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?

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