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.