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The Duel Between Sasaki Kojirō and Miyamoto Musashi

  • Posted by:
  • January 26, 2015

Sasaki Kojirō (佐々木 小次郎, 1585–1612), of Fukui Prefecture, Japan, was also known as Ganryū, orLarge Rock style. Kojirō was a master swordsman during the Sengoku and early Edo periods. He studied  Chujō-ryū (old style martial arts founded in the 14th century by Chujō Nagahide) sword fighting from either sword masters Kanemaki Jisai or Toda Seigen.  Kojirō later went on his own and founded the Japanese traditional school for swordsmanship, Ganryū, the name he is also known for. He is also known for his skills in wielding the nodachi (a long traditional Japanese sword) known as the Drying Pole and the Tsubame Gaeshi technique (Turning Swallow Cut) believed to mimic the motion of a swallow’s tail during flight.

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Sculpure of the duel. | Roger Ferland

256px-Musashi_ts_picMiyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, 1584–1645) is also known by his other names, Shinmen Takezō or Miyamoto Bennosuke, or his Buddhist name Niten Dōraku. He was an expert swordsman and rōnin who is known for his many duels even when he was very young. Miyamoto Musashi was the author of The Book of Five Rings, about tactics, strategy, and swordfighting philosophies that are still used today. He also founded the  Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū or Niten-ryū style popular for its two-sword techniques.

Miyamoto Musashi illustration.

Sasaki Kojirō  and Miyamoto Musashi were involved in one of Japan’s historic duels in 1612. The two swordsmen were bitter rivals at the time. There are several accounts on the story that led to the actual duel; the one considered the most accurate goes like this.

Sasaki_kojiroMiyamoto Musashi, wishing to put an end to the notion of who is really the best swordsman, requested Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki (a respected samurai), through his trusted vassal Nagaoka Sado Okinaga, to arrange a duel between the two swordsmen. The duel took place on 13th April 1612, in the remote island of Ganryujima of Funashima, off the coast of the Bizen Province. As part of a strategy to throw off Kojirō ‘s inner state of being, Musashi arrived three hours late. When he finally arrived, the officials of the duel as well as Sasaki Kojiro were extremely irritated; Kojiro was full of rage. On drawing his katana, he threw his scabbard aside, prompting Musashi to further enrage him by commenting, “If you have no more use for your sheath, you are already dead.”

Sasaki Kojirō illustration.

The duel began with both men on guard as a show of respect for the other’s skill with their own style and technique. In the end, though, there could be only one winner. Musashi had provoked Kojirō to make the first attack. Miyamoto quickly countered and succeeded in breaking Kojirō’s left ribs and puncturing his lungs, eventually killing him. Because of this event, Musashi attained spiritual awakening and renounced ever doing lethal duels in the future.

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Kanda Shrine’s Colorful History

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  • January 22, 2015

Kanda Shrine kanda1(神田明神 ) is conveniently located in Japan’s capital, Tokyo.  The shrine was initially built in 730 CE during the Tenpyō Era, in the fishing village of Shibasaki close to the modern Ōtemachi district. When Edo Castle needed expansion in 1603, Kanda Shrine was moved to the former Kanda ward, then again in 1616 to its present site on a small hill near Akihabara. The shrine’s origins can be traced back about 1,270 years, but it has been rebuilt and restored several times including after the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. In 1934, the shrine was rebuilt with concrete, which enabled it to withstand the bombs of World War II. During the Edo period, Kanda Shrine was an important place for many members of the warrior class and local citizens of Japan. Even shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu paid his respects to the gods at Kanda Shrine. Restoration continues today to preserve its long history.

Kanda Shrine gate.

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Historical structure

The grand main gate of Kanda Shrine is a two-story structure named Zuishin-mon that marks the entrance into the historical shrine. It was reconstructed in 1995 using cypress wood and has an irimoya styled roof (Eastern Asian architectural style, where a hip roof  slopes down on all four sides and integrates a gable on two opposing sides) and is painted vermilion with gold and lacquered interiors.

Taira no Masakado print.

