Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

New Years at a Japanese Temple

New Years at a Japanese Temple
Prayers, Fires, and Rice Cakes ring in the New Year at Zojo-ji in Tokyo

Zojo-ji and Tokyo Tower

In the waning minutes of New Year’s Eve, I was able to get to one of the major temples in Tokyo, Zojo-ji, with less than 5 minutes to spare before the clock struck midnight. The place was packed with people and balloons.

Zojo-ji was once the principle temple of the Tokugawa Shoguns and six of them are buried there.

Balloons fly off marking the arrival of 2008

In the last minute of 2007, all the lights went out. Some people started a wrong countdown to the left of me and when they reached zero, nothing happened. (shmucks). When the real countdown hit, the lights popped back on and hundreds of balloons hit the sky.

Tokyo Tower – the Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower

The priests of Zojo-ji began the long ceremony of ringing the temple bell. For New Years, the bell is run 108 times. 108 represents the 108 sins of man according to Buddhist belief – and we Christians thought we had it bad with a measly 7 (granted they are Deadly).

The Bell is almost 400 years old and is rung twice a day

Thousands of people lined up to do their hatsumode – New Years Prayer. Japanese will pray for happiness and health for the new year. Over the next three days, millions of Japanese will visit temples and shrines thoughout the country to do hatsumode.

Buddhists Priests of Zojo-ji doing Prayers

Away from the Temple and its long line of people, I watched Mochi-making. Mochi is a traditional New Years food that is a type of chewy rice cake. Some people die every year from it because it gets lodged in their throat. This usually happens to the elderly and the very young who can’t chew their mochi so well. One resourceful housewife save her mother from choking to death by sticking a vacuum cleaner tube down the poor woman’s throat and sucking the mochi out.

Mochi dough inside wooden steam boxes being prepared for a pounding

The traditional way of making mochi I discovered was to put the doughy substance in a bowl then beat the hell out of it with a wooden hammer. Bits of mochi would fly out and strike the gathered spectators. I had a hard piece hit my cheek rather hard. While one guy wails away, another one kneads the dough inbetween hits. The dough kneader must have a lot of faith in the hammer-wielder’s ability or be on very good terms with him.

Got to beat the mochi to make it nice and chewy

A large fire was blazing and thousands of written prayers and sayings were tossed into it by the box load. This was in order to cut out the middle men and send the messages straight towards the heavens (where they can read smoke apparently).

Prayers and such are sent heavenwards with a large fire

Another year has come and gone but the memories and fun always linger – unless you get hit with that mochi hammer.

Old and New Japan blending together

January 2, 2008 Posted by | buddhism, event, festival, japan, life, New Year's Eve, New Years, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, tradition, travel, zojo-ji | 4 Comments

Celebrating the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday

Celebrating the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday
Japan’s Emperor: Man and Institution

Well-wishers wave Japanese flags in honor of the Emperor’s birthday.

Japanese Emperor Akihito celebrated his 74th birthday Dec. 23. The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday in Japan. On this day, the emperor greets assembled visitors in an area of the Kokyo or Imperial Palace on his birthday. In 1950, his father, Emperor Hirohito began the traditional by making public appearances every birthday.

Emperor Akihito, son of the controversial Hirohito, has “ruled” since 1989. Unlike previous emperors, he was sent to school with commoners. He shocked Japan and his mother by marrying a woman who was not an aristocrat, and later in defiance of tradition, chose to raise his children at home rather than send them to be cared for by others.

Nijubashi Bridge – normally off limits most of the year

Emperor Akihito addresses controversy

“Japanese people must strive to properly understand their country’s history when they deal with the rest of the world,” Akihito said in his public address at his 72nd birthday in 2005 to the gathered assembly. <This year he commented on global climate change> With relationships between Korea and China deteriorating, these words touch on a sore spot of controversy, a controversy in which the institution of “Emperor” was used to spearhead military conquest in the early 20th century.

History, or rather the presentation of history, is a key issue in the relationship between Japan and the rest of Asia. Many feel that Japan has not seriously owned up to its past misdeeds while at the same time adding salt to the wound by putting forth history textbooks that gloss over some of these past horrendous actions. It doesn’t help matters either with politicians such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making official visits to Yasakuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine which contains the spirits of Japanese war dead including noted war criminals. <Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine since the war criminals’ enshrinement in 1978. Emperor Akihito has declined to visit as well instead sending only a lesser official in his place.>

Visitors walk past the seldom seen Fushimi Yugura guardtower

A Brief History of the Emperors of Japan

The cult of the emperor, which was the fountainhead of Japanese nationalistic fervor during the early half of the 20th century, is actually of recent origin, despite the long history of the Imperial institution.

