It was easier than expected to get from Osaka to Kyoto. Two effortless transfers and 45 minutes later, I returned to Kyoto, having last visited 6 years ago.
This time I came with a specific agenda: to follow the footsteps of 新選組 (Shinsengumi). With what little is left of them, it was mostly chasing shadows.
No one cared about preserving their brief existence in Kyoto after the turmoil of the Meiji revolution (明治維新). As they were guards to the collpased Shogun regime, they were considered traitors, merciless killers, and an unwanted reminder of the past. It took another four decades for historians to shed positive light on them. First came 子母澤寛's 新選組始末記, then there was 司馬遼太郎's 『新選組血風録』 and 『燃えよ剣』 which were adopted into TV dramas and movies. Then all of the sudden, the members of Shinsengumi were given heroic colors: 土方歳三 (Hijikata Toshizou), the last embodiment of the samurai spirit who ruled Shinsengumi with an iron fist and was nicknamed 鬼の副長 (Demon Vice-Commander); 沖田総司 (Okita Souji), the genius swordsman whose life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis; 藤堂平助 (Todou Hesuke), the young fearless captain of the 8th unit who later was killed by his own old companions from Shinsengumi in the famous 油小路事件 (Aburakoji affair).
In more recent years, anime/manga/games have only made the characters even more popular, if not a little further away from historical facts. I won't deny that I started with manga/games and only then was I interested in reading the novels.
The history of Shinsengumi begins in 壬生 (Mibu), in the outskirts of Kyoto, exactly 150 years ago (1863).
It was at this place that the first 13 members of Shinsengumi were gathered. At that time, they were given the name 壬生浪士組 (Mibu Roshigumi).
They lived in the house of a Mibu low-level samurai named 八木 (Yagi). The famous incident that happened here was the assassination of their own commander, 芹沢鴨 (Serizawa Kamo), who was behaving out of control and at odds with the real leader 近藤勇 (Kondo Isami).
Sitting in the same room where the events took place, we listened to how Serizawa got madly drunk one night and fell asleep in the room with his mistress. Later in the night, several Shinsengumi members, including Hijikata, Harada, and Okita, charged in to kill him. Serizawa managed to wake up in time and fly to the adjacent room, but he was still eventually killed. Marks of sword fight, possibly from that evening, were carved into the ceiling wooden beams.
With Serizawa dead, Kondo assumes leadership at Shinsengumi unopposed.
為了軟化氣氛，阿伯轉移話題，跟我們說了個豆知識：當時的日本人比現在矮許多。土方及沖田大概只有 160 cm，而向來被描寫成小小可愛的藤堂只有 152。芹沢則很高，有 188 cm，同樣的，原田據說也有 180。阿伯真是會破壞少女的綺麗懷想！（沖田在司馬僚太郎筆下可是純情美男子的）
To lighten up the gory tale, the guide proceeded to tell us: people back then were much shorter, Hijikata and Okita were believed to be only 160 cm (5"3') tall, and Todou was only 152 cm (4"12'; well he's always been protrayed as little and cute anyway). Serizawa stood at a towering 188 cm (6"2') and Harada was reportedly 5"11'. Thanks for ruining the ladies' fantasies, ojisan! =_=
The current day Yagi family runs a pastry shop, so I was happy to find that my ticket included a free bowl of cold matcha and red bean mochi.
Only minutes away from the Yagi house is 壬生寺 (Mibu temple). This place was used by Shinsengumi for military drilling.
It was here that Okita Souji was known to play with the local children and members of Shinsengumi enjoyed the famous Mibu Kyougen (壬生狂言).
After the famous Ikeda incident (池田屋事件) and Hamaguri Rebellion (禁門の変), Shinsengumi finds itself overflowing with members eager to join --- not only were they now famous (and notorious), the captains and high-ranking officers were becoming millionaires from all the reward money received from the Shogun.
And so I follow Shinsengumi to their last traceable habitation in Kyoto: 西本願寺 (Nishihonganji).
The temple is huge. Greater than most temples in Kyoto, it was certainly why Shinsengumi wanted to move here. Not only were they closer to their precinct, they also were eliminating threat from Choshu ronin who had been hiding out in Nishihonganji, likely with assistance from the monks.
I wonder what it must have felt like to live here...
Nothing remains of Shinsengumi here. The taiko tower (太鼓楼) that they once lived in is now just a warehouse.
With this, I end my Shisengumi pilgrimage for the day. The remaining related sites are merely stone monuments, with the exception of....
池田屋 (Ikeda ya)!
Yes, Ikedaya of the Ikedaya Incident fame. Not only is the site is alive and well, it is now an Izakaya! And that means...
Lunch!!! At the one place Shinsengumi made their fame by storming in with 30-40 men and killed/arrested important leaders/members of the conspiring Choshu and Satsuma activists. It was said that Shinsengumi alone with this feat "delayed the westernization of Japan by a year".
So how was actual lunch? Hmm, not bad. Your standard Izakaya food. We had sashimi, nigiri, agedashi tofu, sirloin steak...all pretty normal stuff. But I'm quite happy to have had the chance to dine here.
After Ikedaya, we walked on 四条通り (Shijodori) towards 八坂神社 (Yasaka Jinja).
Oh yeah, the entire month of July is the 祇園祭り (Goin Festival)!! AN ENTIRE MONTH of festival. This is just crazy stuff only Kyoto can pull off.
Needless to say, the shrine was packed with people. There was a huge line to the altar:
What I did not know until I got there was that Yasaka Shrine is connected to 円山公園 (Maruyama park) and 知恩院 (Chion in). Maruyama park is supposedly the it place to go for cherry blossoms in the spring. For now, everything is lush green.
A visit to Chion Temple next door was somewhat uneventful, as it is going through major reconstruction.
I did, however, learn the interesting trivia that the wooden floors of Chion Temple were made in such a way that it "squeaks like a nightengale" when stepped upon. Supposedly, this was to ward off intruders.
We took a brief break outside Yasaka Shrine by going into a traditional Japanese sweets shop for some hardcore Kyoto delicacy!
I usually don't like to wait in line. This time however, I was content to wait 30 min to get this:
It was....the real thing. Everything. The texture of the rice balls, the exotic blend of summer mandarin's bitter sweetness with sweet matcha/brown sugar jelly....it was everything I had hoped for in a Gion dessert.
The streets were progressively getting packed by the time we came out. They were blocking the streets to turn part of Shijodori into a pedestrian-only zone.
Bright laterns begin to light up on lavishly decorated yamabokos (山鉾).
Once again, this is a time to do people watching.
We left just before the crowd got too insane and just as we left the pedestrian area, it began to rain.
Hmm, I hope it did not ruin the festival for the rest of the evening! I would not know, since I immediately hopped on a metro back to Osaka. I am content to leave Kyoto for now, but I know I will want to come back again.