Tokyo has some wonderful, must-see temples and shrines such Sensou-ji in Asakusa, Meiji Jingu Shrine, the controversial Yasukuni shrine, and Gokoku-ji – home of the tea ceremony. Once you see a few temples, they get increasingly repetitive (I have the same problem with churches), but there’s something special that keeps me going back to Sengaku-ji.
Sengaku-ji’s history is tied in with the story of the Forty-seven Ronin (leaderless samurai), also known as Chushingura; a fictionalised account of the tale. The story took place in feudal Japan where Lord Asano, who hailed from a territory outside the capital, came up for a scheduled ceremony with the Emperor. He ended up having to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) for the offense of drawing his sword on Kira, a senior courtier who he felt was embarrassing and humiliating him. Asano’s crew were disgraced, and according to the rules of bushido (samurai code of honour), they were bound to get retribution by killing Kira.
However revenge-killings had been banned by the Emperor, so naturally Asano’s men (led by a man called Oishi) were being watched. A core group of them made a resolution to throw away their reputations so they would no longer be seen as a threat, and then striking when Kira’s guard was down. They succeeded in both through drinking and whoring themselves into disgrace, then coming together on one Winter night a year later and launching an attack that killed Kira in his home. They took his head across to Sengaku-ji temple after they did the deed, as this is where Lord Asano was buried, and offered it up to his tombstone. The ronin turned themselves into the authorities, and despite the fact that they broke the law the shogunate permitted them to commit seppuku rather than be executed due to intense public pressure.
Despite the fact that it has obviously has been enhanced over the years, Chushingura has been told and retold across multiple media and especially resonates with Japanese people as at its core the story is about traditional values versus modernisation. Sengaku-ji is the spiritual home of the story, and is fittingly located in now what is a primarily a business district, a stone’s throw from many corporate headquarters for leading blue chip firms. It has the general features you would find at a Japanese temple, such as the gates, main hall and cemetery (where the forty-seven ronin are buried) but there is also a statue of Oishi and a small museum that contains pieces such as the ronin’s armour and a receipt for Kira’s head (seriously). Everything in the museum is in Japanese, so you’ll need to be able to read it or be fairly good at guessing.
Sengaku-ji is a short walk away from Shinagawa Station on the Yamanote or Keihin Tohoku lines, or across the road from Sengakuji Station on the Keikyu Main Line. Shinagawa is culturally bereft as an area – if the shinkansen bullet train didn’t stop there, there is very little reason to visit unless you work for one of the many nearby businesses, or have a hankering for the Outback Steakhouse (you have two to choose from) – so this may involve a special trip.