I should have perhaps saved this story for Halloween but here goes. Nestled among the tall business towers and government agencies in central Tokyo is a tiny little cemetery holding only one single grave: the tomb of the head of Taira no Masakado (903 A.D -940 A.D.), often regarded as the first samurai in Japan. In life, and as it would turn out – also in death, he was an exceedingly troublesome fellow. Not happy with being the mere subject of the Emperor in Kyoto, emperor Suzaku (朱雀天皇, 922 A.D. – 952 A.D.), he moved to eastern Japan (the modern Kanto region) and declared himself the New Emperor of Japan! Such insolence could not be tolerated and a bounty was placed on the head of the upstart samurai. Vengence came in the form of the young Taira no Sadamori, a distant clan relative of Masakado, whose father had been killed by Masakado in a battle five years earlier. Sadamori engaged with the rebel forces in modern Saitama Prefecture and managed to put an arrow in the face of Masakado, killing him instantly. Proof of the killing came in the form of the decapitated head of Maskado being put on public display in distant Kyoto. However, such powerful men as Masakado do not die easily, and the head, now furious over such an ignoble fate, flew into the skies of Kyoto and raced off to Kanto find its body. His body having long since been disposed off in fire, was nowhere to be found and the exhausted head, according to legend, fell to the earth and crashed on a small mound in the village of Shibasaki, what is today modern Chiyoda ward of central Tokyo. The local villagers cleaned the head up and buried it with full rituals and put a heavy tomb stone over it to prevent it from flying off again.
However, the local villagers complained of a ghost terrorizing them for centuries, and in 1307 a buddhist monk tried to appease the angry spirit with lavish buddhist ceremonies, which seems to have been somewhat successful. He even built a stupa on the tomb, with the finest stone from Chichibu near where Masakado fell in battle.
Almost a thousand years after Maskado was decapitated, the grave and the tombstone and the legend still going strong, Tokyo is rocked by a massive earthquake in 1923. The government who has long had its eyes on the tomb took the opportunity to remove the tombstone, level the tomb and fill in the little pond where the villagers had cleaned the head up all those years ago. This would soon prove to be a terrible idea. Between 1923 and 1926 The Ministry of Finance conducted archeological research in the spot and reportedly found a stone chamber belonging to the tomb. In 1926 they held a ceremony where the sprit of Masakado was symbolically transferred to the the grand Kanda Myojin near Akihabara.
Thinking all was good, the Minister of Finance, the newly appointed Hayami Seiji ordered the erection of a new office building on the spot, but within days he hospitalized by a strange illness and died after spending three months in hospital, only 57 years old. He would not be the first victim of the curse: within a couple of years fourteen other people, from office workers to provicinial officials would die in mysterious accidents. Although he did not die on his post, it is interesting to note that Hayami Seiji’s successor Takahashi Korekiyo was killed by assassins in a failed military coup a few years later. The many deaths led the Ministry of Finance to tear the building down and rebuild the tomb complete with hill and pond. They even tried to reverse the failed ceremony and apologized for having disturbed the spirit of Masakado.
This did not work out. In June 21st, 1940, the one thousand year anniversary of the death of Masakado, the building next to the tomb, the Ministry of Finance, was struck by lightning and half destroyed. The Ministry responded by holding a much larger ceremony and attempting to appease the spirit with a much larger and nicer tomb than it had had before. The accidents stopped, but in 1945 when the whole area was taken over by the US Military Head Quarters there was a decision to turn the tomb into a parking lot for the American forces. The work had hardly started when one of the bulldozers rolled over in a freak accident, killing its driver. Local officials asked the US Military to halt the construction project and they wisely agreed to restore the tomb.
Since then many people and corporations have attempted to buy the lot containing the tomb but as soon as negotiations would start bad things would occur to all the companies involved. Even the neighboring buildings bear the marks of the curse, as some buildings were designed so that the people working in them would spend as little time as possible looking down upon the tomb from above, not risking to anger the spirit. People working in other buildings nearby have reported that their desks are arranged so that no one will be turning their back on the tomb when sitting down to work, putting a cramp on the office layouts even to this day. There are even television celebrities who have suffered after behaving indecently near the grave.
Now this is the official version of events. The other side of the story, is that Masakado no Taira, far from being a mere rebel, was actually fighting for the well being of the people of Eastern Japan and that he felt the government in Kyoto did little to alleviate the plight of the poor people in Kanto who had suffered famine and crop failure due to flood and draughts several years in a row. As such, he is regarded by some as a true hero of the people, and the noblest and first of all true samurai. I am not sure which is correct, but the legend is fascinating!
I visited the tomb myself one cold winter day and asked the spirit to be kind to the people working in the area, as they surely had enough to worry about right now. As you can see from my photos of the neighboring buildings, it is massively developed area right in the heart of Tokyo. Now, you may wonder why all of a sudden this story is being retold, but you see, in 2020 someone has decided that Tokyo will host the Olympics and there are quite enough people willing to risk the wrath of Masakado no Tairo, and raze his tomb once again. Here’s hoping that they never even try!
The great Sanja Matsuri is not the only festival taking place in Tokyo during the third weekend in May, one that is often overlooked is the comparatively tiny Onoterusaki Shrine festival in nearby Iriya. It is heaps more kid friendly and the local streets are basically taken over by kids and families having a good time. With just a couple of Omikoshi and a single tiny dashi it is a hundred times smaller than the nearby giant festival of Sanja. I took these photos of the kids in the local Hayashi team as they performed for the festival goers and the omikoshi teams. Hayashi is the name of the traditional kind of music you see and hear at festivals, always with at least drums and flutes, but sometimes other instruments or dancers are added. The kids were as great as ever! They’ll be professional by the time they grow up!
More photos from the great Sanja Matsuri (festival) last Saturday! The weather was not perfect, especially in the morning with a big of light rain, which I guess kept a few people from the festival. It wasn’t very crowded at all! The crowd returned with a vengeance on the Sunday though, which was as crowded as ever! The main action at the festival takes place around the smaller Asakusa Shrine next to Sensoji temple during the Saturday. The Sunday is all about Sensoji itself though.
This year’s Sanja Matsuri, the festival of the three shrine, was as massive as usual. Saturday was slightly less crowded than usual but the slack was taken up on the Sunday which was even busier than usual. I took these snapshots of the festival in full swing. By the time I took these most omikoshi teams must have been up since dawn, but they still had a long way to go before nightfall! If you want to read more about Tokyo’s most famous festival, just click the tags at the bottom of the post! More photos to come!