March
In March I went to Nagoya where the year before I had attended one of the most amusing festivals – the fertility festival of Tagata Shrine. Once again I saw that huge wooden phallus hove into sight admist the awes and chuckles of the spectators.

The next day I went to reconstructed castle whose original structure once belonged to warlord Oda Nobunaga.

Two days later I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish Pub with some co-workers where we listened to a kickass Irish band who were all Japanese.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq07MT6rYN8

The next day I went to Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple to watch the Kinryu-no-Mai – Golden Dragon Dance.

Showing the spirit of union solidarity I attended the annual March in March, a gathering of foriegn and japanese union members. It rained during the march but the sun came out at the end – The Man can now control the weather!

April
In April, I made my yearly Cherry Blossom pilgrimage to Kyoto where I enjoyed the Sakura both day and night thanks to nighttime illuminations.

On the second day of my trip, I went to Nara, the first official capital of Japan, to feed the semi-tame persistant deer and see the Diabutsu – Great Buddha.

The third day, I went to Yoshino which was an Imperial capital for some decades when there were two rival Imperial Courts for a time.

As it was there was a Geisha performance going on back in Kyoto at the same time in the Gion Quarter – the Miyako Odori. Luckily I was able to get a last minute ticket on my last day.

Though laden with controversy (and with good reason) Yasakuni Shrine hosts an outdoor sumo event in mid-April. While the blossoms fall, sumo wrestlers toss each other around for our free amusement.

A few days later I went to Kamakura to see Cherry Blossoms and watch a display of Yabusame – mounted archery. I injured my knee scrambling up a small tree for a better view. This injury would come back to haunt later in the summer when I was limping about.

Next Saturday, I went to Sumida Park in Asakusa to see another demonstration of Yabusame. It was here were I first saw it performed years ago and I go back to Sumida almost every year.

I went to Harajuku Park one Sunday to see the goth lolita anime folks. While I was there I was interviewed for a French cable TV channel called French Wave or something like that. It was suppose to air sometime in July but I had no way of seeing it.

That particularly Sunday in Harajuku I stumbled the remnants of the group that used to dominate Harajuku – the dancing rockabilly gangs. Don’t know why the cops drove them off 10 years ago.

May
Usually in May during Japan’s Golden Week, I stay put in Tokyo either working or killing people – on my Playstation, of course. Although I get 3-4 days off and sometimes more depending on my schedule, I don’t like to travel at this time because everyone is traveling. Prices are high and accomodations hard to come by. Still this year, I went up to Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture to see the re-enactment of Kawanakajima, one of the famous samurai battles of the Sengoku (Warring States) Period. The re-enactment was more like a high school play with a fair size budget but that was ok as it added a surreal element of watching smiling schoolgirl samurai swinging swords about.

I also try a bit of Yonezawa’s famous beef – which was a damn good (and expensive!) steak.

From Yonezawa I went north to Sendai and then to Hiraizumi where another festival was taking place. I watched Noh performed on a 300 year old outdoor Noh stage and drummers dressed in bizarre deer costumes. As for accomodations, I stayed for three nights in true backpacking style -at the Chateau de Internet Cafe.

The following week I was off again – back to Kyoto for 6 days. In Kyoto I went to the Silver Pavalion – Ginkakuji – named so even though it actually doesn’t have any silver. A grim jest of financial destitution or a tourist scam, you decide. Still, lovely building, silver or no.

I attended this year’s Kamogawa Odori geisha performance in Pontocho which had a story set during the civil war which burnt much of Kyoto and explained why Ginkakuji was silver-less.

That evening I went to Gion Corner to get a crash course in traditonal Japanese arts from Tea Ceremony, kodo playing (japanese harp), gagaku (court music and dance), geisha dancing, ikebana (flower-arranging), kyogen (the amusing plays inbetween the serious Noh dramas) finally to bunraku (puppet drama), All of this in under an hour.

