A Must for Anime Fans and History Buffs: Recommended Spots in Kyoto Related to the Shinsengumi
The Shinsengumi was a special guard force that played an active role in Japanese history around 150 years ago. Their remarkable way of life is profoundly popular and has been captured in many forms of media, such as anime, manga, novels, and much more. Here are some famous places in Kyoto that are associated with Shinsengumi.
What is the Shinsengumi?
In the 1860’s, Japan was going through turbulent times. Conflicts were beginning to escalate between the Tokugawa Shogunate, the feudal military government then in power, and the Shishi, imperial loyalist warriors who wanted to bring the shogunate government to an end. In this midst of suppression and assassinations, many heroes appeared and opened the path for a new era in Japan.
It was during this time of turmoil that, in 1863, the shogunate’s police force known as the Shinsengumi (New Selected Group) came to existence in Kyoto. This group, composed of brave men from many different social classes, took part in countless battles and achieved notoriety all over Japan. Their fierceness is said to have struck fear into the hearts of imperial loyalists of the time.
Nevertheless, their struggle was in vain. In 1867, the military government returned the power to the Imperial Court, in what is called the “Restoration of Imperial Rule,” and in the next year it suffered a major defeat to the new government forces. The Shinsengumi continued to fight for the shogunate after that, but lost several key figures successively until its eventual disbandment.
The Appeal Behind the Shinsengumi
One aspect that fascinates people about the Shinsegumi is their way of life. Even after being marginalized by the times they lived in and defamed as rebels, they didn’t stray away from bushido (the "way of the warrior") and chose to die for their convictions.
They represented what a samurai should be, and it’s no wonder why they still attract a lot of fans to this day. Another reason for the Shinsengumi’s popularity is the array of unique personalities of its members. You have, for example, the man everyone feared, known as “Demon Vice-Commander” Hijikata Toshizo (1835 – 1869); the genius Okita Soji (1844 – 1868) who eventually succumbed to sickness; Saito Hajime (1844 – 1915), said to be unbeatable with a sword; and the commander who lead them all, Kondo Isami (1834 – 1868). Stories about their unique personalities and strong bonds to one another continue to be loved by people of all generations.
Places Associated with the Shinsengumi in Kyoto
You can find many locations associated with the Shinsengumi in Kyoto, mainly in the Mibu area, where their first headquarters was situated. Here are some of the most famous ones!
Yagi Residence Mibu Tamuro-jo (Former Mibu Headquarters)- The Site Where the Shinsengumi was Founded
In 1863, the Roshigumi (Shinsengumi’s predecessors) came to Kyoto after receiving orders to guard the shogun. The residence of the Yagi Family served as one of their lodgings. After the mission was finished, Kondo, Hijikata, and 13 other members remained in Kyoto and started to take on new orders, such as maintaining public order. This is when the Shinsengumi was started. The Yagi Residence was then used as a headquarters until 1865.
Guided visits to the interior of the house are currently available in Japanese. You can really feel the history in this place, and some walls even show sword cuts from back then!
Tour cost: Adult 1,000 JPY (includes green tea and Japanese sweet), junior high and high school students 1,000 JPY (includes green tea and Japanese sweet) or 600 JPY (visit only)
Kyu Maekawa-tei (Former Maekawa Residence)
The Former Maekawa Residence is situated right beside the Yagi Residence, and it was also used as a headquarters for the Shinsengumi. For almost two years starting in 1863, Shinsegumi members spent their daily lives here. At the house, you can catch a glimpse into history in places such as the sliding shutters, where they left some graffiti. On a more serious note, some atrocious episodes also happened here. For example, Shinsegumi members captured one of the imperial loyalists and tortured him inside a warehouse on the property. This is what people say led to the Ikedaya Incident, which will be explained later. Nowadays, the building is closed to the public, however you can visit the entranceway on weekends and national holidays. There are also various Shinsengumi-related souvenirs for sale such as model swords.
