Yamaoka Tesshū & Cherry Blossoms 山岡鉄舟と桜

Yamaoka Tesshū's memorial 山岡鉄舟の碑

Once again it is hanami (花見/cherry blossom viewing) season in Tokyo. On the way to the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park, a stopover was made to the grave of Yamaoka Tesshū (山岡 鉄舟) near Nippori station (JR Yamanote line).

There is not much I could say about Yamaoka Tesshū that could not be dug up with a bit of internet searching. Nevertheless, a brief introduction will be useful. Yamaoka Tesshū was famous for his swordsmanship, calligraphy and study of Zen Buddhism. He lived during the Bakumatsu1. During this period of strife he was kenjutsu instructor to the Rōshigumi (浪士組), which, like its more well known off-shoot the Shinsengumi (新選組), were a “police” unit composed of rōnin dedicated to the preservation of the Tokugawa Bakufu. He went on to establish Ittō-Shōden-Mutō-ryū (一刀正傳無刀流), a branch of Ittō-ryū kenjutsu known for the philosophy of “no sword” as well as for its severe austere training2. This tradition still continues today. Reportedly, knowing that his death from stomach cancer was imminent he wrote his own death poem, meditated in zazen and slipped away.

Yamaoka Tesshū's grave site 山岡鉄舟の墓

His grave is located at Zenshoan temple (全生庵) in an area of Tokyo full of temples with cemeteries3 known as Yanaka (谷中). At the entrance to the temple is a large stone memorial (hi/碑) to Yamaoka Tesshū with an inscription written by Katsu Kaishū, a key figure of the Bakumatsu. The inscription is written in a pre-modern style of Japanese, which completely lacks kana and therefore resembles Chinese. Despite both men working for the Tokugawa side during the Bakumatsu, both went on to hold important posts in the subsequent Meiji regime. The actual resting place of Yamaoka Tesshū is actually behind the temple. There are some small sign posts but only in Japanese so anyone looking for it will need to learn to recognize the kanji for his name. For the interested, zazen training is offered at this temple (but be warned, it’s not easy).

Between the memorial tablet and the temple is a cherry tree, now in full bloom. The entire area is full of cherry trees so it was pleasant to stroll from temple to temple seeing all the blossoms before finally arriving at Ueno Park’s own well known sakura lined promenade. In contrast to last year’s hanami, when there were practically no Western faces to be seen out enjoying the event, this year non-Japanese could be seen everywhere in the major parks of Tokyo. It is a sign of some return of tourism to Japan following the exodus due to last year’s compound disasters.

On a final note, Yamaoka Tesshū passed away at the age of fifty-two years old. While not exactly young, this was certainly premature. As mentioned in last year’s post about hanami, the brief but spectacular bloom of the cherry blossom is often used as a metaphor for the ideal samurai life. I thought it was therefore apt to pay Yamaoka Tesshū a visit during this season.

1 The Bakumatsu, lit. the end of the Bakufu or Shogunate, is the period between 1853, when Commodore Perry sailed the American “black ships” into Edo Bay, and 1867, when centralized Imperial rule under the Meiji Emperor was established. During this time those who wanted to preserve the Tokugawa regime fought those who sought to supplant it with imperial restoration.

2 Legend has it that this included five day long tachikiri (立ち切り) in which the practitioner must fight many consecutive matches with a number of opponents non-stop for the entire length of the training. This is an unverified legend but this type of training still exists today in kendo though the duration is usually much shorter. A typical kendo club may put someone through tachikiri as a birthday or going away “gift”, but these would last perhaps twenty minutes or so. Aomori prefecture has perhaps the most well known one these days lasting approximately three hours. More about this can be read in this article.

3 Buddhist temples in Japan often offer cemetery services, for which the annual maintenance fee support the temple. This area is full of cemeteries and temples perhaps due to the fact that in the Edo Period this would have been outside the main build up of the city.

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