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
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
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.