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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.



There is something exhilarating about historical artifacts bearing the imprint of human activity. An artisan’s fingerprints in a 3,000-year-old brick. Ancient graffiti scratched on the remains of a wall. Obscure and frequently overlooked markings like these make history real in a way that the greatest castles and palaces cannot.

It is this tangible connection with the past that draws aficionados to a group of Kyoto temples well off the tourist track. They are modest places, dwarfed by the size and splendor of better known temples like Nanzen-ji, Chion-in, and Kinkaku-ji. But they each offer something very special, a chi tenjo or “blood ceiling,” stained with the blood of samurai from centuries past.

How, you may ask, did blood end up on these ceilings? The story goes back to the power struggle that gripped Japan following the death in Kyoto of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598. For two years the regents who had sworn allegiance to Hideyoshi’s five-year-old son and heir Hideyori observed an uneasy truce. Then, in 1600, things began to fall apart. In July, while the strongest of the regents, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was away putting down a rebellion in the far north, rival Ishida Mitsunari and 40,000 soldiers laid siege to Fushimi Castle just south of Kyoto, which Tokugawa had made his base to protect and control young Hideyori. Ishida demanded that the 1,800-man Tokugawa garrison trapped inside surrender. The garrison’s commander, Torii Mototada, refused.

Over the next two weeks a ferocious battle was waged, until finally Fushimi’s defenses were breeched and the castle set on fire. Mototada himself was killed by the captain of the attacking forces. The 380-odd survivors in his garrison, wishing to follow his example, thereupon committed seppuku, cutting open their stomachs and staining the floor of the castle keep with their blood.

Although much of Fushimi was consumed in the fire, the keep where the suicides occurred survived. After Tokugawa emerged victorious in the ensuing civil war and established the shogunate that bears his name, the structure was dismantled and the blood-stained boards carefully stored. They were later distributed to seven temples, mostly in the Kyoto area, where they were used in renovations. Because of their sacred nature the boards were not reused to make floors to be trod upon. Instead they were incorporated into chi tenjo, blood ceilings, to be gazed up at in reverence and wonder.

If your time in Kyoto is limited, the most convenient place to view a blood ceiling is at Yogen-in Temple, a 20-minute walk east from Kyoto Station. Unfortunately, the interior is poorly lit, making the telltale stains difficult to see. A better option is Genko-an Temple in the northwest of the city. The blood ceiling here is in a hall lined with paper shoji doors that glow gold in the sunlight, clearly revealing the boards. The first impression upon stepping inside is just of old wood and meaningless brown stains. But look closely. There is the impression of a hand. And fingers dragged across the floor—perhaps by a samurai in agony? And a perfectly preserved footprint. Was it left by someone stepping among the bodies on the morning after, unable to avoid tracking through all the blood on the floor?

Also affording excellent viewing is nearby Shoden-ji Temple, lost in the trees on a mountainside beneath the giant Chinese character for “great” (dai) that is set alight every August. The blood ceiling here is set in a hallway overlooking a Zen garden of white gravel and bushes trimmed to resemble verdant islands. As with Genko-an, the place is usually deserted, leaving the visitor undisturbed to decipher what the various markings could mean.

If you have the time, one of the most picturesque options for blood ceiling viewing is Hosen-in Temple in the village of Ohara, a one-hour bus ride north from Kyoto Station. For the 800 price of admission the visitor receives a cup of green tea and an azuki bean paste cake in a tatami-matted room open on three sides to a garden, the corner posts framing the whole like a picture. The blood ceiling here is more delicately shaded but bears perhaps the most haunting impression of all: what is reportedly the image of a samurai’s face after he slumped forward into his own pool of blood.

Gruesome? Certainly. But that is what makes Kyoto’s blood ceilings so special. In their aged brown markings one comes face to face the past, with actual movements and feelings of four centuries ago. History doesn’t get any more real than this.

samuel hawley imjin war

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley