Visiting Ako 1 – Setting of a samurai loyalty vendetta

Not so much these days, but in the past it was popular among Japanese people to watch “Chushingura,” Japanese classical loyalty-revenge drama on December every year.

People cry to watch an intense human drama and samurais sacrifice themselves for their master’s honor.

Recently I’m drawing a lot of paintings based on Japanese history and thought to pay a visit to Ako, the second setting of Chushingura, (the main setting is in Tokyo) and enjoy its beach and onsen as well.

What is Chushingura?

Chushingura is a fictional story based on an incident occurred about 300 years ago.

The incident started when Asano Naganori, lord of the provincial Ako domain attempted to kill another lord, Kira Yoshinaka in Edo(modern Tokyo) Castle. The government sentenced him to commit seppuku, took his lands and dismissed the samurai who had served him.

47 samurais who disapproved government’s decision lead by the head officer Ōishi Kuranosuke broke into Kira’s mansion in Edo, beheaded Kira and then were sentenced to commit seppuku.
Historical facts about why Asano attempted to kill Kira, and if 47 samurai was motivated from pure loyalty remains to be unclear.

Most of Chushingura stories illustrate Kira as a corrupted old man, Asano as a stubborn but clean man, and 47 samurais as tragic loyal heroes. There are also varieties of stories featuring 47 samurai’s descendants, story based not on 47 samurai’s perspectives but on Kira’s and so on, including the 2013 Hollywood film “47 Ronin,” starring Keanu Reeves.

Whatever the historical fact is, this story serves as an icon for Samurai Spirit to remind us there once a time when the sword, honor and philosophy mattered more than one’s life.

We watched Chûshingura (1958) and Saigo no Chûshingura (2010) on Amazon Prime Video for preparation before taking off to Ako.

Remains of Ako Castle

Ako Castle is a relatively new castle built in mid 16th century considering most of castles were built in 14th to 15th century. Although 16th century was a peaceful era, Asano Naganori’s grandfather, Asano Naganao ordered to built a practical combat-ready castle asking famous military scholar, Soko YAMAGA’s advice.

It might appear to be monotonous lacking the central tower and many buildings but having only flat grounds, gates and stone walls.

15 minutes walk south from JR Banshū-Akō Station, leads to Sumi yagura (corner watching tower) of San-no-Maru, the outermost region of the castle.

These walls were reconstructed in 1955, so they look new.

Otemon, the main gate of San-no-Maru.
Every December 14, Ako Gishi-sai Festival is held with a parade starting on this bridge in Ako and with a parade in Sengakuji temple in Tokyo.

Through the Kouraimon (Korean roofed) gate, follow the paths bend to the right or left called Masugata Koguchi(entrance) designed to prevent an enemy from easily proceeding straight.

After the path, there is a house once belonged to the chief officer Oishi Kuranosuke.

Story says that a messenger arrived in a rush from Tokyo in 4 days, took a sip of water from “Ikitsugi-Ido” well, and knock on this door to report the lord’s death.

After couple of minutes walk, I came across the Nino-Maru and the gate to the Honmaru ward.

This pass is also designed as Masugata Koguchi.

Honmaru ward was the most protected part of the castle, and was used as the residence, although there remains no buildings now.

This is where usually a central tower is found, but it is said that no tower was built due to the financial reason.

A view from the Tenshu base.

Some says Asano Naganao was a wise ruler who started Ako salt brand and maintained water facilities. Some says otherwise.
He learned military spirit, built this huge war-ready castle in a peaceful time and imposed high tax on farmers.

I’m just guessing here, but he and his descendants seem to have high sense of samurai honor and at the same time, were a bit awkward and obsolete.

I guess that’s one of the reason why people missed and were fond of the story when Bushi-do, or Samurai spirits became the thing of the past.

Ako Oishi Shrine who answers prayers for their success

Next to the Ako castle, is the Ako Oishi Shrine honoring Oishi Kuranosuke and other samurais.

Local people started a small shrine in Oishi’s house and rebuilt this shrine after government’s approval in 1910.

The statue of Oishi Kuranosuke with his Yamaga style jin-daiko (a battle drum). He beat this drum upon break in to notify “this is a war, not an assassination”.

It says 315 year memorial festival will be held on this December 14th.

The prayers are said to be rewarded with their dreams come true, because the 47 samurais, now gods succeeded in avenging.

I prayed for the success for my solo exhibition that I’m wishing to do in New York.

This building displays 47 samurai’s belongings like swords, battlefield baton, and cloths.

Ako City Museum of History

Ako City Museum of Historydisplays how Ako salt was made in old times, and many other historical objects.

Enjoying Ako Oysters at Kamashima restaurant

There are many stores lined on the main street called “Oshiro Dori,” or castle road leading straight from Ako castle to JR Ako station.

We tried a small Japanese style restaurant calledKamashima which serves mainly oysters. Although it was a weekday, the store was full and couple of people were waiting outside.
“Chushingura Gozen,” the most popular dish has grilled, fried, raw and on rice, all kinds of oysters.
But I chose fried oyster lunch thinking it might be too much.

I liked it a lot, oysters on my plate seemed big and very fresh, but my wife didn’t like it.
I don’t have a good taste in food so I leave it to you to judge.

Continues to Visiting Ako 2 – Cape and Onsen