哲学の道 Trial by Fire, Snake and Pillow

The last few weeks in Kyoto have been the weeks of 花見, hanami – the time when you can see the spectacular cherry blossom or sakura that coats the city in a pale pink cloud. My parents and I took the opportunity to visit Philosophers walk, 哲学の道 (Tetsugaku no michi), a path from North to South down the Eastern portion of Kyoto that is awash with sakura in the spring. That day we visited 6 different temples so I will cover all of them in a few different posts. Today I want to focus on one temple and one shrine, both with a rich history and links to interesting people from throughout Japanese history. This kind of temple is always fun to research because you find out about figures in Japanese history that are not considered pivotal enough to be covered in any lecture, but have their own amusing aspects and kept the historical thread running, even if they didn’t alter the pattern.

These happen to be the fourth and fifth temples we visited, so they are located pretty close together. I will start with Reikan-ji 霊鑑寺, a nunnery belonging to the Rinzai-Zen sect which was founded in 1654 by Retired Emperor Gomizunoo. This Retired Emperor, whose name when ruling was Emperor Go-Yozei, oversaw the end of the sengoku-jidai, the century of civil war faced by Japan in the 16th Century, and was still on the throne when the country came under the control of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the final unifier of Japan and the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that would rule Japan for 250 years.

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The main temple building was donated by Tokugawa Ienari, the 11th and longest serving shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. He was not a great unifier like Tokugawa Ieyasu, and his reign was characterised by natural disasters, court excesses and a great famine. This excess should really have been anticipated when, upon succeeding to the title of shogun, Ienari locked himself in the inner sanctuary of the castle and refused to leave for 18 days. When bakufu councillors tried to force him to do his duty, he held them off with 600 women of the harem armed with pillows. These women held the entrance to the inner quarters for three days before he was captured.

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While Ienari was certainly a fun-loving guy, the series of natural disasters under his rule and a series of revolts due to famine caused people to lose faith in the Shogunate. His rule was 1773 until 1841, and as the shogunate fell in 1868, it seems his rule laid the foundations of problems that led to the bakufu’s destruction. While he could not prevent American involvement in opening up Japan, the shogunate was already on shaky footing due to its inability to cope well with internal disasters, causing some to feel like the shogunate may have lost its mandate to rule.

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Ienari was also the shogun that expelled the first woman to visit Japan, Titia Bergsma, a Dutch woman that travelled with her husband to trade with Japan (the Dutch were allowed to visit Japan in limited capacity, and women were not allowed). While she was on Dejima, the man-made island that the Dutch were permitted to stay on while trading with Japan, over 500 images were made of her, making her an icon in Japan at the time. She was expelled within 5 days of landing in Japan. Unfortunately for the Tokugawa Shogunate, expelling foreigners became much harder after the ‘friendly visit’ paid by the American ‘black ships’ in 1851.

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The temple itself was beautiful, with spectacular gardens full of camellias. It is said that the founding Retired Emperor Gomizunoo loved camellias so he had many planted there. His patronage also ensured that princesses and granddaughters of the imperial line were priestesses here for centuries. The stamp I got at Reikan-ji is one of my favourite stamps in my stamp book. I would strongly recommend this temple if you visit in late winter or spring, though check when it opens as apparently it is shut for most of the year.


Just along the road from Reikan-ji is Otoyo-Jinja 大豊神社, or in my mind, ‘the mouse shrine’, founded in 887. This is because rather than the standard foxes, this shrine also has mouse guardians, kite guardians and guardian monkeys, making it a little more interesting than the Japan standard Inari shrine. There are foxes too, of course.

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This shrine’s mice come from a legend surrounding Okuninushi-no-mikoto also known as Taikoku, whom we have met before, remember the story of the white rabbit? Well our hero went on to fall in love with a beautiful princess, but, as many young men have found, he had issues with her dad. In order to win Princeess Suseri, Okuninushi had to pass a series of tests. First, Suasanoo, her father, challenged him to sleep in a room full of snakes. Luckily Princess Suseri gave him a scarf to wear and it protected him. You may say he would be fine as gods cant die anyway right? But actaully this particular god had already died twice before chasing a different girl, but that is a story for another time.

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Having survived the first trial, Okuninushi was then challenged to find an arrow that Susanoo had shot into a vast field. As he was hunting for the arrow Susanoo set fire to the field and it looked as though Okuinushi may die for a third time. He was saved by a small mouse, who showed him a hole in the ground in which he could hide. Once the fire had passed overhead the mouse brought him the arrow and he was able to marry his princess. Thus the mouse became his symbol and guardian.

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Also enshrined at Otoyo-jinja is Emperor Ojin, the 15th Emperor of Japan. Though he falls into the category of ‘legendary Emperors’ meaning he was potentially made up by the authors of the Nihonshoki and Kojiki (early historical chronicles) to make Japanese ancestry seem longer, he is towards the more believable side of the timeline, and historians believe he probably ruled around 200AD. He was allegedly the son of the 14th Emperor, however it is said that he was conceived and then the Emperor died. While pregnant his mother went on a quest to find the ‘Promised Land’ for three years, and upon her return gave birth to him. As such it is pretty unlikely that this was a miraculous birth and it is more likely that he was not a descendent of the imperial line. This is one of many probable breaks in the chain of the Japanese ‘continuous imperial line’.

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While not the most exciting shrine in comparison to the garden of Reikan-ji, it is pretty and has lovely statues so I would definitely stop by if you are taking a stroll down Philosopher’s walk. I’m not sure why there are monkey and kite guardians so if anyone knows please enlighten me.

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