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The Blood Stained Ceilings of Kyoto’s Temples

The Fushimi Castle in Kyoto was one of the last places of action during the “age of warring states”—a period in Japanese history, stretching from the mid-15th to the early 17th centuries, that was marked by near-constant military conflict. It ended when Tokugawa Ieyasu came into power and established the Tokugawa shogunate and unified all of Japan under a feudal system.

But before that could happen, he had to defeat the supporters of Toyotomi Hideyori, the five-year-old son and designated successor of the recently departed Toyotomi Hideyoshi. When Hideyoshi died in 1598, the five regents he had appointed to rule on behalf of his minor son began jockeying amongst themselves for power. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the most powerful of the five.

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History preserved in blood. 400-year old blood-stained footprints on the ceiling of Genko-An, Kyoto. Photo credit: Andrew Evans/Flickr

Ieyasu gained the loyalty of many daimyōs, or feudal lords, who didn’t like Hideyoshi, but Ishida Mitsunari, a powerful daimyō, opposed him. Mitsunari allied himself with the other regents and plans were made on all sides for war.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, meanwhile, had sieged Fushimi Castle from Toyotomi Hideyori, and placed it under the protection of Torii Mototada, a samurai and a trusted ally of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Shortly after the siege, Mitsunari organized an army of 40,000 and marched towards Kyoto in order to take the castle back. Mototada was forewarned of Mitsunari’s approaching army, but despite being badly outnumbered—2,000 men against 40,000—Mototada elected to stay and defend the castle.

For the next twelve days, Mototada’s garrison put up a gallant resistant to the attack, until a betrayal from within allowed Mitsunari’s men to breach the fortress. With fires raging everywhere, Mototada and his remaining three hundred and seventy warriors did what any respectable samurai facing defeat would have done—seppuku or ritualistic suicide. Taking their swords, the brave warriors cut open their bellies severing their insides, causing massive bleeding and instant death.

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Blood ceiling at Genko-An, Kyoto. Photo credit: michael hobby/Flickr

Although the siege of Fushimi Castle is considered a mere skirmish, Torii Mototada's actions had a great impact on the course of Japanese history. In the weeks that followed, Tokugawa Ieyasu raised an army of 90,000 and challenged Ishida Mitsunari's forces for a decisive battle at Sekigahara, which would mark the final victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu over all his rivals. With Mitsunari vanquished, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate. His family would rule Japan for the next 268 years.

In 1623, Ieyasu had the fire-damaged Fushimi Castle dismantled, and sections of the castle that had not been burned or destroyed were salvaged. Some of the salvaged materials happened to be the floor boards upon which Torii Mototada and his men committed suicide to avoid capture. Their bloods had soaked so deep into the wood that the boards were permanently stained.

In honor of their valiant sacrifice, these floor boards were incorporated, mainly as ceilings, into a number of castles and temples across Kyoto. They are known as chitenjo, or “blood ceilings”. The patterns on the darkened boards resemble little more than water stains, but on close examination, you can clearly see footprints and handprints.

For those interested in visiting, the temples where you can see blood ceilings are, Genkoan, Shodenji, Yogenin, and Myoshinji in central Kyoto, Hosenin in the Ohara area, Jinouji in Yawata, and Koshoji in Uji.

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Bloody hand prints at Shodenji Temple. Photo credit: JapanVisitor/Flickr

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Blood smears at Shoden-ji temple. Photo credit: taiken.co

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A replica of the Fushimi Castle built in 1964. Photo credit: Maechan0360/Wikimedia

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