Kanda’s thhree main kami

Ebisu – the god of fishermen, workingmen, and luck, and the guardian of the health of small children. He is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune and the only one to originate purely from Japan without any Chinese or Hindu influence.

Taira no MasakadoDaikokuten – a Heian Period samurai who led one of the biggest rebel forces against the government of Kyoto. He is considered a hero and even a demigod to the locals who are reminded of his bravery against the Japanese central government as well his need to appease his malevolent spirit.

Daikokuten – the god of wealth, commerce, and trade. He is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. His name is equivalent to Mahākāla, the Buddhist name for Shiva.

Kanda matsuri is one of the three main Shinto festivals celebrated in Tokyo. It’s an old tradition started in 1600 by Tokugawa Ieyasu after the victory of the battle of Sekigahara. It is held in honor of the enshrined kami, and celebrated mid-May each year.

Daikokuten illustration.

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Nihon Ōdai Ichiran: A Chronicle of Japanese Rule

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  • January 19, 2015

During the Sakoku years of Japan, the country was deeply isolated from the rest of the world except for a few foreigners, mostly  Koreans and Chinese. The only Western trade with Japan was from the Dutch East India Company. Japan’s self-imposed isolation made their wares much coveted by foreigners.

Isaac Titsingh  (1745–1812) was a Dutch merchant-trader, surgeon, scholar, and ambassador. He was a senior official of the Dutch East India Company with a long career in East Asia. Titsingh represented the European trading company exclusively as an official contact in Tokugawa, Japan. He had the opportunity to travel to Edo and meet with high ranking bakufu officials. When he returned to Europe in 1797, Titsingh brought the very first Japanese-authored historical account published and circulated for scholarly study in the West, known as Nihon Ōdai Ichiran.

Nihon_odai_ichiran_wasedaNihon Ōdai Ichiran   (日本王代一覧 ), “The Table of the Rulers of Japan,” is a narrative from the perspective of the Japanese author and his samurai patron, the daimyo of the Obama domain of Wakasa Province, tairō  (great elder) Sakai Tadakatsu. Nihon Ōdai Ichiran  is a chronicle of 17th-century Japanese emperors and their reigns, with entries on some noteworthy events in Japanese history.  The compilation of written works was almost complete in 1783 when Isaac Titsingh sent a manuscript to the daimyo of Tamba, Kutsuki Masatsuna. When Masatsuna finished editing the manuscript, he sent it back to Titsingh, who had become head of the Dutch East Indies Company trade operations in Hoogly, West Bengal.  But in 1785, Masatsuna’s comments were lost in a shipwreck en route from Japan to India. In 1812, Isaac Titsingh’s drafted a final version of the book, which he dedicated to his friend Kutsuki Masatsuna.

Nihon Ōdai Ichiran page. | Waseda University Library

Nihon_Odai_Ichiran_1834Nihon Ōdai Ichiran, an extensive seven volumes, was later translated into French as Nipon o daï itsi ran. The seven volumes were presumed lost during the Napoleonic Wars. After Isaac Titsingh’s death in 1812, the manuscript sat in near neglect. Later, the project was revived, and the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland published the work; publication and printing took place in Paris, with London handling the distribution. At last the Western world could begin to clear away the mystery of Japan.

Title page of French translation of Nihon Ōdai Ichiran.

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Niō: The Valiant Guardians of Buddha

  • Posted by:
  • January 15, 2015

Religion is an important cultural aspect and way of life for many Japanese. Numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are scattered all around Japan and most times, they are right beside each other. In many Buddhist temples, you may notice a pair of stern looking muscular statues. The intimidating dynamic duo that stand devotedly at the entrance of the temples are known as Niō or Kongōrikishi. They are the protectors of Buddha.

