Monday, May 08, 2006

Golden Week Vacation Day 2: The Bloody Temple

We woke up late, checking out at the last possible minute. The rabuho had one helluva comy bed. Breakfast was an onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed) from a konbini (convenience store.)

Our first stop was the Bloody Temple (Hosen-in), one of Kyoto's lesser-known shrines. We paid for admission, which included a quick tour ... really much more useful for my girlfriend than for me, as the tour didn't come in English (I was the only gaijin there, after all, so I'm not complaining.) She tried to translate some of it, but I shushed her when it became obvious that she was missing out on a lot of it, and concentrated on looking around me. The temple included a dozen very old sliding-door paintings, including elephants, demons or guardians (I think), and some very fractal looking trees. I'd have pictures, but no one else was taking any so I assumed it probably wasn't allowed (the Japanese not being particularly shy about taking pictures anywhere it's not specifically prohibited.)

The temple gets its name from its famous Bloody Ceiling, reclaimed from the floor of a Tokugawa-era castle where several hundred Samurai, surrounded and about to be over-run, committed seppuku en masse. In English, this means they carved open their own viscera with their swords, disembowelling themselves and dying in possibly the most painful way possible. The floor soaked up so much blood that, to this day, the ceiling from which it was made has a very obvious reddish tint; body-prints, and even a hand-print, are quite apparent.

Being a Westerner, I was very curious as to why, exactly, the samurai committed seppuku. I'm sure they must have had a good reason - something to do with the shame of imminent defeat I imagine - but for the life of me I can't see why they'd do it before the battle. After all, if there's several hundred of you, and you're sitting in a castle, surely you're much more militarily valuable fighting to the last man (and thus taking a good number of the opposition with you, usually about a 3-to-1 ratio in a situation like that, where you're fighting from a defensible position.) So I'm sure I must be missing something here. Sadly I've been unable to find anything online to explain the story, so I'm left wondering ... if anyone reads this and has any idea, please, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments!


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