Yoshitsune & Benkei’s 1st Encounter: Tracking down Facts out of Lore

Today’s article is sort of a pick up from the last one, where I spoke about Musashibō Benkei’s ōnaginata being a cultural asset. To reiterate, cultural assets are things that have value in a country’s culture, but may not necessarily match up in the form one would expect. Let’s look at this from another angle, taking a popular story of how the heroic Minamoto no Yoshitsune met the barbaric Musashibō Benkei. Though their first encounter was violent, they became loyal partners with Benkei becoming a retainer to Yoshitsune. Through this, a bridge claimed as where the encounter took place has become famous, and quite an important landmark that many individuals (both local and international visitors) travel to see.

Artwork depicting Yoshitsune (right) dueling with Benkei (left) on a bridge, entitled “Yoshitsune Ichidaiki no uchi Kyukai Gojō no hashi ni” (義経一代記之内 九回 五条の橋に). By Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重).

For stories of the past that seem bigger than life, do they always add up as being accurate? For today’s article, we will look at the specifics of this legendary story & how they play out in the geographical setting of Kyoto, then delve into this particular bridge in question and see how much it actually ties in to the fame it gets.


The backdrop of this popular lore is set in 12th century Japan during the late Heian period, and begins in the rich Capital city known today as Kyoto. For about a year, the warrior monk Benkei would approach anyone bearing a sword as they attempted to cross a particular bridge, and take it by force by challenging them to a fight. He was always successful, since he stood at a monstrous height and was equally as strong bearing a large naginata, for many individuals were powerless against him. However, this would come to an end when he met a small boy named Ushiwakamaru, who would later be renown under the name “Minamoto no Yoshitsune”¹.

Here’s a popular children’s folklore song based on the encounter, called ”Ushiwaka”, which sums up how the popular lore of the encounter plays out. To the left is the original Japanese text, while to the right is my English transliteration.

This folklore sets the acclaimed image of two warriors battling out on a bridge, which in turn contributed to a setting like this being a popular one for duels in many stories even today. While this lore is simple & easy to understand, it’s also surprising to know that this is not how their encounter took place! For the full story, we have to review the original text, which is called “Gikeiki” (義経記), or “The Records of Yoshitsune” in English. The Gikeiki is stated to be a very old war chronicle by an unknown author(s), which was compiled into 8 volumes during the Muromachi period in the 14th century, shortly after the real-life feud between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan in the 12th century. Through this, not only do we learn that the fight took place in not one, but two locations, it’s also revealed that either one was not mentioned to be a bridge directly².


In the Gikeiki, the encounter between Yoshitsune and Benkei can be found in the 3rd volume, recited in a chapter entitled, “Benkei rakuchū nite hito no tachi wo ubaitoru koto” (弁慶洛中にて人の太刀を奪ひ取る事, While on a bridge, Benkei takes other people’s swords). Here, they first meet each other not too far away from the Gojō Tenjin Shrine. The specifics of this is Benkei departed from this shrine and headed southward towards a pathway with earthen walls on either side within a residential area, and waited at the end of a waterway for his 1000th victim to walk along this route. He then caught a glimpse of Yoshitsune walking along this route as he crossed a waterway³, playing a flute. This route is significant as it was used by those who traveled to pay their respects at the Gojō Tenjin shrine, which is a real place located in the lower city area of Kyoto.

Pic of Gojō Tenjin shrine. From Wikipedia.

Is the Gojō Tenjin shrine where the famed battle takes place? Not really, as it is only half of it. According to the Gikeiki, after a brief scuffle, Yoshitsune demonstrated unexpected skills which would put his opponent on the back foot. Not prepared for the smaller Yoshitsune to be so overbearing, Benkei runs away.


The final confrontation between Yoshitsune and Benkei concludes the following day. However, it did not take place on the Gojō bridge. Instead, the two warriors would meet and settle their dispute in front of a large gate of the temple called “Kiyomizu-dera”. This temple, too, has a claimed long history and still exists today in the Higashiyama District of the city area in Kyoto. Take note that as both Gojō Tenjin shirne and Kiyomizu-dera are in the city area, they aren’t too far away from each other. Distance-wise, they are about 30 mins apart by foot, separated by the Kamo river (more on this later).