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Niō (仁王) are believed to be the manifestation of Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, one of the earliest known bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism (a branch of Buddhism) that symbolize Buddha’s power. According to Japanese belief, Niō guardians travelled with Buddha to protect him.  Stories also justify the use of physical force to keep values and beliefs against evil. The Niō statue standing at the right side of the gate is called Misshaku Kongō and has his mouth open to represent speaking the first grapheme (smallest semantically distinguishing unit in a written language) of Sanskrit Devanagari (writing system of India and Nepal) pronounced as “a.” The left statue is known as Naraen Kongō and has his mouth closed to represent the last Devanagari grapheme pronounced “ɦūṃ.” When man is born he is believed to be speaking the “a” sound with his mouth open and when he dies his last word is “hum” with his mouth closed. The pair together symbolize the birth and death of all things, and as with the Alpha and Omega in Christianity, Niō embodies “all creation.” The contraction of “a” and “hum” is Aum, which in Sanskrit means “The Absolute.”

Niō  statues at Kannonshō-ji in Azuchi, Omihachiman. | 663highland

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Niō statuse at Zentsu-ji. | 663highland

The manifestations of the Niō statues can come in three forms:

ShukongoshinMisshaku Kongō or Agyō – “a”- form, a term for open-mouthed statues in aum pair. They symbolize overt violence. The statues are usually depicted wielding a mallet, diamond club, thunderbolt, sun, or stick, and are baring their teeth.

Naraen Kongō or Ungyō – “um”- form, a general term for closed-mouthed statues in the aum pair. They symbolize latent strength. The statues are usually depicted with their mouths tightly closed and wielding a sword or are bare-handed.

Shukongōshin –  a combination of the Naraen and Misshaku Kongōs into one statue. It literally means “vajra (a ritual weap0n) -wielding spirit.”

Shukongōshin in Hokke-dō, Todaiji Temple, Nara. | Association of Cultural Properties

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The Shizutani School

  • Posted by:
  • January 12, 2015

Japan has always valued education. In fact, Japan’s literacy rate is almost 100%, and it has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners over the years. Japan’s education system has played an integral part in its recovery and economic growth in the years after World War II.

2889437134_6681a7f51e_zFormal education in Japan began in the 6th century with the adoption of Chinese culture. The usual teaching in Japanese courts such as Heian, Nara, and Asuka were sciences, divination, calligraphy, literature, and Buddhist and Confucian teachings. Scholars were initially chosen through an Imperial examination system, but later on, titles and posts remained hereditary and within the family. The rise of the military class (bushi) during the Kamakura period ended scholarly influence, and Buddhist monasteries became the primary centers for learning.

Shizutani School. | scarletgreen

During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate and the Daimyō competed for power on the basis of economics. The samurai class, who were also practicing bureaucrats, learned not only the ways of military strategy but agriculture and accounting as well. The prosperous merchant class prepared for their continued growth in business, which enabled them to be patrons of the arts and sciences. Temple schools were largely responsible for educating the peasant class. It was estimated that by the end of the Edo period, 50% of the male population and 20% of the female population possessed some degree of education.

2889437468_4642c6d361_zThe Shizutani School (閑谷学校 )  or the shizutani gakkō, is the oldest surviving school for the common people. It was built and opened by the Okayama Domain during the early Edo period, in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture.  The idea for the school began in 1666 when the feudal lord of the Bizen Area, Ikeda Mitsumasa, came across Kidani Village in Wake. He thought the area had an ideal atmosphere for educating people. In 1670, Ikeda Mitsumasa gave his chief vassal Tsuda Nagatada the task of completing Shizutani School.  Ikeda Mitsumasa is remembered today for his resounding belief: “Better public morality is all up to the education of the common people.”

Shizutani School grounds. | scarletgreen

The school’s building stands today the way it was completed about 300 years ago. The stone wall is in Tang style, a Chinese style in an era when China was called Tang. The roof tiles of the building are made of bizen ware. The Shizutani School is ideally located in a beautiful place surrounded by maple and gingko trees, where time seems to stand still.

The Shizutani School  Auditorium has been designated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of the government of Japan as a National Treasure in the building/structure category.

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Depachika:  Japan’s Culinary Wonderland

  • Posted by:
  • January 8, 2015

Part of travel is discovering the culture and beautiful destinations of a country. Perhaps one of the best ways to get to know a country’s culture is through their cuisine. Japan is known for its delicious foods and the meticulous care that goes into preparing them.