Mibu-dera is a temple famous for its Sentai-butto (Stupa of the Thousand Buddhas), where 1,000 Buddha statues are embedded, and for its Mibu Kyogen, a kind of Buddhist pantomime. The temple is situated close to the Yagi Residence and was used as a training ground by the Shinsengumi. Some episodes recount of Okita playing with children in the temple precincts, and Kondo watching Mibu Kyogen here.
You can find a statue of Kondo Isami and the graves of many Shinsengumi members in the temple grounds. Every year, on July 16th, a memorial service is dedicated to them here. During this day volunteers hold swordsmanship performances and recitations of shigin, a form of traditional Japanese poetry.
Sumiya and Wachigaiya
A 6 minutes’ walking distance from JR Tambaguchi Station, you find a place where members of the Shinsengumi used to visit frequently: the old Shimabara geisha district*. Here you will find the building of the famous Sumiya, an example of ageya architecture, which is a kind of high-end large-scale banquet hall, which was in vogue at the time. This building actually held a banquet with 40 Shinsengumi members at one time. Presently, the building has been turned into an art gallery and offers visits to its inner chambers. In the vicinity, you will also find Wachigaiya, another important building that reminds of the days when the Shinsengumi was still active.
Entrance fee for Sumiya: General 1,000 JPY, junior high and high school students 800 JPY, elementary school students 500 JPY
* Hanamachi, in Japanese, or literally “flower town”, were areas filled with establishments where guests would eat and drink while being entertained with music and dance performed by geishas.
Former Site of Ikedaya Inn
In 1864, Shinsengumi attacked the imperial loyalists who were gathered at the Ikedaya Inn. Due to their enormous success in the attack, arresting more than 20 men, Shinsengumi became a name known to all. Supposedly, the loyalists were scheming to abduct the emperor, assassinate influential government members, and even engulf the city of Kyoto in flames. If it wasn’t for the Shinsengumi, maybe Kyoto as we know it today wouldn’t exist.
The site where Ikedaya Inn used to be is now an izakaya (Japanese style pub) called Hana-no Mai.
Nishi Hongwanji Temple
Official name: Ryukoku-zan Hongwanji
Hongwanji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one more place associated with the history of the Shinsengumi. By 1865, one year after the Ikedaya Incident, the Shinsengumi had become too big – more than 130 men strong – to remain at Mibu-dera Temple, so they moved their headquarters to Hongwanji. One of the buildings most used by the squad was the Taiko-ro (Draum Tower). Located at the northeastern corner of the precincts, it is said that the tower still holds sword cuts made by Shinsengumi members in its external walls. Another famous story is that of Shimada Kai, a member who survived the end of the Shinsengumi. At the end of his life he became a guard at the temple, and it is said that he would never miss a chance to chant a Buddhist prayer for his deceased comrades.
Nijo-jo Castle is another famous tourist location registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The castle was the shogun’s place of residence when he would come to Kyoto and, being a major facility for the shogunate, the Shinsengumi would visit its premises for security at times.
Nijo-jo Castle is also famous for being where the Restoration of Imperial Rule took place, in 1867. Later that same year, the Shinsengumi was attacked by enemies during its return from a war council at the castle. Luck was not on Kondo’s side and he was badly shot in his right shoulder, the heavy wound preventing him of using his sword properly from then on.
Entrance fee: General 600 JPY, junior high and high school students 350 JPY, elementary school students 200 JPY
Ninomaru-goten Palace entrance fee: 400 JPY (free for elementary, junior high and high school students)
Fudodo-mura Tamuro-jo Ato - Shinsengumi’s Fudodo Village Headquarters Former Site
The Shinsengumi moved to Fudodo Village Headquarters in 1867, and this became their last headquarters. The location is allegedly where the RIHGA Royal Hotel Kyoto now stands, to the west side of Kyoto Station. The headquarters occupied area of about 10,000 sq.m., and it was a fine building, with a front gate, observation tower, private rooms for the leaders, and much more. You might say it was a dream house which they deserved for all their hardships. However, their life at the new headquarters lasted less than half a year, and they would never return.
Ready to follow the steps of the Shinsengumi? Visit the places they have been and try to imagine how turbulent the times must have been back then!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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