Following in the Footsteps of a Peerless Hero

October 22, 2013

The Legend of Yoshitune and Kyoto

By Airi Kinoshita

…On the Gojo bridge in the city of Koto

Is a huge man Bennkei, with a sword in hand

Throwing the weapon up high over his head

He darts for Ushiwaka who stands on the parapet…


These words are from a famous song that appears in a song book that was used by elementary school students from 1911~1941. The song represents the popular scene of the first meeting of Ushiwakamaru and Benkei on the Gojo Bridge in Kyoto. Ushiwakamaru is a childhood name of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune, one of the greatest and best-known samurai in Japanese history. In addition to his achievements based on historical facts, there are many stories that hae been handed down from generation to generation.  

Yoshitsune was born in 1159, the late Heian period when samurai gradually rose to power and were soon to overthrow the aristocratic class. Blood relationships were important to Samurai and they and teamed together for each clan. Among these clans, there were two most powerful families: Minamoto and Taira families. Both of these families believed they were entitled to power since they both had ties to the imperial family and had strong armies. Consequently, the two families clashed and fought one another. This world of conflict cast a shadow over Yoshitsune’s early life. In the year Yoshitsune was born, the Taira clan killed Yoshitune’s father during the Heiji Rebellion. Soon after his mother, Tokiwa, was forced to marry Taira-no-Kiyomori, the top general of Taira family. Yoshitsune’s brother, Yoritomo, was exiled to the Izu Peninsula.



Yoshitsune himself was sent to Kurama temple, which is located in the mountains north of Kyoto city.Legend says that he was raised and trained by Tengu, the red-faced, long-nosed goblins that inhabit the deep forest of Japan.Even today, huge trees surround Kurama temple, so it would not seem not surprising to encounter a Tengu goblin there. The legend also says that one day Yoshitsune heard that a warrior monk named Benkei was robbing people on the Gojo Bridge every night. He went to see for himself and soon found himself in a duel with the monk. He defeated Benkei, so Benkei became his right-hand man and served him well. On the Gojo Bridge there are statues of Ushiwaka (Yoshitsune) and Benkei to commemorate this legend.

Yoshitsune grew up to be a brave and great strategist. In 1180, his brother Yoritomo raised an army to fight against the Taira family and Yoshitsune joined him. He became well-known for many clever tactics he deployed in battles. These operations helped lead his clan to victory. One of the most remarkable operations he pulled off was Hiyodorigoe-no- sakaotoshi (running down the Hiyodori Slope). In the Battle of Ichi-no-tani in1184, the Taira family had set up their camp at the base of Hiyodori Slope, which was a very, very steep hill. The Tairas had expected the Minamoto Clan to attack them from the front, head-on, but Yoshitsune surprised them and attacked from the rear, rushing down the steep slope on horseback followed by his army. The Taira Clan was stunned. They fled in a panic, so the Minamoto clan could win an easy victory with few dead.

Although the Minamoto Clan was victorious, Yoshitsune soon fell into conflict with his brother, Yoritomo, because they both desired to become the new clan leader. Eventually Yoritomo decided to kill his his brother, so Yoshitsune fled Kyoto for Iwate, in the far north of Japan. He was going to ask for help from another prominent clan leader, Hidehira Fujiwara. Unfortunately, Hidehira’s successor, Yasuhira, betrayed Yoshitsune and attacked him. He lost most of his soldiers in the ensuing fight including loyal Benkei, who died by throwing himself in front of his master during a volley of arrows. Yoshitsune was forced to commit hara-kiri and died in his estate which had been set ablaze.

History sympathizes with this tragic hero by remembering his exploits as legends and kin Kabuki plays. If you are interested in Minanoto-no-Yositsune, Kyoto has many places connected with him, for example, where Ushiwaka and Bennkei dueled. Actually there are three candidates for the place: Gojo Bridge, Kiyomizu temple, and Gojoten temple. These all are in Kyoto city, so how about visiting these sites and let yourself imagine this brilliant historical figure?

The Legend of Yoshitsune Minamoto

by Kana Matsumoto and Satoko Nasu

Yoshitsune Minamoto

Yoshitsune Minamoto was a tragic and mysterious hero in Japan. He is still popular today, even though he has been dead for over 800 years. He was a general of the imperial Taira clan and was very talented and charismatic. However, certain people tried to get rid of Yoshitsune during his life, so in the end, he could not help but commit suicide. His dramatic, yet tragic life makes many people sympathetic and imaginative. His biography, the Gikeiki, said he would create lots of legends throughout Kyoto. Indeed, the Kyoto region provides many historic sites of Yoshitsune, where you can learn more about his life and legend.

Yoshitsune Minamoto’s Life History

Yoshitsune Minamoto was born the ninth child of Yoshiyomo Minamoto, the head of the Minamoto clan, in 1159. His childhood name was Ushiwaka, which he was called until he become an adult at the age of 16. In those days, the imperial Taira and Minamoto clans battled one another. Yoshitsune’s father, however, was killed by the Taira clan the same year Yoshitsune was born. Therefore, Yoshitsune ran away with his mother, Tokiwa, and his two older brothers. From that point, Yoshitsune lived in Kurama temple, just north of Kyoto city, and raised as a priest. However, he eventually refused to become a priest and left the temple in 1174. He then joined forces with Yoritomo, who was his older brother, and decided to defeat the Taira clan with him. Yoshitsune won lot of battles and became a hero. However, he gradually started to act with greater authority. For that reason, his brother, Yoritomo, got angry and regarded his younger brother as an enemy. Yoshitsune escaped from his brother Yoritomo and went to Osyu, which is now the Tohoku area of northeastern Honshu, to ask for help. However, the feudal lord of Osyu, Yasuhira Fujiwara, betrayed him. In the end, Yoshitsune killed himself at the young age of 31.Places