4674458470_1847660445_zDepachika is a term for department store basements. Depachika is a combination of the words depato, which literally means department store in Japanese, while chika means basement. In Japan, the basement of a department store can only mean one thing — a cornucopia of gastronomical delights.

Depachika in Isetan. | Istolethetv

Basements of department stores in Japan were places where you could usually find seasonal and ceremonial gift items. But during the 1930s, department stores began selling food in their basements as a convenient and quick way to get a ready meal.  Department store basements became a vogueish way for a casual and even stylish dining experience and only in the year 2000 came to be known formally  as depachika.

4673838729_8e901d3061_zYou can find a variety of food in depachikas. Numerous food selections from all around the globe satisfy your every food craving. The vast array of food choices  includes the usual Japanese fare such as pre-prepared bento boxes, sushi, tempura, and ramen. If you’re hankering for a sandwich, you can choose from an assortment of cold cut meats and cheeses at the delicatessen section. If you need freshly baked bread, salad, or a hot steaming bowl of soup, fear not: there are those, too. To satisfy that sweet tooth, there are mouthwatering desserts from delicious cakes to traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) and the like. The foods in depachika are in their own specialized sections that are of the freshest ingredients of vegetables, fruits, fish, meats, dairy, breads, and even liquor. All the food is carefully prepared and beautifully laid out, ready to be eaten or as take-out. The food could rival the creations prepared by the best chefs and food artisans.

 Tempura for sale. | Istolethetv

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Some of the most popular depachika are found in the trendy and popular department stores in Tokyo. Here are some of the best ones to visit when in Tokyo, Japan.

Shinjuku Isetan, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 3-14-1

Ginza Mitsukoshi, Chuo-ku, Ginza 4-6-16

Ikebukuro Tobu, Toshima-ku, Nishi-Ikebukuro 1-1-25

Shibuya Tokyu Toyoko-ten, Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-24-1

Shinjuku Keio, Shinjuku-ku, Nishi-Shinjuku, 1-1-4

 

Dessert stall. | yusuke toyoda

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World Class Skiing in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • January 5, 2015

Skiing is often thought of as a Western sport. Though it began almost five thousand years ago in Scandinavia, it was practiced as early as 600 B.C.E. in China. The word “ski” is from the Old Norse word “skíð” meaning split piece of wood or firewood.

A bit of ski history

12944339275_1a56703cfb_zInitially skis used in Sweden and northern Finland were asymmetrical. One was a straight and long non-arching ski used for sliding, while the other shorter ski was for kicking. The bottom of the longer ski was used to support the weight of the skier and had animal fat applied on its surface as in the manner of modern ski waxing, while the shorter ski was either covered in animal skin or bare. Early skiers had a single spear or long pole. The first depiction of a skier using two poles was in 1741.

Heading up Yoichidake, Hokkaido. | Yoichi

Up until the mid-1800s, skiing was mainly used for transport, but over the years it has developed into a popular recreational activity and world renowned sport. Skiing has since evolved into two genres:

Nordic – the heel of the boot is not affixed to the ski. Events considered Nordic skiing are ski-jumping, cross-country skiing, and Nordic combined.

Alpine – downhill skiing. A recreational activity or sport that involves sliding down snow-covered hills on skis with fixed heel bindings.

Skiing in Japan

Japan is a mountainous region; it is not surprising that there are about 600 ski resorts in some of the most beautiful places in the country. Japan is already known as a world class skiing destination with a roster of international clientèle. During the postwar boom, skiing became a craze among the Japanese, and many developers built ski resorts to accommodate the demand.

Reliable heavy winter snowfall makes skiing in Japan a great experience. Many resorts are family run, and the genteel hospitality of the Japanese is always something to look forward to.  Only in Japan can you find a relaxing dip in an onsen after hitting the slopes.

Some of the best skiing destinations in Japan are:

339511487_c13d4cabcb_zTohoku

Located in the northern portion of Honshu Island, there are several ski resorts to choose from that are thick with snow. Tohoku is a wonderful place to drink in the rich cultural heritage of Japan as well as join in on the revelry of the region’s traditional festivals.

