Field Report: Akō Castle, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan (20 November 2016)

I’m not an admirer of the Forty-seven Rōnin. I’ve done a fair bit of research on this famous 18th-century tale of revenge, and my position as it currently stands is 1) the deed itself was not as honourable as we’re told, and 2) their target was not as guilty as he’s been made out to be. That said, as a Japanese castle enthusiast, I couldn’t very well pass up the chance to visit the ruins of the magnificent fortress that these men – and their ill-fated master – once called home.

The morning began with Mass at a Catholic church in Okayama, followed by an easy train hop to the city of Akō in neighbouring Hyōgo Prefecture. If you’ve got a Japan Rail Pass (or don’t mind the cost), the fastest journey calls for a 15-16 minute shinkansen ride to Aioi Station, then a transfer to a local or rapid San’yō Line service that will stop at Banshū-Akō Station 11 minutes later. All told, the trip will take about 45 minutes – including transfer/waiting time at Aioi – and cost JPY 3,570. It’s also possible to take an Akō Line service straight to Banshū-Akō from Okayama (just JPY 970 and no transfers), though in this case travel time balloons to over an hour.

Akō Domain was initially awarded in 1615 to the Ikeda family. A mere two generations – and thirty years – later, out they went and in came Asano Naganao, a tozama daimyō fresh from a 13-year reign as lord of faraway Kasama Domain north of Edo. (Yes, not exactly a local chap.) Having taken possession of his new lands, Asano supervised the creation of detailed plans for a new castle, which were approved by the central government in 1648.

Construction began soon after on Akō Castle (赤穂城, Akō-jō), and would continue for the next thirteen years. The end result was a remarkably modern piece of defensive engineering, different from many other Japanese castles of that era in its judicious employment of angled walls and projecting fortifications. This, of course, wasn’t merely a matter of form triumphing over substance: the ragged layout gives defenders greater control over the surrounding terrain by increasing the available firing positions and reducing blind spots. One might gain some sense of this effect by viewing the castle from the air.

Unfortunately there isn’t enough room in such a tiny map window to show the entire compound without sacrificing too much detail, so I’ve focused the view on the innermost Honmaru enclosure and a small section of the Ninomaru beyond it. Go ahead and drag that map around, following the walls as they snake across the landscape, all the better to appreciate the many kinks and twists in the design.

For three generations, the Asano clan held sway over the castle and its surrounding domain, which had a rather substantial rated income of 53,000 koku (50,000 during the reign of the second lord). Everything changed when the third Asano lord ascended to the domain headship. It would take far too long to describe the circumstances in any amount of detail, but suffice it to say that his name was Naganori … and some of his retainers would go down in history as the Forty-seven Rōnin.

As many of us already know, the Asano were stripped of their holdings due to this affair, and the domain would be held far longer by the Mōri family (one of their successor clans) than they ever did. Nevertheless, Akō Castle is perhaps more closely associated with the Asano – at least in the popular imagination – than with any of the other families who ruled from within its walls. But perhaps more than the Asano themselves, the castle’s fame would be inextricably, irretrievably tied to the men whose act of revenge has become one of the most beloved (and controversial) tales ever told in Japanese folk history.

Case in point: the statue in front of Banshū-Akō Station, which was the first major landmark I spotted after I arrived in the city.

I can’t be bothered to write a long-winded biography of this chap, or of any of his comrades-in-arms … so I won’t. On the other hand, I’m a little hesitant to throw in the usual Wikipedia link, because the entries there are based upon a highly fictionalised account that appears to distort the historical record in quite a big way. I’ve already expressed my reservations in a previous blog entry describing my visit to the graves of the Forty-seven Rōnin at Sengaku-ji in Tōkyō, so I invite you to scroll through that post as I’ve included a small selection of references for anyone seeking to piece together a fairer assessment of the famous vendetta.

All right, tirade over. (I do apologise, but I’m really quite sick of the whole hero-worship cult that’s grown up around the Forty-seven Rōnin, given that the historical record paints a rather more nuanced picture.) Arguments over accuracy and whatnot are best saved for a different time and place, so let’s lace those walking shoes up and get back to our sightseeing.

The castle is a fairly easy walk from Banshū-Akō Station – say, 15 minutes or thereabouts depending on one’s preferred pace (and preferred frequency of shopping or snack stops on the main road). Having run that gauntlet, the first major feature one will encounter is a small section of water-filled moat, on the other side of which stands the Ōtesumiyagura watchtower.

Now then, across the moat and through the remains of the Ōtemon (the castle’s front gate)…

…and a long but quite pleasant stroll in the open, mostly unbuilt expanse of the former Sannomaru enclosure. Here once stood some of the mansions belonging to the castle lord’s highest-ranked retainers, of which very few remnants can now be seen. There’s this small section of a nagaya (a row-house), for example…

…and just across the street from it, a rather large and imposing gatehouse. We’ll have more to say about this later.

For the moment, onwards and deeper into Akō Castle. As I approached the Ninomaru enceinte, I spotted the base of one of the watchtowers that overlooked this section of the compound.

Rather nice view, this. Peaceful, seemingly untrammelled nature in the foreground (thoroughly trammeled by lawn mowers of course but let’s let that slide); Edo-period fortifications rising in the middle; a soaring expression of modern industry in the background.