I took the second part of the program and learned a bit on how to do make tea in the traditional tea ceremony way. My tea was a bit strong I’m afraid.

The following day I went outside of Nara to see the site of the oldest Buddhist temple – Horyuji. The current buildings do not date back to the 6th century, though.

In Nara for two nights I watched Noh by torchlight. There’s no Noh like torchlight Noh.

On Sunday I went to Iga-Ueno which was the hometown of some of Japan’s original Ninja. There I saw a short demonstration of Ninja fighting which basically means fighting dirty.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIEnsOZXKOM

Monday I went to Ise famed for its shrines which are the number one shrines in the Shinto faith. However, instead of going to these cultural meccas since I had been culturing it up anyhow, I went to a samurai theme park. Ise has one of the Edo Wonderland themepark chains this one based on the later half of the Sengoku Period. I watched a samurai stage drama which I didn’t understand but the plot was simple enough to follow – bad samurai wants precious sword that good samurai guards. Good guy won. Dammit! Gave away the ending – sorry!

On Tuesday, I watched one of Japan’s oldest festivals, the Aoi Matsuri which was my main purpose for my trip.

My knee had troubled me a bit at first but by the end of the trip, I was fine. However my knee injury would re-surface during the rainy season next month. Before that occurred I still had some weeks with a trouble-free knee and so two days back from my Kyoto trip off I went to Nikko to catch the tail end of the festival procession honoring Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I caught a bit of Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri as well. I was really still tired from my Kyoto trip to gave these last two as much time and energy. But I watched people carrying around Mikoshi -portable shrines – and had a good time. I aslo caught another bit of Noh (it was definately becoming a Noh year for me).

I was rested enough towards the end of the month to take in sumo. I was fortunate to be there the day Yokozuna (champion) Asashoryu lost a pivotal match which paved the way for a new Yokozuna. Well, fortunate for me not for him, I guess.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsowgV50igo

Two days later I was in an area known as Miura, a beach area 2 hours south of Tokyo, where I watched another form of Yabusame – Kasagake. Similar to Yabusame, kasagake has a more military practicality. The targets are placed in front and are lower down at the same height as a dismounted enemy.

June
June is the rainy season so I planned to take it easy for a change and just stay put but as luck would have it during the Sanja Matsuri I chanced upon a poster for a festival in some town I never of before. The festival was honoring a samurai family from long ago who fled to the village of Yunishigawa. I was intrigued so off I went. To my dismay I missed the procession of warriors in 12th century armor by a day but I caught something even better – women in colorful robes dancing in the street and an incredible performance on a biwa – a type of lute.

Biwa Performance

I injured my knee by putting too much stress on it running to work one day. I ended up limping into class. Through mid-June to mid-July I spent most of my days off at home but I did go to Harajuku park again one Sunday to see the inhabitants there.

July
In mid-July, I was back down in Kyoto once again. This time for the Gion Festival. Two-story floats filled with musicians and covered with old tapestries were pulled through the streets. Today the floats are dwarfed by tall modern buildings but back in the day, those floats must have really seemed gigantic.

I also went into the mountains behind Kyoto to Enryaku-ji which was once a huge temple compound with thousands of subtemples until the aforementioned Oda Nobunaga who apparently wasn’t much of a temple-going man burned many of the temples and killed a great number of priests. The priests, however, weren’t terribly temple-going types either has they maintained an army and used it to fight other temples and bully the capital.

There was a sumo tournament in Nagoya so I headed up there and spent the whole day at the sumo tournament where I watched the various ranks of sumo wrestlers from the lowest to the highest compete. I aslo got the chance to visit one of the sumo houses but it was after their dinner so I missed all the “big” sumo wrestlers. Only the “little” guys were there cleaning up.

I basically took it easy this trip though since the weather wasn’t all that great and my knee was bothering me. The last day I went on a type of fishing excursion known as ukai where cormorant birds are used to catch fish. It was dark and rainy and my camera kept fogging up.