Prior to the mid-19th century, emperors were secluded from the public to the point of being virtual prisoners. The shogun government restricted their movements and kept them confined in Kyoto, away from the people. The few foreigner visitors to Japan during its isolation period often referred to the shogun as the emperor and they had little reason to think otherwise. When the American statesmen Townsend Harris came to Japan to discuss a treaty, he too thought at first the shogun was the Emperor of Japan.

Visitors enter the assembly area outside of the Imperial Palace

According to Japanese mythology, the emperor is descended from Jimmu, a semi-divine being whose grandmother was Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess. Jimmu reigned in 600 B.C. However, there is little evidence to support this. Most scholars believe the Imperial system developed from the Yamato culture in central Japan around the 3rd century A.D. with Chinese influences.

The emperor was seen as the divine manifested in the flesh; a representative of the gods on earth. To oppose the emperor was to oppose Japan itself. This made it quite risky for any usurpers not of Imperial blood to try and take the throne.

A depiction of Emperor Jimmu the legendary first Emperor of Japan

The Soga family in the 7th century were powerful ministers who basically governed the country while the Emperor attended to the necessary rituals of his or her position. The Soga family pushed too far and it was believed they conspired to take over the Imperial throne itself. This belief gave their enemies just cause in destroying them utterly.

The fate of the Soga made an impression on ambitious men and taught them a valuable lesson — that in order to effectively rule Japan, one must do it from behind the throne in the emperor’s name. In addition, the office of the emperor could be used as a weapon against political enemies. The most dreaded crime a lord could commit was treason against the emperor. Since the emperor was in effect Japan, a clever minister could create enemies of the state by claiming his rivals defied the emperor.

Section of the Imperial Palace from where the Emperor greets visitors

By the 9th century, actual ruling power rested in the hands of the Fujiwara clan while the emperor was regulated to administering to court ceremony. The Fujiwara had risen quickly to power in the aftermath of the destruction of the Soga clan. The Fujiwara ministers often manipulated the succession to the Imperial throne for their own gain – yet always they would claim their actions were in the name of the emperor. One of the most famous and powerful of the Fujiwara ministers was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). He married his daughter to the reigning emperor, which produced his own grandson as heir.

The Man who would be Emperor
Rebel Taira-no-Masakado sought the divine Throne

A Monument to Taira-no-Masakado in Tokyo

Still even with the gods and powerful ministers on the Emperor’s side this did not stop certain aspiring usurpers. In the mid-10th Century, the Imperial Court faced its gravest threat from a distant cousin several times removed known as Taira-no-Masakado. Masakado rebelled against the court and went so far as to name himself Emperor issuing decrees and appointing governing officials in the Eastern provinces. He was eventually killed in battle but supposedly his spirit is still a force to reckon with.

According to legend his head not being content to remain on display in Kyoto, flew off on its own accord. A priest in Nagoya shot the flying head down which came to land in the eastern part of Tokyo. His head was buried and a small shrine was erected. This tiny shrine still stands in the shadows of huge office buildings. Supposedly those who have tried to remove the shrine in the past have met with unfortunate fates.

Emperors tried to keep some control of state by creating the office of the Cloistered Emperor, which was an abdicated emperor in the robes of a Buddhist monk. It was often the custom for emperors to abdicate young — sometimes they were pressured to do so. Ironically, though, an ex-emperor often had more freedom and power than a “ruling” emperor.

Although an emperor theoretically did not have power, succession issues were still a great matter of concern. In the mid-12th Century, the cloistered emperor made his son abdicate the Imperial Throne in favor of his younger half-brother. When the cloistered emperor died, the ex-emperor made advances to regain the throne. He was able to draw on a lot of support from samurai families. This sparked off the Heiji Rebellion which, while only lasting a day, had major ramifications. The ex-emperor’s attempt failed and many of his military supporters were executed. The balance of power shifted amongst the ruling samurai families of the day which eventually led to the Gempei War (1180-1185).

The Imperial Palace was once the the castle stronghold of the Tokugawa Shoguns for over two centuries

Following the end of Gempei War, the first Shogun government was set up in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). The first shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, was concerned that his eastern warriors would become weak with the luxury of Kyoto and the Imperial Court so he set his capital far from Kyoto. Though power had long been out of Imperial hands, this move made the illusion all the more apparent. Technically, the shogun did everything in the emperor’s name, but it was definitely not with the emperor’s voluntary say-so.

