The Siege of Fushimi Castle and Kyoto’s Chitenjo Temples

Living on a planet that is roughly 4.5 billion years old and being the descendants of a species that has existed for around two hundred thousand of those years, it is an inevitability that every moment of our lives is spent treading over the spot where someone has died. It’s such an ubiquitous concept that we rarely give it any thought at all, especially those of us who live in wealthy, stable countries where our only encounters with the memorial of death are via the grave markers of family or friends.

But Japan is a little different. In addition to being a very old nation, by luck and happenstance much of its tangible cultural history has been preserved into the present day. Kyoto especially escaped the destruction of her historical monuments during the second World War and as a result, structures dating back to the twelfth century are still standing and available to be visited and entered by the general public. Of course, to keep these castles and temples from falling to the elements, private and publicly funded restoration efforts are an annual endeavor. Japan, however, has a knack for reclamation and re-purposing; even when a castle like Fushimi is brought to the ground time and again, parts of its original architecture live on in other buildings.  Oftentimes, this reclaimed wood paints the history of the country’s darker years. Warring years. Years of struggle, betrayal, conquest, and death. In Kyoto, four centuries-old temples bear the scars of this history in bloodstains plainly visible on the ceilings. They are the inheritors of the floorboards of the doomed Fushimi Castle, and in the rust-red prints of feet, hands and faces tell the tale of the samurai who died when the castle fell in 1600.

The story of Fushimi Castle, one of the final battles of Japan’s Warring States period, brings together the lives and ambitions of some of the most famous figures in Japanese history. Extra Credits has put together a fantastic six part series on the notable figures, their campaigns and their losses which you should absolutely watch when you’ve got the time.

Even though Fushimi Castle eventually fell and has never been successfully usefully reconstructed, parts of it remain in the temples of Yogen-in, Shoden-ji, Hosen-in and Genko-an, among others. These temples are the holders of chitenjo–blood ceilings. After Fushimi Castle’s fall, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered any usable building materials to be salvaged from the ruins and stored for re-purposing in temples across Kyoto. This way the spirits of those who died in violence could be prayed for and put at rest in some of the most tranquil, scenic spots in all of the city.

Here, while drinking tea in the presence of a seven hundred year-old pine tree, or considering the nature of enlightenment and ignorance via the metaphor of shape, one is chillingly reminded by a simple look up that people have died on those boards.

My full article on each of these four temples can be found on Taiken Japan. The temples predate Fushimi Castle and have some stunning features in their own rights. Go take a look if you’re curious, or see the picture galleries below for examples of these beautiful hidden gems of the old capital.




15 thoughts on “The Siege of Fushimi Castle and Kyoto’s Chitenjo Temples

    • Actually, the ceiling of Yogen-in is the most heart-wrenching. Photographs aren’t allowed in Yogen-in because of all the very, very old art there, but on their ceiling you can see the outline of a whole person: face, shoulder, arm, hip, leg. It’s very sobering, and it doesn’t help that Yogen-in is naturally very dark, from the dark wood interior to the very shuttered, cloistered ambiance. I was very shaken when I left that temple.

  1. NJ, what a fantastic post – and the article was incredibly absorbing. I recall Alex mentioning your visit and I was so hoping one of you would end up writing about the trip and these structures.
    Living in a house that was constructed with as much reclamation as I could manage at the time, I am used to walking on and admiring the history that has come from the floorboards of old churches and barns, and clay tiles from Portugal that were discarded because after being cast, animal footprints had trod on the setting materials. How I adore those bits of history inserted into my everyday, but your experience is wholly different. I have such enormous respect for the mindset that the display and highlighting of some of the castle’s materials are not meant to leave visitors horror-stricken, but rather contemplative and full of spiritual thought–to pray for the souls of those who left their mark.
    It’s spine-chilling and riveting history.

    • Ah! Living in a house filled with reclaimed materials! I’m so jealous. My uncle built his house largely out of beach wood and furnished it in the same way, with antique shipping crates and bottles for extra flair. I used to spend weeks at his house in the summer and the smell of old, sun warmed wood is one of those triggers that brings me back to my childhood in a snap these days.

      Visiting the temples was definitely an experience, firstly because I visited half of them on my own, and secondly because when you actually see the prints it becomes really hard to divorce yourself form the reality of what happened. At Hosen-in, the monk pointed out half a woman’s face (Mototada’s family also committed suicide when the castle fall), several foot prints, and the smeared finger prints of a samurai who pulled himself across the floor, inch by inch after the cut failed to kill him outright, only to have his head cut off by his second. You don’t have to make up a narrative. It’s plainly there, right before your eyes, and the more you stare at it, the easier it is to hear the sound of footsteps pounding on the floorboards, cries of pain and shouts of command. The fact that the boards have been placed in such a peaceful setting only adds to the unsettling feeling.

  2. Great post, as usual. It’s very sobering to see all of the ceilings side-by-side, that’s for sure. I’d definitely have to be in a special frame of mind to go see Yogen.

    • When they reconstructed it a few decades ago they built it off of the original site (which became a tomb). It was constructed mostly out of concrete, and for whatever reason they decided to build an amusement park around it called Castle Land. However, as is the case with a lot of Japanese amusement parks, it was abandoned and the park and the castle are closed to the public as of 2004. 😦

  3. This was rather fascinating, particularly the bit about the bloodstained floorboards. I’m all for repurposing, but I’m a bit stunned no one at least painted over the bloodstains. Still, I guess good lumber’s good lumber.

    That landscape art in the lower left picture is lovely.

    • There’s a couple of reasons for this. First of all, in keeping with the traditional Japanese aesthetic, wood is very rarely painted. Sometimes it’s stained or weatherproofed but especially in old buildings it’s mostly left as it is. Secondly, the blood on the floorboards is a sort of memorial. Given that it was Ieyasu who commissioned the boards to be re-purposed after Mototada’s sacrifice, I imagine the blood was kept visible as a sort of permanent reminder of that battle. These days the temples that house the chitenjo do so with a sort of sober pride. The monks pray for the souls of those whose blood stains the floor, and in at least one temple not shown here (one in Uji) the stains are outlined in chalk so that visitors can see for themselves the marks left behind.

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