Renge-ji Temple

Renge-ji Temple

A temple on the Nakasendō road where 430 samurai killed themselves

place Area: Maibara access_time Published: 2021.01.20

Name in Japanese: 蓮華寺
Pronunciation: renge-ji

Renge-ji is a temple of the Pure Land Buddhist sect in Maibara. It stands next to the Nakasendō road in the staging post of Banba. It’s said to have been founded by Prince Shōtoku who lived nearly 1,400 years ago. Although the Nakasendō was only given that name in the Edo period, the road existed long before then and was well travelled. The strategic location of the temple is the reason why it became the scene of a mass suicide of some 430 samurai in the medieval period.

In the 1300s, Japan was ruled by the Emperor Go-Daigo in the capital Kyoto, although the real power lay with the Shogunate in Kamakura dominated by the Hōjō family. In 1332, Go-Daigo resolved to destroy the Hōjō and take real power, but his plans were discovered, and he was deposed and exiled. However, a year later he escaped exile and gathered forces which succeeded in overthrowing the Hōjō headquarters in Kyoto. Their disordered army beat a hasty retreat back towards Kamakura. With them went the emperor installed to replace Go-Daigo, and a number of retired emperors.

In June 1333, Hōjō Nakatoki and his subordinate Kasuya Muneaki were fleeing through Ōmi back to Kamakura. Hearing that they were coming, mountain brigands, robbers, and outlaws galloped from around Ōmi to intercept them, led by Emperor Go-Daigo’s son, the fifth prince Morinaga. A chronicle of the time, The Taiheiki, describes the denouement:

As Kasuya made to go through Banba pass, the thousands of the enemy waited eagerly with the road between them, their shields linked up in a continuous surface and their arrowheads in readiness.

Kasuya successfully drove the enemy back once by a bold charge, and after rendezvousing with Nakatoki, they waited for reinforcement by their ally Tokinobu. Tokinobu however had been waylaid and wouldn’t make it.

For a while, Nakatoki the governor of Echigo waited eagerly for Tokinobu’s coming. But when the time for waiting was past, and they were long in that place, he resolved firmly:
“Indeed, even Tokinobu has become an enemy. There is no place whereto we may retreat, no place whereto we may flee. I shall cut my belly as befits a man of honour”.

How valiant was his aspect! He stripped off his armour, laid bare his body to the waist, slashed his belly, and fell down dead.

Kasuya held back the tears dropping onto his armour-sleeve. Laying hold of the governor of Echigo’s dagger, which was driven into the hilt, he stabbed his own belly and fell on his face, embracing Nakatoki’s knees. And thereafter, four hundred and thirty-two men ripped open their bellies all at once. As the flowing of the Yellow River was the blood soaking their bodies. As meats in a slaughterhouse were the corpses filling the compound! The supreme highness fainted with terror and distress when beheld these dead men, and the former emperors did the same.

Laying hands on the supreme highness and the former emperors, the army of the fifth prince brought them to the Chōkō-ji Temple on that day.

Chōkō-ji Temple in Ōmihachiman gradually turned into a major castle. The site is worth a visit if you’re interested in history.

Today, Renge-ji stands right next to the highway that closely tracks the route of the old Nakasendō, although effective soundproofing ensures that the modern road doesn’t disturb the peace. Next to an imposing gateway is a little sign that says, “River of Blood”. The temple itself is typical of the medium-sized temples of Ōmi, but if you head up the slope to the left, you come to the graves of the ancient warriors, including Hōjō Nakatoki. Further up the hill are the graves of generations of head priests of the temple. These ancient graves, spanning hundreds of years of history, are nothing if not thought provoking.

If you venture around the right side of the main hall of the temple, you come to a huge cypress tree standing 30 m tall. A short way from the base, a huge branch itself the size of a tree erupts. This cypress is estimated to be 700 years old, so it started growing around the time that Emperor Go-Daigo launched his revolt.