Experience: Gishi Sai (Tokyo)

Over three centuries ago, a seminal event occurred in the corridors of Edo Castle. Young Lord Asano from Ako Province (in present day Hyogo Prefecture) drew his sword and attacked the shogun’s master of ceremonies, Lord Kira. Kira escaped essentially unharmed but Asano, having broken the code of never drawing a weapon in the shogun’s residence, was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide).

The Asano clan was officially disbanded, equivalent to being wiped from the map almost in those days. In 1703 however, two years after the incident took place, a group of 47 former retainers of the Asano clan attacked the mansion of Lord Kira, beheaded the master of ceremonies and then marched through the snowy streets from Ryogoku to Sengaku-ji (Sengaku Temple, near present-day Shinagawa) to lay the gruesome trophy at the grave of their former lord.

It’s an event that has been immortalized in story, song, kabuki play and even a Keanu Reeves film. (I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m none too hopeful for a faithful retelling.) And every year, in both Ako town and Tokyo, the event is reenacted with participants in period dress.

The  47 ronin reenactors
The 47 ronin reenactors

In Tokyo, the route is a bit hard to figure out as the procession doesn’t necessarily start in Ryogoku, where Lord Kira’s estate was located. There is a ceremony at Sengakuji at 11am and the parade usually passes by the temple of the Tokugawa shoguns, Zojo-ji (near the Tokyo Tower). Catch the event at either location and you’ll witness 47 men clad in feudal dress – on the parade route, they beat drums and even carry a tall pole with a bag attached to the top. Three guesses as to what (or who, I suppose) is in the bag …

I believe this man is playing "Oishi", the samurai who banded all of the ronin together. And yes, that is supposed to be a head in that bag.
I believe this man is playing “Oishi”, the samurai who banded all of the ronin together. And yes, that is supposed to be a head in that bag.

The act of vengeance and the subsequent court case and forced suicide of the participants was the “trial of the century” in 18th century Edo. Despite their tragic end, the 47 ronin were elevated to almost mythical status in the minds of Japanese commoners at the time and clearly, the fascination persists today. This is not a major festival on the cultural calendar but it’s pretty interesting to witness if you have the chance.

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