Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Visit to Sendai's (Formerly) One-Eyed Dragon

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Last month, I made a journey that was either thirty or three hundred (plus) years overdue, depending on perspective.

My study of Japanese history focused on the four-hundred year period that encompasses the Muromachi (1338-1573), Azuchi-Momoyama (1573-1603), and Edo (1603-1868) periods. Those centuries were a time of great upheaval and change, in which the country was at war, at peace, and in-and-out of contact with the rest of the world (and the West in particular).

One of the greatest figures of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (Japan's late-medieval age) was Date Masamune, a daimyō (samurai warlord) who served under both Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Togugawa Ieyasu--and, in return for his service to the latter, was made the lord of a valuable northern domain called Sendai.

Under Masamune's leadership, Sendai transformed into an even more powerful city (today, it remains the capital of Miyagi Prefecture). He ruled the domain until his death in 1636, when he was buried at a mausoleum called Zuihoden--which also still exists, and is considered a national treasure. 

Regrettably, the original buildings at Zuihoden, including not only Date Masamune's mausoleum, but also those of his son and grandson, were destroyed in an air raid in 1945. Between 1974 and 1985, the three tombs were excavated, studied, and rebuilt using the original designs; today, the rebuilt tombs, which are nearly perfect copies of the originals, are open to the public--along with a museum that holds some of the grave goods excavated from the tombs during the post-war studies and repairs.

The approach to Zuihoden

The tombs stand on a site selected by Date Masamune, atop a hill called Kyogamine. The entire hill is still considered sacred to the Date clan.

The final approach
Enormous trees grow all around the site, which feels like an isolated wilderness even though it sits in the middle of a major modern city.

Zuihoden - Outer Gate

Date Masamune's mausoleum, called Zuihoden (from which the site as a whole also takes its name), was considered a Japanese national treasure even before its destruction in World War II. It is one of only a few examples of the elaborate Azuchi-Momoyama-style of mausoleum construction, which features elaborate, colorful carvings and gold metalwork. (Another famous example of this style is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, at Toshogu, in Nikko.) 

Back side of the entry gate

The outer gate leads to a set of fairly steep stone stairs, which lead up to the tomb itself.
Zuihoden: the tomb of Date Masamune (1567-1636)

During life, Date Masamune acquired the nickname "One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu" because of his fierceness and skill in the battle, and because he had only one eye. He lost the sight in the eye in childhood, due to smallpox; later, he either had it removed or pulled it out himself (depending which story you choose to believe) to prevent it being a liability to him on the battlefield.

The elaborate gates of Zuihoden

Date Masamune also was notable for his lack of hostility to Christians; he allowed Christian missionaries to preach within his borders, and even gave a number of them sanctuary after Tokugawa Ieyasu issued decrees expelling the missionaries from Japan. In fact, Masamune directly intervened to save at least one missionary from death, and even sent an emissary to the Pope in Rome (his reasons for which form part of the subject of my next novel--and the reason for my recent trip).

The tomb and the Junshi memorials

Date Masamune's remains were returned to the tomb after the excavation, and remain there to this day. The traditional pillar-style monuments on the right and left sides of the tomb memorialize the twenty samurai (15 samurai retainers and 5 subordinate warriors) who committed suicide after Masamune died, in order to follow their master into death and serve him in the afterlife. This was not something Masamune commanded, or expected, them to do; however, this form of suicide, known as junshi, was a long-standing tradition in Japan.

Junshi Memorials

The retainers are not buried at Zuihoden; their bodies were cremated and interred at their family graveyards. However, their names, and their sacrifice, are remembered at Zuihoden, and prayers are offered here on their behalf.

The (new) tomb of St. Mankai

To the left of Date Masamune's tomb, and just outside the inner gate, stands another stone memorial, which bears witness to a grave even older than Zuihoden.

In 1636, while preparing the site for construction after Date Masamune's death, workers discovered the grave of a mountain ascetic named Mankai. They instructed a memorial to the ascetic saint to the east of Zuihoden, where it remained until the air raid destroyed the entire site in 1945. During the reconstruction, local residents requested that the tomb of Mankai be rebuilt as well; now, it has a site of honor near the tomb of the great warlord, atop the hill.  

Sendai is off the beaten path for most tourists, and even as a historian, I've had so many important sites to see that this one somehow slipped through the cracks until now. That said, it's a beautiful site, and well worth the two and a half hour trip from Tokyo.

One last interesting point of note: although Date Masamune had only one functioning eye in life, he left strict orders (which everyone here follows, even now) that all portraits and statues of him created after his death must show him with two good eyes--because he believed that in the afterlife, that's how he would appear. 


  1. Oh Susan, you know how much I love the Japanese aesthetic, but Zuihoden is a complete knockout!! Perhaps, for me, the oldest examples are the most stunning. Thank you so much for these gorgeous photos, and this fascinating history.

  2. You should receive an award with all sorts of clusters from the Japan Tourist Bureau. What an extraordinary advocate you are for that magnificent land.