The Legend of Yoshitsune Minamoto

June 29, 2012

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

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