Ep. 018: The Shrine of the Shogun

Tosho-gu in Ueno Park, Tokyo

Note: All photos are of Ueno Tosho-gu, and (except for the overview) were taken by yours truly between 1997 and 2006.

Let's visit a quiet corner hidden away in the very heart of Tokyo's version of "Central Park."

Western cultures tend to focus on a person's "final resting place." But in the east--as exemplified in Japan--one's remains may lie, or at least be venerated in their absence, in a variety of places. One such case is the earthly remnants of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Let's take a look at a few of the once-500, and today at least 130, places where his memory is honored.

Overview of Kanei-ji as it was; note shrine compound upper-left, five-story pagoda center-right, and lanterns along the paths (from a Tokyo Metropolitan Archives publication)

Ueno Park, an Imperial Gift

In the heart of Tokyo lies a serene space that provides a respite from the hurly burly of the world's most populous metropolitan area. It had once been the grounds of a major Buddhist temple, Kanei-ji, vestiges of which--a gate, a hall, a pagoda--still remain. But the 1868 Battle of Ueno--part of the civil war in which Imperial forces unseated the Tokugawa Shogunate and returned the Emperor to power--put paid to most of the temple's buildings. (I have stuck my finger through a bullet-hole in that remaining gate.)

After the battle, with the temple in ruins, the government began to moot a suitable use for the space. A medical school and a hospital were suggested, but a Dutch doctor named Antonius Franciscus Bauduin (1820-1885) promoted the then-very modern idea that an open space with lots of greenery would be more salubrious for the citizens. A bust of the good doctor stands on a pedestal near the Park's Central Fountain today. (Interesting trivia: the first Western doctors functioning in Japan were Dutch, so western knowledge, and particularly medicine, is called in Japan ran-gaku--"Holland studies," as Holland was transliterated o-ran-da in Japanese.)

The park was administered by the newly-empowered Imperial government, but in 1924, to celebrate the marriage of Crown Prince Hirohito (who later presided over World War II), his father Emperor Taisho gave the park to the city government of Tokyo. Thus, today, the full name of the park is Ueno Onshi Koen, which translates as "Ueno Imperial Gift Park."

Lanterns line the path approaching Ueno Tosho-gu

Oh, yeah, one more significant piece of Kanei-ji remains: tucked into a very quiet corner of the park, behind the zoo and in view of the five-story pagoda, is the precious little gem called Tosho-gu.

Ieyasu, the First Tokugawa Shogun

Japan in the 16th century was more than just a little bit of a mess. The century occupied most of the Sengoku Period (roughly 1467-1615). Sengoku is usually translated as "Warring States," but could as easily be "War Country." The century saw the dissolution of one Shogunate--the Ashikaga--and the rise of another: the Tokugawa.

One learns when living in other cultures to be careful about titles of leadership--president, prime minister, governor, and so on--because they don't translate very well. Shogun is generally (heh heh) translated "general." But no one would say that Colin Powell, to take one example, was a "shogun." THE Shogun, whoever he was at the time, was the military dictator of Japan in certain periods of its history, wielding power in place of a usually-ineffective Imperial house. It was this power that was taken back in the war culminating in the Battle of Ueno in 1868.

The curved-gabled Karamon in front of the haiden

But in 1600, the first of the Tokugawas, a general indeed, ascended to power by crushing the opposition, or forming alliances with potential enemies. Ieyasu had been born into a clan which was itself torn by strife. His own parents were on opposite sides of a shifting alliance, which led to their divorce shortly after his birth. Ieyasu spent ages five to eight held hostage by one of his father's enemies, and ages nine to fifteen by another.

He began his rise to power in his early teens, and before age 60 was the de facto ruler of Japan.

In typical Japanese fashion, it's hard to pin down his exact status. Let's see: His reign is usually counted from 1600, when he gained victory over the clans loyal to Toyotomi Hideyori at the Battle of Sekigahara. But it took a few years to consolidate his power, so he wasn't appointed shogun by the Emperor (a mere formality) until 1603. In 1605, he "retired" in favor of his third son Hidetada.

Nevertheless, living at Sunpu Castle in modern Shizuoka, he still ran things in Edo (Tokyo), supervising the building of the castle where today's Imperial Palace stands. Ieyasu maintained his power until his death in 1616.

Tosho Daigongen

Before his death at age 73--perhaps of syphilis (which probably had nothing to do with the two wives and twenty concubines he had)--Ieyasu left instructions that he was to be deified after death--in order, he said, to protect his descendants from evil. (Yeah, right; I'm sure it had nothing to do with his massive ego.) Anyway, he was declared Tosho Daigongen. Tosho means "Light of the East." A gongen is a Buddha appearing to the populace as a Shinto god or kami. He was a DAIgongen--a great Buddha/god.

