Located just a momentary walk away from the Toei Asakusa Subway Line at the Sengakuji stop, the Sengakuji Temple is a free visit for tourists who want to dive into the deep and rich history of Japan.
There is also a museum on-site and for an entrance fee of 500 yen (around $5 USD) visitors can take a look at artifacts from the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.
The true attraction to Sengakuji, of course, is the real history of the 47 Ronin, the temple where they are buried, and their gravestones which tell their stories.
During the Edo Period, the narrative of the 47 faithful ronin became immensely famous as a kabuki play, and it is still very popular in modern times. Many people come to the temple to burn incense at the graves to pay their respects to the Akoroshi and his men.
The film is based on an actual historical occurrence known as “Chushingura” that occurred during the Edo Period. It depicted a lord who had been unfairly executed and his servants, known as ronin, who sought vengeance.
Entrance and Navigation
On approach to the temple, visitors will find two options. The first is the actual temple for prayer and meditation. The other is the gate, open on the right that walks directly past a statue of Lord Asano Naganori, whose death precipitated the incident which makes this temple famous.
Through the gate is a stone walkway that leads into an open courtyard directly behind the Temple proper. There is plenty of space to move about and have quiet conversation or solo contemplation. Several benches line the area for anyone who wishes to sit and meditate.
Circling behind the temple, visitors will find another walkway that leads to the aforementioned museum. Inside are video presentations of the history in English, Japanese, and Mandarin, as well as correspondence between the original conspirators, and even a few period weapons.
Outside and across the pathway is an annex housing wooden carvings of the men involved in avenging Asano.
Further down the path, visitors will find a staircase leading up to a patio that surrounds the burial location of the Ronin and a few other notable people.
The Story Behind the Location
Though there are hundreds of temples far more ornately constructed than the one built at Sengakuji (which has been rebuilt twice), it is the history behind who is buried there and the story of the events which makes the location a must-visit.
The temple was constructed at the direction of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1612 and was moved after a fire in 1641. The first of the men connected to the Ronin story to be interred at the location was Lord Asano Naganori of Akō in 1701. His death would instigate the events that followed.
Dishonored and Abandoned
Asano was spurred on to exasperation by the incessant slander of his superior, Kira Hozukenosuke, a man who was dispatched to help educate Asano’s house on court politics and decorum for upcoming events. Because of the non-stop verbal abuse, Asano drew his sword and struck Kira.
The problem with this action lay in the fact that both men were in the Edo castle, located in modern-day Tokyo. To even draw his sword, let alone attack another man with it would have been enough to condemn Asano.
The trial that followed resulted in a death sentence for Asano, an honor for a man of his rank, but it had to be conducted in the garden, a location for seppuku (ritual self-disembowelment) considered to be for men of low birth.
His death, while leaving his family destitute would also render his samurai warriors as ronin, or leaderless fighters. Of the several hundred who were pledged in service to Asano, most would disperse into trades or as mercenaries. 47 remained loyal and pledged vengeance.
Setup and Preparation
Kira Hozukenosuke was not ignorant of the state in which Asano’s samurai would be left and in his justifiable paranoia, he increased the security around himself directly after Asano’s death. The 47 ronin would not attack for a year a half.
In the meantime, they also took up trade positions near Tokyo. One man married the daughter of the architect responsible for Kira’s home to gain a better understanding of the layout. Others gained work as service workers to deliver goods and assess the number of men who guarded Kira.
The leader of the plot, Oishi, took on the persona of a dishonored drunk so that people would speak freely around him. In the ensuing time, he even divorced his wife and sent her away so that she would remain untouched by the repercussions.
His observations, aided by one of the men who took up a position with a tea master established that Kira would be vulnerable on December 14th, 1702.
When they attacked that evening, not a single ronin was slain and the security forces guarding Kira melted away in the face of the ferocity of the warriors on a mission of vengeance.
When they found Kira, who would not confirm his own identity until one of the ronin recognized the scar cut by their former lord, he refused the blade that was offered to him to commit seppuku. It was a very special blade as it was the one with which Asano had taken his own life.
Enraged at the dishonor and cowardice of the bureaucrat who had taken everything from these men, Oishi beheaded Kira with the blade and took it, and Kira’s head to Sengakuji to cleanse the head and blade in the temple cleansing pool to present both as an offering of honor to his former master.
All ronin turned themselves in the following day to the authorities who struggled with the proper response. Many in the feudal system sided with the ronin believing that honor killing was justified. Others feared the repercussions of leaving the assassination of state officials unpunished.
Ultimately, the shogunate sentenced the 47 ronin to death by way of seppuku. Each was taken to a solitary place to end his own life and each was buried in the same graveyard where Asano was interred.
A Guide for Conduct at Sengakuji
One of the important things to remember is that Sengakuji is still an active Buddhist temple. That means that monks still train on its grounds and Buddhist men and women will still come to its location to offer their respects to the heroic men of their culture as well as to offer up prayers and to meditate.
Prayer in a Temple
If you would like to offer up a prayer in the temple, you are more than welcome. First, locate the washing station, recognizable by pools of water and wooden ladles. Follow the following steps:
- Using your right hand, pour water out from the ladle over your left hand
- Using your left hand, pour water out from the ladle over your right hand
- Pour water from the ladle using your right hand into your left hand and rinse out your mouth (spitting the water out onto the ground near your feet)
- Using your left hand, tip water from the ladle upward rinsing the handle of the ladle and your left hand
Observe the offering box at the entrance of the temple. Five yen is an appropriate gift. Place your coin carefully and not disrespectfully, remembering this is a place of worship.
Bow and quietly bring your hands together and offer up your respects and spend the time you desire in meditation. As this is not a shrine, do not clap your hands together.
Monks in Training
If during your visit any monks are about the temple grounds, either initiate or fully-fledged monks, always remember that their devotion requires them to be set apart from other people. If they are in the midst of meditation or mindful exercise, give them plenty of space and do not talk to them.
It’s possible, also, that monks will be available to give not so much a guided tour as an appreciation of the values of honor and loyalty that are personified by this location. If that is the case, asking questions is appropriate.
This is a Sacred Burial Place
Much like the USS Arizona in Hawaii, or the Holocaust Memorial in Germany, this is a tourist location, but primarily a place where the memory of people is honored. The story of the 47 ronin is one of Japan’s most enduring and treasured histories.
It is important, then, to make certain that your entire party, as gathered, is on their best behavior on site. Even though there is a great deal of space on-site, make certain to not engage in boisterous actions on the grounds.
It would be good to keep photography in check, always being mindful of where you are, where your footing is, and the effects of photographing the final resting place of people who actually lived.
Plan Your Visit To Sengakuji Temple
Hours Of Operation:
Temple: 7 am until 6 pm (until 5 pm from October to March)
Museum: 9 am until 4:30 pm (until 4 pm from October to March)
Open 365 Days
Admission to the temple is free and the museum charge is 500 yen.
At the cost of a train ticket and a cup of coffee, you can enjoy a walk through this incredible location. While there are temples that are in more secluded places boasting a more serene environment, there are none that tie so intimately to the storied past of Japan.
Explore Sengakuji Temple and take your time. Walk in the quiet places surrounded by the trappings of men who gave their lives in the service of honor and offer your respects.
Virtual Tour Of Sengakuji Temple