Pic of the westward gate of Kiyomizu-dera. This is possibly the same area where Benkei and Yoshitsune met a 2nd time before resuming their fight. From Wikipedia.

The two would battle around the vicinity of the Kiyomizu-dera, where Yoshitsune, realizing his opponent’s potential, would lightly wound Benkei on the hand to prevent him from continuing the fight. Defeated, Yoshitsune offered him to pledge his allegiance and serve him. Weighing in on the pros and cons, Benkei agrees.


Going based on the Gikeiki, there’s no mention of Yoshitsune encountering Benkei on the Gojō bridge, or any bridge for that matter. So where did this idea come from? Does it even exist today? Just to be clear, there is mention of a bridge in the said chapter of the Gikeiki, for the chapter title indicates that Benkei does his dirty deed on a bridge. By default, he is synonymous with a bridge due to the trouble he stirs in Kyoto as he performs his task of acquiring 1000 swords. Yet, why does he not occupy this bridge for the 1000th victim, who would turn out to be Yoshitsune? Instead, after departing for Gojō Tenjin shrine, Benkei chooses to wait near a waterway…possibly leading to the Gojō bridge? Or, is it possible that their fight spilled all the way onto the Gojō bridge? What about during their 2nd encounter at Kiyomizu-dera? Distance is way too far, so logically they wouldn’t have concluded their battle on the bridge, right? This could just be a case of poor narration on the part of this unknown author, and failing to describe properly the fight being on the aforementioned bridge. Of course, there are other sources of this famed event that mention the Gojō bridge as the location where the two warriors met, but take note that they date much later than the Gikeiki.

Regarding this bridge in question, how do we track it down? In popular lore and other (later) adaptions of the lore (including in the form of song and theatrical performance), it is referred to as “Gojō no hashi”, but is officially called “Gojō Ōbashi” today. If we go by the latter, then yes there is a Gojō Ōbashi, which is a large bridge that sits over the Kamo river. It is geographically in the middle of Gojō Tenjin shrine and Kiyomizu-dera, albeit at an angle, and is an option of a path for those who would need to travel between both locations. However, this particular “bridge” cannot be the same one hinted in any of the sources, simply for the fact that it was not originally there at the time of the two warriors’ battle!…at least, not in the form we see it now.

Here’s a quick explanation to clear this up. Originally, this Gojō bridge was a short distance north from where it is now. In 1590, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi had that bridge moved more southward in order to make processions to the temple Hōkōji (southwest of Kiyomizu-dera), which houses the largest statue of Buddha in Kyoto, more accessible. This is where the new Gojō bridge sits today. So, where was the old location? Researchers have estimated it to be where the current Matsubara bridge (松原橋, Matsubara hashi) is located, which is on the Matsubara tōri (松原通り), or “Matsubara street”. Guess it’s safe to say that while the location of the bridge is correct, apparently the specifics of the general area are a little off. Since it would’ve been the preferred route at the time, it aligns with the idea that Benkei was using this previous Gojō bridge (Matsubara bridge), and that he would’ve confronted Yoshitsune there (see illustration below as a reference).

In regards to potential inaccuracies concerning the 14th century text Gikeiki, this is to be expected for a couple of reasons. For starters, it is not unusual for locations that were mentioned in ancient text to not match up due to the development of cities and towns. In Japan’s case, this is even more of an issue, as certain key areas faced many changed due to whoever was in power at the time, usually a warlord, or by order of the shogun. It is not unusual for a bridge to be moved and renamed, but there are cases of villages, towns, and prefectures gaining new names or resized geographically. This poses as a challenge when trying to pinpoint places found in old documents that no longer exist. Another issue is in regards to the author of the text. While there is no author’s name specified, it is believed that the writing was heavily influenced by Buddhist monks. This isn’t unusual, for they were but few of specific groups that were literate, plus much of the contents for certain characters involved Buddhist practices that would take someone in the field to understand⁵. That being said, the original text, while slated to be a war chronicle based on true events, has its fair share of oddities that hint at agenda-driven ideas. In essence, these peculiar points could lead to such inaccuracies like not indicating properly whether a battle between two warriors indeed takes place on a bridge for the sake of highlighting places of worship.

