The Last Samurai

For our final day in Kyoto, we decided to visit the main tourist attraction, Kinkaku-ji, the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The original Golden Pavilion was created in 1408, but it was burnt to the ground by a mad monk in 1950.

A reproduction was built in 1955, complete with gold leaf covering the upper two floors, just like the original structure. Inside are relics of the Buddha, supposedly the Buddha’s ashes, although the public is not allowed to see them. A Buddhist legend says that all the scattered relics of the Buddha will one day miraculously reconstitute themselves as the Buddha sitting cross-legged under the bodhi tree in India where he attained enlightenment. Oh yeah, pull my other leg.

The Golden Pavilion is certainly something to behold and the surrounding lake and grounds are beautiful examples of the art of Zen gardening, but what you don’t see in my photos are the throngs of tourists being harried, hurried and marched along the paths winding through the complex by ushers and security guards. There was no time allowed to stop to contemplate the serenity of the place, a great irony in light of the fact that Zen Buddhism is a meditative philosophy. In fact, the word “Zen” derives from the Sanskrit word for meditation.

We left, feeling cheated, given the hype for this location in the tourism publications, and took a bus south to the Nijo-jo Castle. The castle, a fortress built in 1601-1603 following a long civil war, is surrounded by an outer moat. We crossed over the moat and entered through the East Gate:

Nijo-jo Castle is significant in the history of Japan, bracketing the beginning and end of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, 1603-1867. This era is known as the Edo Period because the 15 generations of Tokugawa family Shoguns that ruled Japan did so from the city of Edo, the metropolis today known as Tokyo.

Following nearly 150 years of constant warfare, a period known as the Age of Warring States, Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan as its military dictator, thus becoming the first Tokugawa Shogun. Throughout the Age of Warring States and the Edo Period, the Emperor held a primarily ceremonial and religious post; the country was run by as a feudal state by the warrior class, headed by the Shogun.

Society was rigidly stratified with the warrior class at the top, followed by farmers, artisans and merchants. The warrior class was known as Samurai and the Samurai soldiers pledged fealty to their lords, the Daimyo, who, in turn, were pledged to the Shogun.

Once Nijo-ji Castle was completed in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu called all his Daimyo to a meeting in the Ninomaru-goten Palace inside the castle walls where he announced he was now in charge as Shogun. The Daimyo had to enter through the South Gate, just as we did:

The Tokugawa Shoguns soon engaged in a policy of isolationism, closing Japan to foreigners and trade; expelling recently arrived Catholic missionaries and outlawing Christianity; and prohibiting any person from leaving the country. Japan stagnated as a rural, agricultural feudal land as the rest of the world industrialized, engaged in foreign trade and prospered.

Over time, however, the peace ushered in by the Tokugawa Shogunate allowed economic activity to increase in the newly growing cities and towns through the production of silk, porcelain, paper and sake. Taxes, however, were paid by farmers to the samurai class in rice and inflation meant that the samurai’s real income was in decline; and without wars to fight, the samurai had principally become bureaucrats and non-productive government officials.

By the 1800s, foreign vessels and warships had entered Japanese waters and in 1854, U. S. Commodore Perry appeared in Edo harbor with a flotilla of nine ships. With this show of a superior, modern military force, Perry was able to coerce the Japanese to enter into a treaty with the United States that ultimately established a trade relationship between the two countries.

At this point, the Shogunate and samurai were a waning force in Japan and in 1867 Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last Tokugawa Shogun, called his Daimyo to Ninomaru-goten Palace to announce his intention to restore imperial rule, thus bringing to an end feudalism and isolation in Japan.

Here’s the Ninomaru-goten Palace, a huge 33-room wooden structure:

The surrounding grounds are beautiful today, although the gardens have been redesigned since they were originally laid out.

There’s another palace inside Nijo-ji Castle besides the Ninomaru-goten Palace. This one, the Honmaru-goten Palace, is enclosed within a second moat. We crossed over into the Honmaru-goten Palace courtyard…

… then climbed up to a vantage point on the southwest corner of the surrounding inner-courtyard wall, from which I took this photo of the Honmaru-goten Palace:

Not all of Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s Daimyo agreed with his assessment that he should renounce his Shogunate in favor of the teenage Emperor. Within a year, they staged an uprising called the Boshin War, but by 1869 the revolt had been put down. The samurai class was abolished.

Only Tom Cruise, The Last Samurai, was left in the field.

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