Yoshitsune-sai: Honoring a Legendary Samurai with Martial Arts and Tradition

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By Cher

On September 15th, the spirit of the legendary samurai, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159 – 1189), is commemorated with a unique mix of Buddhist ceremonies and martial arts demonstrations at the historic Kurama Dera Temple. The Yoshitsune-sai festival pays homage to this famous warrior who is still revered as one of the greatest samurai in Japanese history.

Minamoto Yoshitsune

The Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune

Minamoto Yoshitsune’s life is steeped in folklore and history. Born in 1159, he was sent by the Taira clan to Kurama-dera temple after his father’s assassination. It was believed that young Yoshitsune would pose no threat to Taira dominance while living within the temple’s confines. Here, amidst the stunning Kurama mountains, he spent his childhood and trained as a samurai. Legend has it that he honed his martial skills with a mountain tengu – a mythical creature known for its prowess in warfare.

As an adult, Yoshitsune sought vengeance against the Taira clan whom he believed had wronged him. Alongside his brother Yoritomo and the renowned warrior monk, Benkei, they succeeded in defeating the Taira forces. However, Yoshitsune later found himself pitted against his own brother in a power struggle. He was subsequently betrayed by the Fujiwara clan, which resulted in him committing suicide together with his family.

Annual Commemoration at Kurama Dera Temple

Yoshitsune-sai festival takes place at Kurama Dera Temple, located uphill from Kurama Station and surrounded by the lush forest of Kyoto’s northern mountainside. Visitors can embark on a scenic 25-minute trek to reach this tranquil retreat where Yoshitsune spent most of his childhood. This is considered as one of the most exciting Kyoto events in September.

During this festival, the temple’s main hall is filled with the soothing smell of incense and resonates with chanted sutras. A special portrait of Yoshitsune is on display for worshippers who wish to pay their respects and say a prayer.

Kurama Dera Temple

Martial Arts Performances and Traditional Dances

As a fitting tribute to a skilled samurai, the highlight of Yoshitsune-sai is the martial arts demonstration. Aikido practitioners perform a captivating display on the main temple hall steps, showcasing the ancient art’s grace and power. These performances depict the dedication and discipline Yoshitsune would have displayed during his training as a young warrior.

In addition to the martial arts performances, visitors can also witness traditional dance offerings dedicated to Yoshitsune’s memory. These dances often feature music symbolizing his legendary encounters with mountain tengu creatures.

A Journey into History

It’s not every day that one can experience such an intimate festival that honors a fabled figure in Japanese history. The Yoshitsune-sai festival offers an incredible opportunity for history enthusiasts and martial arts lovers alike, as they journey up to Kurama-dera Temple for a unique experience amidst breathtaking natural landscapes.

For those planning to attend this event on September 15th, make sure not to miss out on this enriching celebration that showcases various aspects of Japan’s fascinating history, culture, and martial traditions.

You can also check out the Kangetsu no Yūbe. Kangetsu no Yūbe is just one of the many festivals and events in Kyoto. Kangetsu no Yūbe, a traditional moon-viewing experience, is celebrated at Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto during the month of September.

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