Yoshitsune’s Childhood at Kurama Temple

The most famous place in Kyoto related with Yoshitsune’s childhood is Kurama Temple  on  Mt. Kurama, in the area just north of Kyoto city. Yoshitsune lived in Kurama temple and developed his academic and martial skills there for ten years. Within the temple grounds, there are six areas of interest related to Yoshitsune

    1. The first is a hall called Kawakami Jizo-do. Inside lies the guardian deity of Ushiwaka.
    2. The second is YoshitsuneKokuyo-to (Yoshitsune’s memorial service tower), which is a tower erected for the repose of the dead Yoshitsune’s spirit. This was the place where Yoshitsune lived and studied as a child.
    3. The third is Ikitsugi no mizu (Water for Rest). It is believed that Ushiwaka drank the water there on the way to his training places.

Ki-no Nemiti (Trail of Wood Roots)

  1. The fourth is Sekurabe-ishi (a Comparison of the stone and Yoshitsune’s height), with which he measured his height when he left the temple for the final time.
  2. The fifth is the path of Ki-no Nemiti (Trail of Wood Roots). Along the mountain path, many Japanese cedar roots appear on the surface of theearth, forming an arabesque pattern. Yoshitsune used them for training himself, especially his legs.
  3. The sixth and final place is Yoshitsne-do (Yoshitsune’s hall). It is said that his spirit is enshrined there in a statue called Syanaou.

Places Related to Yoshitsune’s Adulthood

Gojotenjin Shrine

One cannot talk about Yoshitsune’s adulthood without mentioning one important person: Benkei. Benkei was a monk with Herculean strength. Yoshitsune and Benkei met each other for the first time at Gojotenjin shrine, which is located in southern part of Kyoto city. Around that time, Benkei was wandering around Kyoto each night in an effort to gather 1,000 swords. On the night when there was only one sword left to gather, Benkei encountered a boy passing by while playing a flute at the shrine. That boy’s name was Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune also happened to be carrying a golden sword at his waist. That sword caught Benkei’s fancy, and so Benkei challenged Yoshitsune to a duel for that sword.


Benkei and Yoshitsune

Instead of dueling at the shrine, they moved to Gojo-ohashi bridge which is located in southern part of Kyoto city. Benkei was very strong and he had robbed many people of their swords; on the other hand, Yoshitsune was much smaller than Benkei. It seemed that Benkei had an advantage. However, the result was completely different. Yoshitsune moved quickly with such light steps that Benkei was no match for Yoshitsune at all. Benkei was defeated! At Gojo-ohashi bridge, there are statues describing the scene of their duel. The statue on the left side is Benkei, while right one is Yoshitsune. It is said that Gojo-ohashi bridge was the place where they had a duel, but actually it was located in the place of Matsubara-bridge today.

Kiyomizu Temple

Kiyomizu Temple

After the duel at Gojo-ohashi bridge, Benkei was really frustrated and was thinking about revenge. Not long after, he waited for Yoshitsune at Kiyomizu temple for revenge because there was a community event at the temple on that day. As expected, Yoshitsune appeared. Benkei challenged him duel one more time. However, the winner was Yoshitsune again! Since then Benkei started to become loyal to Yoshitsune and he actually became a lifetime servant. So their final duel was conducted at one of Kyoto’s best spots today: Kiyomizu temple. Within the temple grounds there are two iron sticks and Japanese iron clogs, which Benkei was said to use and wear in those days. The long stick measures approximately 120 kilograms, while the short one is about 24 kilograms. Also, one of clogs weighs about 12 kilograms! Those items tell us of Benkei’s greatness and remind us that Yoshitsune and Benkei fought a historical duel at this temple.

The Minamoto clan, including Yoshitsune, had had countless battles to hunt down and kill the Heike clan for several years. Yoshitsune was so strong that he contributed to the victories at many battles. At last, he succeeded in leading the Heike clan to the end. Thanks to his many great deeds, Yoshitsune was very popular among the people of that era. However, his older brother, Yoritomo, didn’t like that. He was probably jealous of Yoshitsune and at the same time, felt a great menace to him. There had been a discord among them for a long time.



Meanwhile, Yoshitsune had a first encounter with his future wife at Shinsen-en, which is a shrine located in middle part of Kyoto city. In 1182, the holy ritual for rain was conducted at Shinsen-en. Although 99 women danced in dedication, no rain fell. However, after the 100th woman, named Shizuka-gozen danced, it suddenly got cloudy and started raining heavily! Shizuka became one of Yoshitsune’s wives later on, so their meeting here was a fateful one.

The Death of Yoshitsune

Unfortunately, Yoritomo’s distrust of Yoshitsune was steadily rising. And finally, Yoritomo started a move to kill his younger brother. Therefore Yoshitsune ran away with his wife and some companions. Escape, however, was becoming impossible. At one point he had to part with his wife. Also, he lost several his companions while he ran away from enemies. And although he managed to keep up his escape for a while, he was eventually overpowered by his enemies. Finally, he ended up killing himself by putting a sword into his body in the hall in Iwate Prefecture, which Buddhist statues were enshrined. He died at the young age of 31 years old.

You can visit all places mentioned above in Kyoto. See the map below:

View Yoshitsune’s Related Places in a larger map