Slopes at Minowa Resort in Tohoku. | toyohara

Hokkaido

Only an hour and a half to two hours away from Japan’s capital, Tokyo, Hokkaido is a popular skiing destination. With the much anticipated annual Sapporo snow festival that exhibits elaborate snow and ice sculptures, it’s not just skiing that captivates visitors.

4410775544_ee4799e17c_zNagano

Nagano, the host locale of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is just a convenient train ride away from Tokyo. You can marvel at the scenic beauty and enjoy the powdery slopes as well. Other nearby places to visit are Kyoto and Osaka.

Hakuba-Goryu ski slope in Nagano. | Arvind Thampi

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Hanging Out on Bōnenkai and Shinnenkai

  • Posted by:
  • January 3, 2015

New Year, shogatsu in Japanese, is the most significant holiday of the year. Preparations begin days beforehand. Most business establishments close shop from the 1st to the 3rd of January to commemorate New Year in Japan, and many Japanese spend time together with their families. In Japan, each year is viewed as separate and discrete, with the New Year as a chance for a fresh start. Bōnenkai and shinnenkai parties are prime examples that show us the true meaning of ending the old year with a blast and starting the New Year with a bang!

Bōnenkai81819682_18f6e861f4_z (忘年会 literally ” ‘forget the year’ gathering”) is a Japanese drinking party that is held at the end of the year among close friends or groups of co-workers. Its main purpose is to forget the troubles and woes of the past year and to look forward to starting fresh for the new year by consuming quite a lot of alcohol and getting drunk. There is no specific day to celebrate bōnenkai, but it usually happens every December. Bōnenkai celebrations are often sponsored by a business office or a company for their employees.

Bōnenkai.  | Hajime NAKANO

Bōnenkai is not considered as part of the shogatsu celebration that commemorates the start of the year. Bōnenkai tradition can be traced back to the Muromachi period in the 15th century when it was more of a gathering to give thanks for the year’s blessings. The parties were previously known as noukai (great achievement gathering). The celebrations only came to be known as bōnenkai during the 18th century. It is a time to let one’s hair down, or bureiko, and not worry about the boss for a change.

Shinnenkai1

Shinnenkai (新年会, literally “new year gathering”) is the Japanese tradition of welcoming the New Year by yet again drinking alcohol. It is also usually celebrated amongst the company of co-workers and friends in January. Shinnenkai is also not a traditional part of the shogatsu celebrations. Shinnenkai is very similar to Bōnenkai in that it began during the same time period and is also sponsored by the employer. Shinnenkai celebrations are marked with wishing each other good fortune and luck for the New Year.

Shinnenkai. | Steve Nagata

The main difference between the two celebrations is that in shinnenkai, some of the shogatsu traditions are carried over, such as breaking open a barrel of sake with a wooden hammer, drinking together and making mochi. Japanese are known to be more reserved in expressing feelings to other people. Celebrating shinnenkai is considered a way of showing public displays of gratitude.

Have a fun year end bōnenkai and happy shinnenkai New Year!

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Start the Year Right with Engimono

  • Posted by:
  • January 1, 2015

Many Japanese believe in good and bad fortune. Superstitious beliefs are a big part of Japan’s culture. Most Japanese folklore have roots that can be traced to local customs and are meant to offer practical advice from past lessons learned throughout Japan’s long history.

Engimono288449523_fea1d5bd08_z are lucky charms often given out at New Year events at temples and shrines all around Japan. These lucky charms bring wishes for good luck in harvest, business, health, love, and other endeavors. Many engimono have been passed down over the years and these are also popular souvenirs or gift items from a particular area of Japan.

Engimono shops. |  ivva イワヲ

Some popular Japanese lucky charms:

Omamori – a popular amulet or talisman in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Sold at most religious sites and dedicated to many different Shinto deities, an omamori is believed to provide protection and good luck to anyone who carries it.

Daruma doll –  spherical in shape with red bodies, white faces, and no pupils. They typically represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen. It is customary to paint in one of the doll’s pupils at the beginning of New Year, make a wish, and  if it comes true, to paint in the second pupil. Daruma dolls are supposed to bring good fortune, prosperity, and fortitude to reach goals.