An attempt was made in 1221 by Emperor Go-Toba to overthrow the Shogunate government, which itself was now, ironically, controlled by ministers, the Hojo Regents. The attempt failed miserably and the emperor was forced to abdicate and suffer exile.

The Emperor with his family speaks to the gathered assembly of elder Japanese and foreigners.

In the 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo also attempted to restore Imperial power. After a few initial setbacks, Go-Daigo was eventually able to overthrow the Shogunate government and re-establish the Imperial Court as the governing body of Japan. The Go-Daigo Restoration only lasted a few short years. Samurai, dissatisfied with the rewards for their aid and fed up with haughty tones of court nobles, grumbled incessantly. One powerful ally, Ashikaga Takauji, turned against him and set up his own shogunate dynasty.

Go-Daigo fled to the mountain retreat Yoshino and set up a rival imperial court known as the “Southern Court.” For the next half century, Japan had two Imperial courts: one in Kyoto controlled by the Ashikaga Shogunate and the other in Yoshino which was without much authority. Supporters of the two courts fought off and on continuously until close to the end of the 14th century when the last emperor of the Southern Court abandoned Yoshino and submitted to the Imperial Court in Kyoto.

Fujimi Yagura Gatehouse

Though the Ashikaga Shogunate deteriorated towards the end of the following century, little attempt was made to restore the Imperial system. Instead Japan plunged into an age of unremitting warfare known as the Sengoku Period (Warring States), in which various warlords schemed and fought to increase their personal territories. The greatest warlords dreamed of uniting Japan under their banner and working in the emperor’s names as the previous shoguns and Fujiwara ministers had done before.

A helpful Boy Scout collects flags for visitors

Oda Nobunaga was able to realize this dream when he marched into Kyoto in the 1560s. He supported both the powerless emperor and the defunct shogun and worked to enhance their prestige with great building projects. The Ashikaga Shogun, however, rankled by being in the power of a warlord schemed against Oda. Oda eventually turned him out and no shogun was appointed until 1603.

Despite removing the shogun, Oda did not restore the Imperial system of governance. Instead, he ruled pretty much as the shoguns had before him but he lavished the emperor and his courts with gifts. After his death, one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruled in the similar manner.

Visitors exiting the Imperial Palace grounds from the normally closed Sakashita Gate

In 1600, two years after Hideyoshi died, a great battle was fought at Sekigahara. The warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rivals and was named shogun three years later. His shogunate dynasty lasted until the 1867 when the last shogun stepped down from power.

At long last the emperor was free to govern the country without interference, or so it would seem. Very little had changed, really, since the days of the Fujiwara ministry. Still, it was those around him that implemented policy — in the emperor’s name, of course.

The fanatical devotion to the emperor that led to the atrocities of WWII, banzai death charges, and kamikaze attacks developed partially in the wake of Imperial restoration. Under the new constitution, the emperor was placed above and beyond the law. But it wasn’t until Emperor Hirohito took the throne in the 1920s that imperialist propagandists began to make serious efforts to promote the cult of the emperor, particularly in the school system and military training institutions.

Russian girls celebrating the Emperor’s birthday

One of the myths floated about at the time touted the amazing fact of the long unbroken line of Imperial succession that stretched back to the time of the gods. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however, given the long history of manipulation by ministers and shoguns with the Imperial succession. The exiled court of Yoshino was the senior line of the Imperial office and it was never re-established.

Like the Fujiwara ministers from ages past, the position of the emperor was tightly controlled and utilized by others — in this case the military. The official civil government at that time was little more than a sham. There is still debate today as to whether Hirohito was just a puppet like so many emperors have been in the past in the decision-making process that led to war in Asia and the Pacific, or if he was a key mover in these affairs, or at least an active participant in them.

Hirohito escaped the noose that many felt he deserved after the war. Under the terms of the American Occupation he was forced to renounce his divinity. When he publicly announced the surrender of Japan, it was the first time that the public actually heard him speak.

Two small children take a break after seeing the Emperor

The “Cult of the Emperor” Today

Today, interest in the emperor has decreased significantly with younger Japanese generations to the point of nearly vague indifference. The majority of those attending the emperor’s birthday these days are mainly older Japanese and a number of curious foreigners. The notorious black van right-wingers make an appearance as well, shouting slogans in the parking lot that very few people pay attention to.

While those who still hold a keen interest in the affairs of the Imperial family wrestle with the notion of a female emperor ascending the throne in the future, other Japanese wonder if the Imperial system should continue at all.