This is an outline of the general area is Kyoto where the event takes place, as well as key locations mentioned in the story. The most important point to take from this is the location of the modern Gojō Ōbashi (Gojō Grand bridge) versus the previous Gojō bridge, now known as Matsubara hashi (Matsubara bridge).

On a related note, it is worth mentioning the naming convention “Gojō” is connected to the Gojō tōri, or “5th street” for simpler reading. As one would expect, the Gojō tōri is part of a numerical sequence of large streets that run through Kyoto, so there is an Ichijō tōri, (1st Street), Nijō tōri, (2nd Street), and so on. In turn, these same streets have their own matching bridges over the Kamo river. The Matsubara bridge, the former location of Gojō bridge, is geographically where Gojō tōri is said to have have been (present-day Matsubara tōri), which is one of the reasons for the name of the shrine Gojō Tenjin to have “Gojō” in it, as it sits near the edge of that former street (now called Matsubara tōri). Today, Gojō tōri runs along the same line as Gojō bridge…which seems to also be where Rokujō tōri is supposed to be.


In ending, certain aspects of history can make tangible things much more special, becoming intangible cultural icons. In the case of Yoshitsune and Benkei’s fated encounter, it’s been passed down as a lore that embraces the Gojō bridge as the stage for this. Being an old story, sometimes details don’t match up quite as well as they should, which can bring up questions, such as the accuracy the actual location. At the end of the day, it is best to see the modern day Gojō bridge as a tribute to the original location in my personal opinion. While there are perks to understanding the specifics, it shouldn’t deter a person from visiting this massive bridge and enjoy its visuals.

1) Historically famous under the title “Minamoto no Yoshitsune” as an adult. When he was younger, including the time of meeting Benkei, he went by the nickname “Ushiwakamaru”. To avoid confusion, we will primarily stick with his adult name for this article, where it applies.

2) There are a few other adaptations that cover this fated encounter as well, this including those interestingly entitled “Benkei Monogatari” (弁慶物語), “Hashi Benkei” (橋弁慶), and “Jisori Benkei” (じぞり弁慶). While all have their similarities, a few of them contain more info about Benkei, as well as some slight variations to how Yoshitsune and Benkei’s encounter unfolded, such as directly centering the Gojō bridge as the sole location where they would meet & conclude their battle.

3) This waterway points to the Kamo river, and may be the hint to Yoshitsune crossing over it by the Gojō bridge. Problem is, this is not actually stated in the Gikeiki, leading readers to assume this is the case. Note that this is an issue with the Gikeiki, and not necessarily a problem found in other sources covering Yoshitsune & Benkei’s fight.

4) In the Gikeiki, this is narrated as if this happened by chance. Benkei guesses that he would meet Yoshitsune at Kiyomizu-dera at night, and sure enough he appears. There is no indication that this is an arranged meeting, which is strange…or possibly the readers are to assumed that there was a clue hinting to the two agreeing to meet there…?

5) This is similar to the “Heike Monogatari” (平家物語), another historical text that covers the same events found in the Gikeiki, except more from the perspective of the Taira clan. While the author of the Heike Monogatari is unknown, it was told by monks in the form of verses for many generations.

Myths & Tales: Kyohachi ryu ~Part 2~

We continue today with part 2 on the topic about Kyohachi ryu. The focus of discussion will be on people who have direct ties to the legend of this sword system. If you missed out on the previous discussion on the beginnings of Kyohachi ryu, you can read it here.

First on our list is Minamoto no Yoshitsune. A famous general of the Minamoto clan on his own merit and deeds, Yoshitsune is viewed as a possible representative of Kyohachi ryu. There are some speculations that he may have been  one of the eight monks whose style collectively represents Kyohachi ryu. There are, unfortunately, no solid proof regarding this. The reason behind these possibilities has to do with how close he was to the source.