Next week I was at it again – this time the Soma Nomaoi, a festival I went to 2 years ago. I saw again the armored samurai in the best historical procession I’ve seen. This time I stayed for the last day’s festivities of the 3-day festival. I watched pensioners round up semi-wild horses at a shrine.

August
August was a crazy month for me which made all the previous months pale in comparison. Starting Aug 2 I went on an 8-day 6-festival trip throughout Tohoku. I started with the drumming festival of Sansa Odori in Morioka.

Then I went to Akita City where I watched people balance huge bamboo poles with lanterns on their palms, hips, and heads.

South of Morioka, I spent two days at a festival where they had all kinds of dance performances but the best one and the one that brought me here in the first place was the Oni Kembai or devil dance.

I spent two refreshing nights in a business hotel during the Oni Kembai festival – this after two nights in two uncomfortable internet cafes – before going to Hirosaki to see Neputa.

then off to Aomori to see the last night of Nebuta in which they put some of the best floats in harbor while fireworks go off overhead.

The last festival was similar to Aomori’s Nebuta except that the floats were much taller – 3 of them clocked in at 22 meters high! This was Tachi Neputa, the tiny town of Goshogowara’s claim to fame. My knee bothered me so much at times I could barely walk.

A week later I was in Niigata on Sado Island to see once again the Kodo Taiko drum group’s 3-day concert. It was here I met with some sexy japanese belly dancers. I finally got myself a knee brace before going out to the island which helped me hobble about a bit better.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V5v01WaCNE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2Tb8pNKhK4

Near the end of the month, I was back in Asakusa to catch the Asakusa Samba Festival. Lots of cameras were clicking away as scantily-clad samba girls pranced about to a Latin beat.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DivGNo0-UQg

The next evening I went to Kameido Temple to see another Noh performance this one by torchlight too.

September
September – typhoon season – I really did take easy though I still went to sumo on one of my days off.

In my neighborhood, I caught a festival. Though I missed the mikoshi, I saw a cool drum band.

During that time there was an Oktoberfest celebration going on near Tokyo station at Hibiya Park. I spent two nights there drinking German and Japanese beers eating sausages and watching German and Japanese girls prance about in leiderhosen – or whatever german girls wear – to German oompah music.

I had meant to go to a festival that month up in Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture but this time my laziness finally said no and I stayed home the whole time and killed zombies on Resident Evil/Biohazard 4.

October
October was another busy month as I took off to Europe to meet up with my parents, my sister and her husband, my cousin, and my uncle in a small family renunion in italy. I headed off first to catch the last two days of Oktoberfest in Munich. The last Saturday of Oktoberfest was so packed I was in mortal danger of going beerless at the world’s largest beer festival. Fortunately, the gods of beer smiled upn me and I was able to partake of the holy elixir.

Then I spent a week beer-guzzling while taking in the castles of Bavaria’s mad king, Ludwig II and listening to some really talented street musicians.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcsYOhlLBoA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhL6rPJlIkg

An overnight bus brought me to Zagreb where I spent the morning wandering around the old town admiring the rampant grafitti. At noon, I had my eardrums shattered by their noonday chime which is delivered by a WWII howitizer cannon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VYNIn_Swuo

From Zagreb I proceeded to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia, a country which tires of being mistaken for Slovakia.

I spent a night there then spent a day at beautiful Lake Bled.

An overnight train brought me into Venice – well not at first since in my exhaustion I got off at the first station before Venice and had to wait half-an-hour till the next one. I spent the day wandering about the city which was all I could afford to do as admission prices are stupidly high and the lines were stupidly long too. That night I arrived in Florence and spent much of the next day there.

I met my family at a villa that was part of a small castle complex outside of Florence. Wasn’t use to this luxury – I had slept in a locker for two nights in the train station in Munich during Oktoberfest. From then on it was smooth sailing – except when we got lost on the winding roads of the Tuscan Hills which was often.

