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Graves of the 47 Ronin: A Visit to the Tombs of Sengaku-ji Temple

/ / Graves of the 47 Ronin: A Visit to the Tombs of Sengaku-ji Temple
47 ronin graves at sengakuji temple tokyo

The story of the 47 ronin is a gory morality tale famous not just in Japan but around the world. And here at Sengaku-ji temple is where they are buried. The 47 ronin’s graves are located behind the main hall of Sengaku-ji temple.47 ronin graves

Sengaku-ji temple founded by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 17th century. This modestly sized institution is part of the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism, adhering to a philosophy of austerity and peaceful meditation. It remains an active religious institution with daily rituals and a variety of annual festivals. Yet behind the main complex lies the tomb complex of a decidedly unpeaceful group of men.

Tthe 47 ronins graves. Tomb buried ronin at Sengakuji Temple Tokyo
The graves of the 47 ronin. (Photo by Stefan Le Dû)

The fame of the 47 Ronin stems not only for their loyalty or martial valor. But from their decision to carry out their plan despite knowing that even if it were to succeed, it would mean their death.

Although the incident on which the legend is based happened in the 18th century, it continues to inspire novelists and film makers. Though the lens of fiction has distorted and complicated the reality of the infamous revenge tale, the basic particulars are straightforward: a noble lord was compelled to commit ritual suicide after committing assault, and his loyal retainers took it upon themselves to plan and execute a deadly campaign against those they held responsible.

This type of honor killing seems far-removed from 21st century Japan, especially in the center of Tokyo’s high-rise business district, Minato Ward. This area is the beating heart of much of modern Japan’s international commerce. Nikon, Sony, and Mitsubishi all house their corporate headquarters in this area. It is some of the most rarefied and expensive real estate on the planet, with embassies and elite universities jostling against each other for space. But if one knows where to look in this extravagant and modern neighborhood, the samurai’s vendetta can still be viscerally real and immediate.

How to get to the Graves of the 47 Ronin (Sengaku-ji temple)

Sengaku-ji temple is located in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. The nearest rail stop is Keikyu railway’s Sengakuji Station. Both the Keikyu Main Line and the Toei Asakusa Line stop here. From the station’s western exist head west.

The temple is directly ahead at the top of a hill. By foot it takes less than five minutes from the station. The ronin’s graves are located behind the main hall.

location get to the 47 graves at Sengaku-ji Temple from Sengakuji Station
3 minutes walk from Sengakuji Station to Sengakuji temple, the 47 ronin graves.

Must-know visitor information

The graves can only be accessed via the temple grounds. The temple is open year-round from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm. Admission to both the temple and the graves is open to the public and free of charge. Admission to the small museum and statuary hall costs 500 yen.

Signage and informational and pamphlets are available in Japanese and English. Small monetary offerings at both the temple hall and the grave can be left but are not required or expected. Candles, incense, and goshuin are available for a nominal fee. Only cash is accepted.

Visitors should remember that the temple is a religious site, and to avoid playing music or smoking cigarettes.

Minato Ward is also home to a variety of more famous attractions such as Zojoji Temple and Odaiba, both of which can be easily accessed by rail from Sengakuji Station. Several shops between the station and the temple sell a variety of souvenirs, books, and foods that relate to the 47 Ronin Incident. Shopkeepers are generally welcoming and informative, but for the most part speak only Japanese. These businesses have no formal connection with the temple.

Location of Sengaku-ji temple: 2 Chome-11-1 Takanawa, Minato City, Tokyo 108-0074. Click this link to browse on Google map >


Legend of the 47 Ronin

In the early 18th century, two Daimyo, powerful regional lords, Asano and Kira had a feud. The exact details or origin of the bad blood between the two noblemen remains an area of historical speculation. Whatever the precise cause, at some point Asano became so enraged at Kira that he slashed at him with a dagger, scarring his face.

This violence might have remained a private matter between the two noble houses had not Asano’s final loss of temper happened in Edo Castle. At that time Edo Castle was the nerve center of the Shogunal government. It was the military base and private home of the Tokugawa family that controlled the country. As such, the precincts of the castle were considered an inviolate sanctum; drawing a blade and spilling blood in the castle was an insult to the Shogun and his status. Asano was thus ordered to ritually disembowel himself as penance, his lands and wealth were to be confiscated, his family ruined and dishonored, and his samurai to be left masterless.

Once these penalties were duly carried out, it was expected that Asano’s retainers would be forced to eke out a meagre existence on the fringes of society as mercenaries, bodyguards, or brigands. Most did just that. Lord Kira, scarred but satisfied, fortified his stronghold in case of reprisals, and sought out intelligence reports regarding the activities of Asano’s warriors, especially a high-ranking man veteran named Ouishi. Upon hearing that Ouishi had turned into a despondent drunkard, Kira felt he could relax. That was precisely the plan of a secret fraternity within Asano’s samurai corps. 47 of them had been meeting covertly to plan a daring assassination raid on Kira’s compound. Though it would end in either their death during the fight or execution by compulsory suicide afterwards, the group was determined to follow through with their scheme.

Two years later, when Lord Kira was relaxing in his mansion in Edo, the cadre of 47 infiltrated the premises with minimal casualties and found their quarry in a hidden chamber. Ouishi demanded that Kira commit ritual suicide as Asano had been forced to do. When he refused, Ouishi beheaded him with the same dagger that had started the incident. Bloody and victorious, the ronin carried Lord Kira’s head across town to lay it at their master’s grave behind Sengaku-ji. As expected, the band was ultimately ordered to ritually kill themselves, one of them even choosing Sengaku-ji as the site of his death. Their cremains joined their former master in the temple’s graveyard.

The 47 Ronin graves today

The main hall of Sengaku-ji is a recent reconstruction, the original having burned to the ground during WWII.

However, both lord Asano’s grave and the graves of the ronin still stand original and intact behind the temple hall.

graves of the 47 ronin
Grave of Asano Naganori

A constant haze floats across the tombs as the site continues to be tended by the monks, the locals, and visitors who offer incense in remembrance. There is also a small museum dedicated to the lives of the vengeful ronin with documents, armor, and weapons that are connected to the raid.

The temple also boasts wooden statues of all the ronin, masterfully carved centuries ago to preserve the visages of the warriors. At the entrance to the tomb area stands the kubi aria ido, literally “head washing well”. This is where the triumphant band cleansed the decapitated head of Lord Kira before presenting it at their master’s grave. Though the graves themselves date to the early 18th century a modern bronze statue of Oushi stands atop a high pillar that lists the names of all the loyal samurai. Attentive visitors may also notice a single, seemingly out of place plum tree. This was transplanted to the temple precincts in honor of the youngest raider, Chikara, who was only 16 at the time of the attack.

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