Kikyo Gate

December 24, 2007 Posted by | akihito, birthday, Blogroll, castle, culture, event, Gempei War, hirohito, history, japan, japanese emperor, japanese history, japanese imperial palace, kokyo, koukyo, life, samurai, Shinto, tenno, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, tradition, travel, yasakuni shrine | 4 Comments

Often Overlooked Odawara – Part Two

Often Overlooked Odawara Part 2
A Castle Town celebrates its former glory

Odawara Castle, now a modern reconstruction housing a museum

Towards the end of the 16th Century, the Hojo family of Odawara was one of the strongest clans in war-torn Japan. Through their military victories and adept political maneuvers they had risen from practically a band of highwaymen following a bandit leader to becoming a feared and respected honorable family. But their time was quickly coming to an end even while they were at the height of their prowess.

The Fall of the Hojo

Perhaps it was their victories coupled with their defensive strategies that made the Hojo complacent and arrogant. A new power and a new way of doing things was coming into being beyond their well-defended realm. To the west near modern day Nagoya, the ruthless warlord Oda Nobunaga was working towards the unification of Japan, which was split into many warring territories. Nobunaga was a new breed of warlord who had a vision of uniting Japan under his progressive policies. To achieve this dream, he innovated a number of new techniques that impacted both society and warfare.

Re-creating a scene from Odawara’s illustrious past

Although Nobunaga was assassinated before achieving his dreams, he was succeeded by one of his most brilliant generals, the very capable Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi continued Oda’s master plan and brought much of Japan under his control. All that remained was the northern area of the Tohoku region and the Kanto region. Hideyoshi had little to worry about from Tohoku, but the Kanto region of the Hojo was a vexing concern. The Hojo made very little attempt to acknowledge Hideyoshi’s power, which by now had been officially sanctioned by the Emperor.

The Hojo leader at the time, Ujimasa, failed to realize the times had changed. He failed to understand that Hideyoshi was different from Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. When he set out to accomplish something, Hideyoshi rarely gave up. He did not fight battles for the sake of battle itself. In addition, Shingen and Kenshin had been hampered in their attempts to besiege Odawara castle because of their rivalry with each other. Hideyoshi had no rival to distract him in his quest to bring the Hojo under his thumb.

Hideyoshi was a clever man who utilized his innate creativity in a variety of ways to accomplish his goals. He successfully took a castle once by flooding it out with a massive damning project. He did this while keeping the news of Nobunaga’s death from both his enemies and his own men. After concluding this unusual siege, Hideyoshi promptly turned his army around, tracked down his master’s killers, and completely defeated them in battle. Truly, the Hojo had never faced such a resourceful and dedicated opponent before.

Mounted samurai with foot soldier attendant

None of this mattered to the Hojo under Ujimasa. They still saw Hideyoshi as simply the lowly servant to Nobunaga that he once had been and not the brilliant general that he had become. They spurned his offer to come to the capital to tender their respects.

A high-born lady of the Hojo

The Third and Final Siege of Odawara Castle

Hideyoshi, in response, raised one of the largest armies ever assembled in Japan. Over 100,000 soldiers were mobilized in 1590 and sent to besiege Odawara. Faced with such opposing numbers, the Hojo decided to remain in Odawara castle and wait Hideyoshi out, as they had done before with Shingen and Kenshin. They thought such a massive army would soon run out of supplies and starve itself. They had not considered Hideyoshi’s genius for large-scale planning. Hideyoshi’s army was more than well-supplied, and actually enjoyed itself outside the stout walls of Odawara Castle.

The leaders of the Hojo argue while a huge army awaits outside their walls

Normally castle sieges were unpleasant affairs for both besieger and the besieged, but the siege of Odawara resembled more of a town fair than a siege. Hideyoshi provided all manner of entertainment for his troops. He allowed officers to bring their wives and mistresses. Hideyoshi himself had his mistress join him. Vegetable gardens were set up, market stalls were established, and supplies were brought in by ship.

A samurai takes a picture of his lady

The soldiers in Hideyoshi’s army spent their time in poetry parties, tea ceremonies, gambling, cavorting with courtesans, buying, selling, and trading at the numerous shops that had sprung up in the besiegers’ camp. Only the occasional skirmish or raid serve to remind one that there was a war going on. Even these actions were more for relieving boredom than anything else.

A smiling samurai marches off to war

The outcome of the siege was a relatively bloodless event — another rarity in Sengoku siege warfare, where the besieged often starved to death, killed themselves, or mounted suicidal last-stand charges. The Hojo leadership reluctantly realized Hideyoshi was not going anywhere and that eventually their stocks would be depleted. They surrendered after three months.