I went to several medieval walled towns that week in Tuscany and Umbria. Ah, the bloodshed and paranioa of past centuries left some wonderful sites to see throughout the area. My favorite was Monteriggiono outside of Siena.

I returned home to Tokyo just in time to catch a ride on the notorious Yamanote Halloween Train. Little did I know till later of all the controversy that had been swarming around the event. As it was, the killjoys helped to kill one Halloween Train but they knew nothing about the Halloween Train I was on – the killjoys left some amusingly angry comments on the Youtube video I made about the event.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5jVTNyw2BY

After the Halloween Train, I went into Roppongi for a bit fun and sleaze. I also went there on Weds, Halloween proper but it was dead and not int he Halloween sense. However, I did get a bit of grind action from a she-devil and her playboy playmate pal.

November
November was another quiet month. On Culture Day, Nov 3, I went to a small pocket in Tokyo’s urban sprawl to see a small demonstration of a Japanese lord’s procession from several centuries ago and to see one of my student’s samba group perform.

I went home for Thanksgiving where I got fat on some good southern grub such as fried catfish, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread. Also got to pet my doggies.

December
December was also a quiet one for traveling. I went to Sengaku-ji Temple in Shinagawa to see the festival honoring the 47 Ronin who 300 years earlier arrived on a snowy morning with the head of the lord’s enemy to lay at their masters’ grave.

Then on the 23rd I went to the Imperial Palace again. This time to hear the Emperor give a birthday address. Since 2002, I’ve always gone to the Palace on the Emperor’s birthday. Last year I missed the address though I was still able to go inside. This year I got to see and hear some welldressed Japanese rightwingers (and possible yakuza) get really into wishing the Emperor a happy birthday.

And the last 5 minutes of 2007 were spent at Zojo-ji Temple where hundreds of balloons flew off.

Whew! Well that’s that for 2007! Look out 2008! Actually, I think might just take the year off.

January 2, 2008 Posted by | 2007, 47 Ronin, akihito, belly dancing, cosplay, culture, dance, entertainment, event, festival, geisha, Gion, heike monogatari, iwate, japan, japanese emperor, japanese history, Kyoto, life, martial arts, matsuri, misogi, morioka, Mudslinging, Munchen, Munich, music, Naked Festival, nebuta, neputa, New Year's Eve, New Years, ninja, Oktoberfest, parade, party, plum blossom, purification, ronin, Sado Island, sakura, samba, samurai, sansa odori, seijin-no-hi, sengakuji, sengoku, Setsubun, sexy, Shinto, soma nomaoi, Sport, spring, sumo, taiko, tohoku, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, travel, video, Yabusame, yamanote halloween train, Yamanote Train, yokozuna, youtube | 5 Comments

Japan Remembers Its 47 Hero Samurai – the 47 Ronin Story

Japan Remembers Its 47 Hero Samurai
A story of Edo piety, tragedy and vengeance that still resonates today


The re-enactment of the 47 ronin coming with the head of their enemy.

Every country has at least one story that strikes a deep chord within the heart and soul of a culture to resonate throughout society. It’s a story that illustrates the basic elements of a society so well that it’s told over and over again, passing from generation to generation.

In America, every school child knows about the “heroic” battle at the Alamo in Texas. It’s an event that has been permanently etched in America’s cultural psyche with a mix of fact and fiction making it difficult to disentangle the actual truth.


Burning incense at the graves of the 47 ronin.

Japan has many epic stories of love, tragedy and vengeance in its long history, but one story in particular stands out: the story of the 47 masterless samurai, or ronin. It is a story that exemplifies the samurai spirit and the cult of filial love between a retainer and his master. In its essence the story captures the spirit of the Japanese.


Many gather at Sengaku-ji Temple where three centuries ago the 47 Ronin came to their master’s grave with his enemy’s head

The 47 ronin were former samurai retainers who avenged their master’s death by killing his enemy then stoically awaiting the sentence of death to be passed on them by the government.