Maneki-neko – “beckoning cat”, typically believed to bring blessings. The figurine is often of a cat with its paw in an upright position as if waving. According to Japanese legend, a landlord witnessed a cat waving a paw at him. Intrigued by this gesture, he came close to the cat when suddenly a lightning bolt struck the exact place he was previously standing in. The landlord believed that his good fortune was because of the cat’s actions. Hence, the beckoning hand became a symbol of good luck. Maneki-neko are mostly found at the entrance of shops, restaurants, and other business establishments. They can serve as other more useful and portable things such as keychains and piggy banks.

7096467125_1fd11bf2a2_zRegional lucky charms:

Shigaraki-yaki No Tanuki (Shiga Prefecture) –  Tanuki means raccoon in Japanese. It is believed to bring blessing for a prosperous business and wealth in the future.

Aka-Fukurou (Tokyo) – Fukurou means owl. Owls are thought to bring good luck. Their red color is supposed to ward evil spirits away.

Shigaraki-yaki No Tanuki. | jpellgen

Shinobi-goma (Iwate Prefecture) – Goma means horse. People of Iwate are known to care for horses. The shinobi-goma engimono is also for wishes for a good harvest.

Akabeko (Fukushima Prefecture) –  Beko means cow. Cows are believed to be powerful and hardworking. The papier-mâché cow with its red coloring is believed to prevent bad luck and keep illnesses away.

Check out this video clip of various engimono by Japan Secret:

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Click image or here.

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Japan’s Cinderella: Lady Saigō

  • Posted by:
  • December 29, 2014

Lady Saigō 450px-Saigo-no-Tsubone2_cropped(西郷の局), Saigō-no-Tsubone, or Oai  (1552-1589) was the first consort and confidante of the samurai lord turned shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan in the late sixteenth century.  She was also the mother of the second Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada. Lady Saigō is remembered for greatly influencing Tokugawa Ieyasu’s choice in allies, philosophies, and decisions on policies as he slowly gained power during the latter stages of the Sengoku period, affecting the organization and composition of the Tokugawa shogunate. Lady Saigō came to be regarded as the power behind the throne and was posthumously given the highest honor the Emperor of Japan could bestow upon anyone: the position Senior First Rank of the Imperial Court.

Portrait of Lady Saigō.

Lady Saigō was born in one of the castles belonging to the Saigō clan, Nishikawa Castle. She was initially named Masako and later gained the nickname Oai. Her father, Tadaharu, died in the Battle of Enshu-Omori and her mother re-married to Hattori Masanao. In 1567, Lady Saigō  married her cousin Saigō Yoshikatsu; he later perished at the Battle of Takehiro. They had two children, a son, Saigō Katsutada, and a daughter named Tokuhime. After her husband’s death, Lady Saigō was formally adopted by her uncle Saigō Kiyokazu who was the head of the Saigō clan.

450px-Tokugawa_Ieyasu2Lady Saigō first met Tokugawa Ieyasu when she was around 17, when he visited the Saigō clan. He was served tea by none other than Lady Saigō herself. Nothing came of their first meeting because Lady Saigō was married at the time and Tokugawa Ieyasu was also married to Lady Tsukiyama. Genuine affection only later began to develop in the 1570s and during the Battle of Mikatagahara in 1573 when Tokugawa Ieyasu began confiding in Lady Saigō on different matters and they developed a relationship. Lady Saigō’s advice regarding the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 made a great impact not only in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s career but the history of Japan as well.

Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

In 1578, Lady Saigō moved to Hamamatsu Castle where she quickly gained popularity among the people. Once she had already established a secure and respectable position as the first consort and mother to Takugawa Ieyasu’s heir, she began to focus her wealth and influence on charitable purposes. She was a devout Buddhist who donated money to temples where she resided as consort, and she also established a charitable foundation that assisted visually impaired women.

A true Cinderella story, Lady Saigō rise to power came from humble beginnings.  Though she died relatively young, her legacy is forever remembered in the history of Japan.

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