Further on, I paused to admire the cutaway profile of a partially reconstructed wall that connects to the Ninomaru’s main gate. (Or once did anyway, since the gate is long gone.) The rebuilding effort is still very much a work in progress, so whilst the wall remains unfinished, it’s possible to see the layers of earth, packed stones, and carefully fitted blocks that make up your classic ishigaki.

Just a few metres beyond that, I encountered a beautiful tile-roofed gate set into a white plastered wall.

The local authorities have a long-term plan to reconstruct Akō Castle’s splendid Ninomaru garden within that enclosure. At the moment, it’s only a partially-realised dream, but the images on a nearby sign board offered a sneak preview at the (hoped-for) results of this grand project.

A few moments later, I crossed the castle’s last moat…

…and entered the Honmaru – the innermost enclosure – by way of a formidable double gate, built to the familiar masugata form. It’s a common feature of Japanese castles (which you’ll have noticed from my previous posts on the subject), where a smaller outer gate…

…opens onto a small enclosure overlooked by a massive inner gatehouse and surrounded by walls topped with archers’ platforms.

All this, and the series of nested walls and moats radiating outwards from here, was designed to protect the goten: the sprawling palace of the castle lord. Nearly every trace of this lavish residence was destroyed long ago. However, knowledge gleaned from excavation work and surviving records have permitted the reconstruction of a raised platform that reproduces the palace’s exact footprint.

Interestingly, the outline is detailed enough to leave gaps where central open-air courtyards and decorative elements (like stone arrangements) once existed. The excavated remains of these ornamental features have been incorporated into the layout.

I do hope that the entire palace will be completely rebuilt one day. It’ll be a monumental – and ruinously expensive – undertaking, but certainly not impossible. After all, the restored palaces of other castles like Nagoya and Kumamoto prove that such a feat isn’t beyond realisation.

But for the moment, I’m quite pleased with the effort that’s been put into restoring the palace’s beautiful backyard garden, centred on a stone-lined pond.

The palace and its garden stood in the shadow of this mighty stone platform, which was built to serve as the base for Akō Castle’s tenshu (main tower).

Even if a complete rebuilding of the palace were attempted, this soaring foundation must remain empty – that is, if those involved are keen on maintaining historical accuracy. The tenshu of many other castles were demolished or otherwise destroyed after the end of the Edo Period, but such wasn’t the case with Akō … because it never had one to begin with. A tenshu was included in the original plans, but the Tokugawa government in distant Edo (which had the final say over the details of all castle-building projects across Japan) withheld approval for its construction, so the effort didn’t progress beyond assembling the base.

The castle had much else to offer, but I was running short of time and reluctantly began my long march back to the main gate. Needless to say, I plan to return one day and explore those other sections that I wasn’t able to see on this visit.

I did have one last stop to make before I left Akō Castle completely. You might remember this large gate we saw earlier in the Sannomaru enclosure, just inside the outer moat.

This grand portal was once part of a mansion that belonged to Ōishi Kuranosuke, chief retainer of the Lord of Akō Domain and, later, the leader of the Forty-seven Rōnin. Although the warrior band’s act of revenge would eventually be regarded as an honourable deed – at least in the popular imagination – it was, strictly speaking, a crime carried out in defiance of shōgunal laws governing acts of vengeance. Hence, the rōnin’s spirits could not be apotheosised in any official way. However, there was no way to stop unofficial worship of the forty-seven men (and of their leader in particular), some of which may well have taken place in Akō on or near the place where Ōishi’s residence once stood. After the decline and fall of the Tokugawa government in the mid-19th century, popular opinion on this matter was transformed into state policy, and the Ōishi Shrine (大石神社, Ōishi-jinja) was inaugurated in 1912 within the grounds that the famous warrior once called his home.

There are two exhibition halls on the site honouring the rōnin and their controversial deed (I would say “crime” but that’ll probably draw catcalls and criticism from the mob so I won’t, except I’ve just done so, haha…) but the feature I found most interesting is that gatehouse we’d seen earlier from the outside. Having entered the shrine, we can now see it from within: the barred gate itself, of course, along with the rooms on either side of it.

Inside one of the rooms, there’s a recreation of the fateful scene in 1701 when two of Asano’s retainers – having done the normally two-week journey from distant Edo in less than five days – delivered the disastrous news of their master’s fate to Ōishi at his house.

On my way back to the station, I encountered a tangible relic of that long, hard journey to bear the ill tidings of Asano’s crime and punishment back to his home territory. Worn out from their haste, the two clan retainers who had just arrived from Edo paused at this very well for a drink before proceeding to Akō Castle.

My rather sceptical views regarding the Forty-seven Rōnin and their famous revenge notwithstanding, as a history and castle enthusiast I was very impressed indeed with all that I’d seen today. I hope to return in the not-too-distant future for a closer look…

…but in the meantime, another castle and its garden was waiting for me.

More on that in another post. Cheerio.

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One response to “Field Report: Akō Castle, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan (20 November 2016)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Uwajima Castle, Ehime Prefecture, Japan (22 November 2016) | Within striking distance·

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