Their act of defying the government’s laws and following the Way of the Samurai to be faithful to their lord unto death won the 47 ronin everlasting fame and admiration of the Japanese people.

Every year on December 14, people gather at their graves at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo to commemorate the deeds of the 47 ronin.

Their story began in 1701 at a time when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world by government edicts. Control of the country was in the hands of the shogun who ruled in Edo, now called Tokyo. The shogun of that time was known for his bizarre laws protecting dogs and other animals to the detriment to his own people.


Under Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, dogs were held in higher esteem than people

It was also a time of lavish extravagance and decadent corruption. The samurai were losing their status and many began acting less and less like samurai by drinking, gambling and attending kabuki plays.

One country lord, Lord Asano of Ako, a man of simple but honest beliefs was called upon by the shogun to come to Edo and meet with envoys from the emperor. This would require him to learn the complex intricacies of court ceremony.

Lord Asano was assigned to the master of court ceremonies, Kira Kozukenosuke, to be taught in the ways of imperial ceremony. Kira was accustomed to receiving gifts of a monetary nature from his pupils, like many court officials of the time. When Lord Asano failed to bribe Kira properly, Kira became enraged and insulted him often.


Lord Asano loses his temper and along with it his life and his family’s position

Finally, Lord Asano could take it no longer and in a fatal moment of indiscretion, unsheathed his sword and attacked Kira while they were in the shogun’s castle. This action earned Lord Asano a quick death by seppuku — ritual suicide.

Lord Asano’s samurai retainers led by Oishi Kuranosuke found themselves ronin and the Asano lands confiscated. There were many who felt the judgment was too harsh as well as unfair particularly because Kira who many felt orchestrated the attack was left unpunished.


Lord Asano forced to commit seppeku for baring a sword in the Shogun’s castle

A core group of Lord Asano’s retainers plotted vengeance against Kira. However, the spies of the shogun and Kira himself were on the lookout and Kira was well guarded against such reprisals. Oishi and the other plotters disguised their true intentions and pretended to become farmers, merchants, gamblers and even drunkards.

Oishi, who was watched the closest by the spies, went so far as to lull his enemies into a state of false security that he left his wife, frequented brothels and passed out drunk in the most unsamurai-like manner in the streets of Kyoto. His performance was so good that a passing samurai kicked and spat on him thinking Oishi a disgrace for sinking to such depths while not avenging his master.


Lord Asano’s grave

The spies believed Oishi had truly become a harmless destitute creature and so Kira relaxed his guard. Oishi, however, secretly stole away to Edo and met with 46 other loyal companions to plot their assault on Kira’s mansion.


Oishi signalling the begining of the attack on Kira’s home

On a snowy evening on December 14, 1702, the 47 ronin attacked Kira’s home and took it completely by surprise. They found Kira cowering in a charcoal shed. Kira was offered the choice to commit seppuku but he refused, so Oishi cut off his head with the same dagger that his lord used to kill himself.


The 47 Ronin Attack!

The 47 ronin then walked to Lord Asano’s grave in Sengakuji Temple and placed Kira’s head upon it. After that, they turned themselves into the shogun except for the youngest ronin who Oishi sent back to Ako to tell of Kira’s death.


The 47 Ronin arrive at Sengaku-ji

The shogun was beside himself on what to do with the 46 ronin in his custody. To some degree he much admired them for being true to Way of the Samurai. Their actions set off a controversy of debate. Much of the general public wanted their release. Several lords pleaded for the men to be granted life and be allowed to serve them.

On the other side, critics argued that the ronin had willfully disobeyed the shogun’s law and to pardon them would be to invite lawlessness and anarchy.

In the end they were allowed to commit honorable seppuku rather than be executed like common criminals. They were interned with their lord at Sengakuji Temple. The surviving ronin was pardoned by the shogun and lived until he was 75 before being buried along side his comrades.

Lord Asano’s lands and titles were restored to his family and his brother became the next lord of Ako.