Detail of Dragon on the Karamon

He passed away at Sunpu Castle. I visited the reconstruction of part of that castle in 1998, and my friends took me up to Mount Kuno, where his remains were deposited in the Tosho-gu or "Shrine to Ieyasu" (by his posthumous name). Fittingly located on the site of a former fortress, this was the first of the some 500 such shrines built during the Edo Period--that being the period in which his descendants ruled Japan. With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when imperial power was reasserted, the shrine fell into some disrepair, but is well-maintained today. Parts of it were declared an Important Cultural Property of Japan back in 1908, and a National Treasure of Japan in 2010.

There on Kunozan, Ieyasu's ashes remained until his grandson and third shogun, Iemitsu, transferred them to the completed Toshu-gu at Nikko, roughly 100 miles north of Edo/Tokyo. That place is today one of Japan's most popular tourist sites. And yes, I have been there too--twice.

But What about Ueno?

So Kunozan was Ieyasu's first resting place. And Nikko is where his remains are now (though folks hold that "a portion of his deified spirit" still resides on Kunozan).

So why is the lovely little shrine in Ueno park considered by some one of the most important of all the Toshu-gu shrines?

Front of the Haiden (in a rainstorm)

Well, if you start a skosh west of Tokyo Station at the Ote-mon Gate of the Imperial Palace (remember, this was once the Tokugawa's castle) and walk north-ish two miles, you'll reach the southern edge of Ueno Park. Another half-mile or so and you're at the shrine. That makes it one of the closest Tosho-gu Shrines to the home of the Tokugawas for over two-and-a-half centuries. (Another, at Shiba Park next to Zojo-ji, is roughly an equal distance to the south, and slightly older.)

My Little Tosho-gu

And now, let's cross under the torii gate (popularly thought to resemble a "bird perch"--its characters mean as much--for the deposit of fowls meant for sacrifice) and step into a place I must have visited a dozen times while I lived in Tokyo. I even took my wife-to-be there on our 2006 visit.

The five-story pagoda can be seen over the Karamon from inside the compound

Approaching the shrine, one of the most noticeable features is the proliferation of old lanterns, including a "monster" one made of stone, a gift to the shrine in 1631. Six meters (20 feet) high, it's considered the third-largest stone lantern in Japan, and is literally named the "Monster Lantern" (Obake-Doro).

Also while walking the sando ("approach road") we can't miss the glorious five-story pagoda on the right, one of Kanei-ji's few remaining structures. They say the five stories represent the five elements of Chinese (and thus Japanese) cosmology: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth.

I'll mention briefly here that, during the Edo period and before, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines often co-existed on the same grounds. But the Meiji Emperor issued an order separating the two; thus we often find buildings of both religions in proximity, but separated by a wall or other clear demarcation. Such is the case here.

Continuing, we reach the open area in front of the gate to the enclosure, which is well worth a look. Called the Karamon, or "Chinese-[style] Gate," it has a curved gable and a lot of gold. The two dragons on either side of the gateway, called Nobori-ryu (Ascending Dragon) and Kudari-ryu (Descending Dragon) are so lifelike that it's said they sneak out every night and take a drink from the nearby Shinobazu Pond.

The path alongside the compound fence

For ordinary visitors like us, the gate is kept closed. So we have to buy a ticket at the kiosk and enter a side gate to our left. The pathway leads around the outside of the ornately-carved compound fence, which we enter at a rear gate.

In my Tokyo days, the main building had an exquisite gold patina on its exterior, which current online photos show to have been painted over with a shiny new coat that conveys no wabi-sabi, the aesthetic principle of simplicity and impermanence. The building is divided into three parts: In the front is the haiden, a worship hall; in the middle, the heiden, or offertory hall; and at the rear, the honden, in which the kami or god is enshrined--in this case, Tokugawa Ieyasu as well as Yoshimune and Yoshinobu, his great-grandson and his eight-greats-grandson. They were the eighth (middle) and fifteenth (last) Tokugawa shoguns, respectively.

All of the information I can find online says that all three halls are closed to visitors. But I distinctly remember being in the front hall at least, with its rough wooden floor covered by a paper-thin carpet worn smooth by feet, and the ornate coffered ceiling. Around the walls and up high were old framed prints or paintings of men--perhaps the shoguns? But I can't prove I was there because, if it was open, it would have been a strictly-no-photo zone.

Gold patina on the rear of the Honden


I would be delighted to return to the place someday, despite the polishing up that appears to have taken place, and the restrictions on visitors.

Well, that's about a wrap for this walk down memory lane. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: I can't wait to show you some of the amazing old churches in Santa Fe, New Mexico--one of my favorite cities in the world! (Well, at least that I've been to.) Join me!