Just southeast of Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward lies the town of Uji, known for the tea it grows and for Byōdō-in, a temple whose image graces the 10-yen coin.

10-yen Coin

[Picture from Wikipedia]

I visited Uji in October of 2007, and the temple was my first stop there.

Byōdō-in was originally a villa built in 998 for the powerful Fujiwara no Michinaga.  The Fujiwara clan controlled the government for centuries by marrying its women into the imperial family.  Michinaga was the uncle of two emperors and the grandfather of three more, and he was effectively the ruler of Japan.

In 1052 the villa became a temple and the next year its famous Phoenix Hall was built.

Uji Byoudou-in

The name comes from the building’s appearance, with wing and tail corridors extending from the main structure.  The Phoenix Hall is the only original building remaining at the temple and is a designated national treasure.

Here’s a view from the side.

Uji Byoudou-in Bridge

Byōdō-in was built by the Fujiwara, but indirectly, they nearly destroyed it.

During the 10th century, the Fujiwara and other high ranking nobility made themselves exempt from the land tax. The lesser nobility then began transferring their land deeds to the exempt nobles.  The lesser nobles thus acquired tax exemption, and in return they paid a much smaller tithe to their new landlords.  Farmers soon did the same thing, until eventually all land fell under this arrangement. The emperor and the institution of government were crippled and made completely dependent on the noble families, and the nobles’ effective power became tied more to their holdings than to their offices.

The three most powerful clans, the Fujiwara, the Minamoto, and the Taira, jockeyed for control of this new fuedal system, and the samurai class began to form.  A succession dispute led to wars in 1156 and 1160 which resulted in the Fujiwara’s defeat.  The Minamoto and the Taira vied to become the next power behind the throne, and in 1180 a succession dispute again led to war.  However, this time it was a full-blown, nationwide civil war, and when the Minamoto emerged victorious five years later, they didn’t try to go back to the old way of doing things.  Instead, the head of the Minamoto became the first shogun, and the age of nobility gave way to the age of the samurai.

What does this have to do with Byōdō-in?

The civil war began with the Battle of Uji, which took place on the grounds of the temple.  The imperial claimant supported by the Minamoto was attacked by the Taira and fled Kyoto under the guard of a small army led by the 77-year-old Minamoto no Yorimasa.  A much larger Taira army cornered them at Byōdō-in, and the Minamoto were defeated.  To atone for his failure, and to deprive the Taira of the satisfaction of capturing or killing him, Minamoto no Yorimasa committed seppuku on this “fan-shaped lawn.”

Uji Byoudou-in Fan-Shaped Lawn

He wrote a death poem –
– which means something like this:

A buried tree
whose flowers
never blossomed.
What a sad end.

But more than 800 years later, fresh flowers still adorn his grave.

Uji Byoudou-in Grave

I imagine he would have been heartened to know that.


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