Samurai & Shogun

Political power in Japan was held by the Tokugawa Shogun, daimyos and samurai for 250+ years during the Edo period. The shogun ruled Japan from his castle in Edo, keeping his daimyos (feudal lords) and their families close at hand. Samurai were elite warriors, highly skilled at sword-fighting, archery and horseback riding.

One of the most famous samurai stories is the 47 Ronin, also known as Chushingura in kabuki plays. In 1701, Lord Asano, daimyo of Ako, confronted Lord Kira in Edo Castle. Asano drew his sword, injuring Kira. As it was forbidden to use a sword inside the castle, Lord Asano was sentenced to death, and he committed seppuku (suicide). Asano's loyal retainers became ronin (samurai without a leader), but vowed to avenge Asano's death. Two years later, on December 14, 1702, they attacked Lord Kira in his mansion and cut off his head. The 47 ronin took Kira's head to the Sengakuji temple, where Lord Asano is buried. The following February, the ronin also committed seppuku and are buried together in the same temple.

These events took place in Edo (Tokyo), and kids can visit two key sites in the 47 ronin story - Sengakuji Temple and Lord Kira's residence where the attack took place. Also, check out samurai armor and swords in museums, visit Edo Castle donjon site, and the shogun mausoleum, in locations around the Tokyo.

Sengakuji Temple (2-11-1 Takanawa, Minato-ku) -
At the Sengakuji Temple are buried Lord Asano and his wife, along with the 47 ronin. Just before the temple area on the right, you'll see a bronze statue of Oishi Kuranosuke - leader of the raid. In his hand is a scroll with the list of the 47 ronin.
At the entrance, pick up the leaflet in English for the temple complex.
First stop, the museum (Ako Gishi Memorial Hall) on the left. In the museum are original samurai helmets, chin masks, chain armor, war drum, and portraits of individual ronin, plus two statues of Oishi and his teenage son Chikara, who participated in the attack. Ask to see videos in English , which are short but excellent dramatizations of the events in Edo Castle and attack on Lord Kira's mansion.
The museum admission also includes a separate building (on the second floor) for a spectacular display of 47 wooden statues of each ronin . The figures, about 3 - 4 feet high, carved and painted in vivid detail, each in a different pose, some seated, others holding weapons, from the youngest ronin (age 16) to the oldest (77 years old with white hair) - all have a look of fierce determination.
On the way to the graveyard, you'll pass by the well . When the retainers returned to the temple with Kira's head, they first washed it in this well, before placing it on Lord Asano's tomb.
Graves of Lord Asano and the 47 ronin - On right side are two tombs: the first one is Lord Asano's wife, the second one (closest to the stone wall above) is Lord Asano's.
Next, walk up the steps to see lines of stone markers for each ronin, incense burns in front of the graves. The single stone marker topped by a roof is Oishi's grave. When kids stand here at the Sengakuji, and smell the incense, it's 1703.
The Sengakuji is our favorite samurai locale to visit in Tokyo. To get there, take the Asakusa subway line, get off at the Sengakuji stop (exit 2), walk up the hill and you'll see the large wooden gate before the temple complex.
Site of Lord Kira's Residence (3-13-9 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku) - In the 1700's, Lord Kira's mansion was huge, it took up the whole block, but today kids can visit a corner of the original estate, in Ryogoku (east side of the Sumida River).
Step into the white-walled courtyard, with a shrine on the left to honor Kira's retainers who were killed in the attack. Paintings on the wall illustrate events of the raid. Best of all is a dramatic statue of Lord Kira , seated and wearing a black robe with red trim.
Kids can imagine a snowy December night, when the 47 ronin, disguised as officers of the fire brigade, attacked Lord Kira's fortified mansion from front and back, scaled the walls, fought his men with swords, and finally located Kira hiding in a secret courtyard. They killed Lord Kira, then walked to the Sengakuji temple, and placed Kira's head on Asano's tomb.
To get there, take the Oedo line, Ryogoku stop, and walk south to Keiyo-doro, go right a few blocks, and then south several blocks (it's necessary to map the address with a smartphone). Tip: Ryogoku is also the subway stop for the Tokyo-Edo Museum.
Edo-Tokyo Museum -
In the museum, check out the diorama/scale model of the Pine Corridor in Edo Castle where Lord Asano attacked Lord Kira. The open hallway is covered with large golden screens, decorated with pine trees.
In addition, there are excellent examples of samurai armor , chin masks, and swords, plus sets of samurai armor with crested helmet headdresses .
Honkan Japanese Art Museum (Tokyo National Art Museum) -
Several galleries are devoted to an excellent selection of samurai armor , swords, lacquered masks, helmets, and more. Armor includes shoulder guards, neck guards, iron breastplate and armored kilt, shin guards and knee protectors. Samurai wore two swords - a long curved sword (katana for fighting on horseback or tachi for fighting on foot) with a short sword - you'll see both, and the scabbards and sword hilts are works of art!
Edo Castle (Imperial Palace East Garden) - Today it's hard to get a sense of the size of Edo Castle, extending over a huge area, with an inner moat area (where the shogun lived) and outer moat area (where the daimyos and families lived in mansions). Where the outer moat ended is now the big street, Sotobori-dori, east of Tokyo Station. Part of the castle complex inside the inner moat is now the Imperial Palace East Garden.
Enter the East Garden through any of the gates - Ote-mon, Hirakawa-mon, or Kitahanebashi-mon. Make a beeline for the Tenshudai donjon , the remaining stone foundations of the main tower in the Honmaru. Go up the walkway, and at the top, imagine you're surrounded by a black tower, five stories high, the tallest castle keep in Japan, and a symbol of the shogun's power.
Statue of a samurai (Imperial Palace Outer Garden) - In the southeast corner of the garden is a dramatic bronze statue of the samurai Kusunoki Masashige on horseback. Kusunoki was a heroic 14th century samurai who obeyed the emperor's orders in battle, but lost his life.
This is a great spot for a picnic lunch , there are plenty of benches around the statue, and a snack bar where you can get cold drinks.
Mausoleum of the Shoguns (Zojo-ji Temple) - The Zojo-ji temple was established in 1598 as the family temple of the Tokugawas. It was originally a much bigger temple, and the shogun mausoleum occupied a larger area. Around to the right of the main temple hall, go up to the walled garden with gorgeous bronze gate, decorated with the Tokugawa family crest and two dragons on either side. Inside the wall are tombs of six of the shoguns, and their wives and children (entry inside is not permitted).
Japanese Sword Museum (4-25-10 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku) -
For the real sword enthusiast, the Japanese sword museum displays the incredible craftsmanship of samurai swords, signed by the sword maker. The museum is just one room, but it has ancient collection of sword blades dating back to the 13th century - long blades ( katanas and tachis ), short straight blades ( wakizakis and tanos ), plus sword decorations in the shape of lions and tigers, ornate hand guards, and beautifully decorated scabbards.
The museum is closed on Mondays, Hatsudai subway stop, New Keio subway line.
Shopping -
In Asakusa on the Nakamise shopping street, shops have numerous miniature samurai figures, reasonably priced. For top-of-the line samurai figures, pop in Yoshitoku Doll shop, where you'll see a different samurai (including one with a Darth Vader head), and exquisite miniature samurai helmets.