Field Report: Sendai (15 April 2013) – Part 2/3

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Where Diego finds life in a cemetery, sees bright colours on a mausoleum, and is rendered speechless by a cow’s tongue.

Second part of three.

After a smooth and comfortable ride, the train stopped briefly at Sendai Station before zooming off on its merry way towards Aomori. The building itself was rather old and unremarkable, but I did like the large banners emblazoned with the image of the adorable city mascot, Musubi-maru: an onigiri-headed, er, thing, all kitted out in samurai armour complete with Date Masamune‘s trademark crescent-moon helmet.

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The elevated walkways just outside the station offered nice views of the surrounding downtown area.

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At the bus terminal, I bought a day pass for the Loople Sendai tourist bus, which provides a convenient way for visitors to reach many of the city’s prime attractions. As a nice added touch – and making them easy to distinguish from the regular city buses – the Loople Sendai vehicles have been set up to look like old-fashioned trams.

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My first item on today’s itinerary is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. After getting off at the bus stop, I set off on an uphill walk along a road shaded by a towering forest.

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Partway up the hill, a few steps leading off from the left-hand side of the road brought me into a cemetery. Much to my surprise, amongst the funerary monuments were several sakura trees crowned with magnificent sprays of pink blossoms. So impressive was the unexpected sight that another tourist standing nearby looked at me and delightedly exclaimed “Mankai!” (Full bloom!).

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From the cemetery, I retraced my route back to the main access road and resumed the upward trek, eventually meeting a long flight of stone-flagged steps leading up to the summit of Kyōgamine hill.

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After reaching the top of the stairs, a stone purification trough serves as a reminder that visitors are entering hallowed ground.

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Kyōgamine hill is the site of a family cemetery – but not just any cemetery and not just of any family. Here lie the mortal remains of several generations of the Date clan, which ruled the Sendai Domain from this very city for nearly three centuries. The first of them to reign over this region, and indeed the first to be buried on this hill, almost needs no introduction: Date Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon, ally of Tokugawa Ieyasu and one of the most powerful warlords in early Edo-period Japan.

After Masamune’s death in 1636, a grand mausoleum befitting the warlord’s rank and prestige was built to house his tomb. Known as Zuihōden, the mausoleum – and the person buried within – so dominates the Kyōgamine cemetery that the entire complex (including the tombs of his descendants) is often referred to by that name alone. Although destroyed by fire (along with the nearby mausoleums of Masamune’s descendants) towards the end of the Second World War, Zuihōden was reconstructed in 1979 and continues to impress visitors today with a stunning reflection of the wealth and power of Sendai’s most famous citizen.

The first I saw of the mausoleum was its splendid front portal, the so-called “Nirvana Gate”.

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The next gateway, the “Front Shrine”, stands at the top of a flight of steps leading up from the Nirvana Gate.

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And just beyond the Front Shrine, we see the splendid Zuihōden itself: a stunning vision of gilded ornaments and richly coloured reliefs set against an austere background of dark painted wood. The riotous, incredibly elaborate Momoyama-style artistry on display here isn’t what I’d normally associate with Japan, though I’ve seen similar examples at other places (like Tokugawa Ieyasu’s famous shrine-tomb of Tōshō-gū). Interestingly, this strikes me as reminiscent of the brightly painted Korean royal palaces that I’d seen on a trip to Seoul a few months earlier.

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Note the ornate crest of the Date clan – two sparrows surrounded by a wreath of bamboo – set upon the doors.

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Off to one side, looking somewhat out of place with its comparatively simple architecture, stands a small museum.

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When detailed surveys were carried out on the site of the destroyed mausoleums prior to their reconstruction, archaeologists excavated the burial chambers of Masamune and his descendants. The museum showcases some of the items they found within the graves, including a veritable treasure trove of artefacts and – perhaps a little disturbing for some – small specimens of the physical remains of the Sendai lords themselves. (Other artefacts from the Date tombs are on display at the Sendai City Museum, which I wasn’t able to visit as it’s closed on Mondays.)

A short stroll from the Zuihōden mausoleum brought me to another gateway, this one marking the entrance to the tomb complex where Date Masamune’s successors and other descendants are buried.

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The first mausoleum visible through the gate, Kansenden, was built for Masamune’s son Tadamune.

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To the left of the Kansenden is the Zennōden, which marks the burial place of Masamune’s grandson Tsunamune.

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Only the first three Daimyō of Sendai were honoured with such grand mausoleums. The ninth and eleventh daimyō (as well as the latter’s wife) are entombed under far simpler funerary monuments in the Myōnkai-byō, located just to the right of the Kansenden.

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With that, I bade farewell to the Date family and began the long descent back to the Loople bus stop.

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Not far from where the stairs ended, I caught sight of an old temple gateway with a nice gardened courtyard within.

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In my next post, we’ll pay a visit to the site of Date Masamune’s castle and sample a local delicacy.

2 responses to “Field Report: Sendai (15 April 2013) – Part 2/3

  1. Zuihoden looks beautiful! We’ll definitely be going there and to the castle ruins. When I was young I saw NHK’s drama of Masamune’s life so I am a bit of a fan. Thanks for posting what the loople bus looks like, now I’ll be sure not to get on the wrong bus!

  2. Pingback: Field Report: Sendai (15 April 2013) – Part 1/3 | Within striking distance·

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