12th Temple: Denzuin

The temple Denzuin is best known for the fact that Lady Odai is buried here: in fact, Denzuin is her Buddhist name. She was the mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Without Tokugawa Ieyasu, there would be no Japan or Tokyo as we know them today. You might call him Japan’s King Arthur, except that there is much debate over whether Arthur existed at all. Ieyasu most certainly did. You might call him the George Washington of Japan, except that he did not lead a democratic nation out of colonial control. A warlord himself, he unified an island of warring fiefdoms into a nation, subjecting all competing warlords to his will. He was the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan for over 250 years.

Tokugawa’s roots are twisted to say the least. He was the son of Matsudaira Hirotada, the daimyo who ruled Okazaki Castle. His wife’s mother was also his father’s step-mother, so she was both his mother-in-law and grandmother. (His grandfather must have married the young bride, his 2nd wife, near the end of his life and they had no children. She then remarried and gave birth to Tokugawa’s bride-to-be). Tokugawa’s father was seventeen and his mother fifteen when they married, but the marriage only lasted until little Ieyasu was two years old, when his mother’s uncle defected to the Oda clan, who attacked Okazaki Castle. His parents divorced and his mother was sent back to her family. When he was five-years-old the Oda clan kidnapped him and threatened they’d kill him if his father didn’t sever all ties with their rivals, the Imagawa clan. His father refused, taunting that they could go ahead and slit the boy’s throat for all he cared. They did not. Instead they bribed his father’s servants to kill his father. Tokugawa lived as a captive of the Oda for a few years before being ransomed back to the Imagawa and becoming their hostage for many more years.

At fifteen Tokugawa married an Imagawa girl, Lady Tsukiyama, and a year later their son, Matsudaira Nobuyasu, was born. When clan-leader Imagawa Yoshimoto was killed by Oda Nobunaga’s forces in a surprise attack, Tokugawa switched allegiances to the Oda clan, and later married his son to Oda Nobunaga’s daughter to cement the alliance. A few years later, his son’s wife wrote a letter to her father accusing her Imagawa mother-in-law of scheming against him. When Oda informed him of this claim, to show his loyalty Tokugawa had his wife beheaded and, being concerned that he would eventually try to avenge his mother, forced his son to commit seppuku.

Presumably it was Tokugawa’s father who taught him that blood is not thicker than ice.

He must have been reunited with his mother at some point. Two years after he had unified Japan under his rule, she was buried in 1602 at Denzuin and the temple, which had already existed for two centuries, was moved to the site of her burial and renamed for her.

He lived for another fourteen years, constantly strengthening the position of his lineage, and died in 1616, the same year that Shakespeare and Cervantes died. He is perhaps best known in the west for outlawing Christianity, a policy that led to the execution of thousands of Christians, and forced the Japanese Christian church underground

Since arriving in Bunkyo this morning, we’ve visited five temples on foot, but Denzuin, though still in Bunkyo, is far enough away that we need to take the train. It’s less than a ten-minute walk from Korakuen Station, up a hill, until we reach the grand gates of Denzuin, completed in 2011. Like almost everything else in Tokyo, the old temple was destroyed by the Allied bombing in World War II.

It’s late afternoon: daylight is waning, the air cooling. We pass the cemetery where Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mother, Lady Odai, has rested for over four centuries. We’re searching for the office where we can get our go-shuin books inscribed, and discover it beside a lovely tea room, where we rest for half an hour from our long day’s pilgrimage. A young monk serves us tea and tells us about the temple. They offer classes in yoga, haiku, calligraphy, and the rudiments of the tea ceremony. The young monk is pleased to see Marcus Powles’ book about the pilgrimage, and we chat for quite some time. I snap a photo of Ranjini beside a beautiful golden Kannon figurine before we set off for the main hall.


We climb the staircase and enter the Hondo, where we sit and meditate on the tatami mats. It is a large and peaceful space. The main image is Amida Buddha, with images of Kannon to the right and graceful two metre wooden Kannon to the left of the altar.

We descend the staircase, make our way back past Lady Odai’s tomb and out the gates to the street. Flagging down a cab, we leave Bunkyo behind.

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