Countless plays, novels, and later movies and documentaries have been done on this story that so caught the people’s attention. Even today, they are not forgotten and the 47 ronin are still held in high esteem.

Their story strikes so close to the heart of Japanese thought and belief that some Japanese scholars have said: “… to know the story of the 47 ronin is to know Japan.”


One of the 47 Ronin’s grave

December 22, 2007 Posted by | 47 Ronin, ako gishi, ako roshi, chusingura, culture, event, festival, history, japan, life, matsuri, ronin, samurai, sengakuji, tokyo, tradition, tragedy, travel | 13 Comments

Saga of a Ronin English Teacher in Japan

Ronin Dave contemplates his employment options.

Finding a teaching job in Tokyo isn’t always as easy as one would think. Though there is a plethora of English schools available, not all of them are very good to work for. Some offer low wages, long hours, little vacation time, and a host of hidden responsibilities they expect to be taken on. Then there’s the matter of financial stability. English schools come and go, sometimes with very little warning to their employees.

One of the more infamous cases of a school closing virtually overnight was Howdy English. Teachers arrived one morning to discover their school closed and locked. The owner, it appeared, had absconded to France still owing her employees their last month’s wages.

Some schools go out with scarcely a whimper as my first company did.

I had arrived in mid-December, which was not exactly the best time to go looking for teaching work. I had originally planned to come to Japan in September, but this was in 2001 so naturally I had to delay my departure. The money I had saved up dwindled over the next three months until finally I decided it was now or never, and departed to Japan without much of a plan or savings.

From the get-go my finances were tight. It’s often advised that someone coming to live in Tokyo should bring anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 to live on till their first paycheck. I showed up with less than half of the minimum amount advised to bring. This was not a good thing, for with some companies it can take from six weeks to two months to receive a first paycheck.

Instant oatmeal packets from home kept me alive the first week as I scoured the Internet and papers for employment. Pickings were slim and employers were picky. One attempt ended in shambles because I did not have enough experience and I was an hour late for the interview. I kept getting lost in the labyrinth of Tokyo’s metro, which cost me other potential jobs.

For some bizarre reason I was hesitant to go with the big companies like Nova, Berlitz, or ECC. I think I was going through an anti-big-business phase at the time. I wanted to have more independence and say-so in a company’s direction — which would have been impossible with a large factory-like English-school business.

I was out of my mind. I soon learned that a timely and financially secure monthly paycheck far outweighs any advantage independence has.

I finally got one interview with a small company that was easy to get to, though it was an hour outside of Tokyo. The company was English Square. It was a new company recently split off from another new company. English Square was the brain child of Canadian Adam Cantrememberhislastname. His Japanese partner was someone called Ashida, who provided the financial backing.

They offered 250,000 yen per month, the low-standard monthly wage for English teachers in Tokyo. Many teachers would not accept this wage as Tokyo is an expensive place to live. Since I was in desperate straits I jumped on it like a beggar on a moldy crust of bread. What had attracted me was their promise of profit-sharing. I failed to realize at the time though, you have to have profit in order to share it.

Over the next few months, my hopes for fruitful employment rapidly declined until it plunged into dark despair eased only by cheap beer and bitching sessions with the other employees of the company — which happened to be only one, Ivan Campbell.

Ronin Ivan

Toward the end of this “learning” experience, I was inspired by my suffering, like all writers are, and wrote the following account:

In the time that I have been in Tokyo, I’ve squandered my time in various ways: starving, jumping the gates at train stations, teaching the spawns of Satan, learning the deadly arts of chopsticks, pursuing a black belt in tea, and working for a good company.All right, I’m lying, except for the starving, jumping, teaching, chopsticks, tea part; the rest is lies.I’ve been teaching English to children from ages three to 10, or at least trying to do so. Ah, children! They’re not just our hope and future, they’re also gaseous balls of snot and flatulence filled with demonic energy out to leech the very life from our bones. No, seriously, this experience has taught me to love kids, especially in lemon and butter sauce. Accompanied with a light Chianti, they can’t be beat.