Hideyoshi did not wish for a bloodbath, so the besieged were spared save for Ujimasa and his brother. Technically the fifth ruler of the Hojo was Ujimasa’s son Ujinao, but his retired father was the one who really ran the show and so Ujinao was surprisingly spared. His father and uncle were required to commit seppeku — ritual suicide.

Female samurai wearing horo, which was worn for protection and identification

Their deaths mark the closing chapter of the Sengoku Period. Hideyoshi had done the unimaginable and united Japan after more than a century of warfare. With the exception of a few finishing touches towards unification, the next time Japanese warriors would fight on Japanese soil would be in the great Sekigahara campaign in 1600, but they would do so in two great unified armies. The chaotic days of Hojo Soun with numerous clans fighting and vying for power were over.

Ladies of the Old Japan

Odawara Today

Odawara can be reached from Tokyo from both the Tokkaido Line and Odakyu Line. A short walk from the station leads to the old castle ground, the main attraction of Odawara. The castle is a modern reconstruction, like so many castles throughout Japan. Although it survived Hideyoshi’s siege, the castle did not survive the wave of destruction that many castles suffered in the late 19th Century as Japan moved forward towards modernization.

The castle was rebuilt in the 1960s with a modern interior which now houses a museum of samurai armor and other artifacts from the castle’s history. The top of the castle offers great views of the surrounding area and the ocean. On clear days one can spot Mount Fuji. Admission is just under US$4.

A small menagerie is located on the grounds in the shadow of the main keep. Various birds, monkeys, deer, and one small elephant comprise the inhabitants of this small zoo. The sight of the animals is small cages may depress more than delight, however. The grounds are free.

Hojo Dave and the Odawara Elephant

Odawara Celebrates Its Former Glory

Odawara, the once great city of the Kanto region, declined over the centuries. Yet on May 3rd every year, like ghosts summoned from across the void, armor-clad samurai, spear-toting footmen, mounted warriors, and elegant noble ladies appear to reclaim their lost glory. The Hojo Godai festival allows the citizens of Odawara to relive their city’s great past through an impressive historical procession.

A Mikoshi bearer stops to answer a phone call

The procession marches through the castle’s lower gate, across the moat, and through parts of the city’s street before coming together under the castle walls. There they hold a kind of rally that one might have seen over 400 years ago whenever the Hojo marched to war — which was fairly often. Some of the musket-bearing samurai fire off their old guns on the moat bridge.

Several mikoshi — portable shrines — are toted about by shouting sweaty men. When they reach the gathering spot the men gather up their energy and race forward with their heavy burden.

Grandfatherly Samurai wearing prescription shades

With the marching bands and the eyeglass-wearing samurai, the procession is a kind of mix of a hometown parade and a large procession of extras walking off the set of a Kurosawa film at the end of the day.

A little samurai marches off to battle admist the sighs and ‘aww’s of grandmothers

Odawara’s Legacy

Technically-speaking, Odawara did not impact Japan’s destiny directly. It was through the fall of the Hojo that a chain of events was set into motion that would affect not only Japan but also the world.

With the Hojo defeated, there was no one left in Japan to oppose Toyotomi Hideyoshi and so he cast his lusty eyes further afield. Within two years he launched a vainglorious and ultimately disastrous military campaign in Korea in a mad attempt to push through the country and conqueror China. His forces never made it out of Korea despite a second massive invasion a few years later. His actions sowed the seeds of animosity between the two countries, particularly in Korea, which suffered greatly from these destructive invasions.

Colorful samurai with halbred

Back in Japan, the invasions weakened loyalty to the Toyotomi clan and a crafty leader quickly exploited the situation following Hideyoshi’s death in 1598. This was Tokugawa Ieyasu who fought at the siege of Odawara. And here was the second major impact that Odawara’s fall had on Japan, and perhaps the most important.

As a reward for his services, Hideyoshi offered Ieyasu the Kanto domain of the Hojo in exchange for Ieyasu’s old lands, which were uncomfortably close to Hideyoshi’s powerbase. Ieyasu accepted the offer and chose for his capital a little old town of small value known as Edo. In 1603, he was named Shogun after defeating Toyotomi supporters three years earlier at Sekigahara. As a result, the city of Edo swiftly grew in size as the new seat of government. And in 1867, when the Emperor transfered his residence to Edo, the city was renamed Tokyo. So in short, without the rise of the Odawara Hojo and their subsequent fall, there would be no Tokyo as it is today.

A Hojo Warlord makes his entrance

June 13, 2007 Posted by | festival, matsuri, museum, odawara, samurai, sengoku, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, toyotomi hideyoshi, travel | 6 Comments