As for my company, well, it started off as a good idea with lots of hope and grandiose dreams but it ended suffering from a terminal dose of reality. Originally, the plan (or what passed for a plan) was that every month they would hire more teachers and open more schools and just keep expanding with the hordes of students they expected to pull in through word-of-mouth advertising.

They figured in seven months they would be in Osaka. At the rate we were going (since I represented 50 percent of the workforce), we’d have been lucky to be across the street by next year.

My company seemed to be lacking in certain crucial business essentials: brains, customers, my pay, and anything resembling an actual working plan. What pay I did get was late and taxed to bits, including the transportation reimbursement. This is what I get for a joining a new start-up company.

At the beginning of this fiasco, before it became apparent that it was a fiasco, back when I naively still had hope and the dignity to pay full fare on the train, I thought, “Hey, this would be a good company to be with from the ground floor.” Unfortunately they pushed the wrong button and it ended up in the basement where it caught on fire and burned down the whole building.

If my company was a racehorse, it would be a sleek, massively impressive horse that people would bet their unborn children on. When the starting gates opened, it would burst from them and tear down the track like a bolt of lighting, then drop stone dead after an impressive 20 feet.

As one who put his future on this horse, namely, the hope to be able to buy food in order to ensure my future, I would have a strong word with the owner and the manager of this ex-horse. But they have been too busy working other jobs trying to come up with the cash in order to bury their dead horse.

Our company finally just folded quickly and quietly in the night, still owing me the last month’s pay. Fortunately, I know where my boss lives so the ever-imminent threat of my burning his house down is motivation enough for him to pay up when he has the money.

So now I’m a Ronin English Teacher in Japan looking to sell my services to the highest bidder, or any bidder for that matter. As I sharpen my skills I look over the necessary tools I will need for specific clients. For the business man, I have my blazer and tie. For the housewife and office lady, I have my wit, charm and my baby-blue eyes. For children, I have my squishy ball and my patience.

Now am I prepared to go forth and walk the ronin path.

I walked the ronin, or “masterless samurai,” path for several months. To get by, I did a number of substitute teaching jobs for different companies and one intensive course where I screamed at Japanese students near Mount Fuji. I even did TV extra work where I was paid $30 a show to be part of a foreign audience whose job was to cheer on a Japanese pop star as he struggled to say a few lines in English.

I never did get my last month’s pay from English Square. Adam mysteriously disappeared a month before the company folded. Ashida kept making excuses for his absence. To this day I wonder if Adam fled back home to Canada or if in a fit of rage Ashida did him in.

Our interview suits

I did get three good things out of English Square: 1) a working visa, which helped me acquire work during my ronin phase ; 2) a good friend — Ivan, the other 50 percent of the work force; and 3) a valuable lesson in avoiding start-up English schools.

Ivan ended up with an apartment way outside of Tokyo in order to be closer to work he thought he would get from English Square. He currently works in the center of Tokyo and has an hour-and-a-half commute each way. Ivan didn’t despair of the long commute, however, and he has just now finished over 400 books, which he read while on the train.

Eventually, I overcame my big-business phobia and got a job with one of the big schools. Sure, I became a slave to the system, but I became a paid slave with a secure paycheck.

Three years later, with an actual bank account with actual money in it, I haven’t regretted that decision. My ronin days are (for now at least) behind me.

Ronin were samurai without a master. During the Warring States Period (1467-1615), ronin could always sell their swords to new masters but in the Edo Period (1615-1867) their existence was rough.Some became wandering swordsmasters like the famous Miyamoto Musashi and teachers of martial arts. Others became little better than bandits. Ronin were both admired and scorned by society for their free way of life.

July 23, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, english teacher, english teaching, japan, job searching, ronin, samurai, tokyo, travel, Uncategorized, work | 6 Comments