Let’s set our sights to the early years of his life, when Yoshitsune was known by the name of Ushiwakamaru. Around 1170, Ushiwakamaru was sent to reside in the Kurama Temple around the age of 11 up in Mount Kurama. There, under the care of the monks, he was fed, clothed, and educated in various things, including bujutsu.

Ushiwaka-maru training with tengu
Artwork called “Ushiwaka-maru training with the tengu”. (鞍馬山での修行, created in 1859 By Yoshikazu Utagawa) Features Ushiwakamaru (middle, top), Daitengu Sojobo (right, pale skin, red attire), and other tengu of different ranks. From Wikipedia.

It is written that he was very talented and skilled in the martial arts, particularly with the tachi. It is even fabled that he was taught an unusual sword method by a tengu, due to his unique sword play. However, in some written accounts it is said that the “tengu” was actually Kiichi Hogen1. This is most likely the case, since Kiichi Hogen is associated with Kurama Temple. The Gikeiki2, a written account on Ushiwakamaru’s (Yoshitsune’s) life, features detailed accounts regarding Ushiwakamaru and Kiichi Hogen’s history together. There is even an account of him stealing one of Kiichi’s prized manuals and studying it to understand the secrets of warfare3. However, the many accounts in Gikeiki are not all considered factual, so some things have to be taken with a grain of salt.

kuruma dachi artwork
A sketch of Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s kuruma dachi (車太刀), which can be found on “Kuramadera“, the official website of the Kurama Temple here. Sketch by Neal H.

While there are no descriptions on a systematic level in regards to what was learned while residing at Kurama Temple, what has been passed down in documentations are descriptions of Yoshitsune’s display of skills. For example, Yoshitsune apparently wielded a short tachi4 with great mobility. A description of it from Wikipedia illustrates his kenjutsu as:


Which I’ve translated as:

“A sword art that incorporates a short sword to quickly trap his adversary through the use of agility”

Described as being quick, yet crafty & tactful at a young age, Yoshitsune was a force to be reckoned with. Could it be that this is a representation of Kyohachi ryu? Did he utilize this same unusual sword method to defeat the likes of individuals such as the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei5, and the thief Kumasaka Chouhan6?

Ushiwaka and Benkei dueling on Gojo Bridge
Artwork entitled “Ushiwaka and Benkei dueling on Gojo Bridge” (五条の大橋, 1881 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi). From Wikipedia.

As an adult, Minamoto no Yoshitsune is said to have been a skilled fighter and strategist during the Genpei Gassen, or the Genpei War7. His skills with the sword is fitting with the premise Kyohachi ryu is based on. Is it possible that some form of records or inheritance of his kenjutsu exist? There are several guesses. One of them, for example, is that Yoshitsune inspired the development of martial system known as Yoshitsune ryu. It is also known as Kurama ryu in some sources, but this is highly debated, and will be addressed at a later time.

There are no known detailed records of Yoshitsune ryu’s history or contents, which makes verifying its existence even harder. On a positive point, it is mentioned in old documents pertaining to other martial schools, Musashi Enmei ryu being one of them. Musashi Enmei ryu, which specializes in kenjutsu and iaijutsu, gives credence to several sources for its foundation, which are Shunjoubou Chougen (founder of the main line Enmei ryu), Miyamoto Musashi (founder of Musashi Enmei ryu), and none other than Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Here’s a brief summary (in my own words) of what is explained in this school’s history8.

“In the Heian period, Minamoto no Yoshitsune received training on Mount Kurama from the Daitengu Sojobo, as well as studied many military manuals. (Kiichi Hogen’s presumably…?) Later in the years, he developed Yoshitsune ryu. Shunjoubou Chougen too trained under the same Daitengu, and through the tutelage from Yoshitsune, was taught the inner secrets of his Kurama ryu (aka Yoshitsune ryu). From this, Chougen developed his own sword system, Enmei ryu.”

Since Musashi Enmei ryu, a branch to the original Enmei ryu, traces back to the knowledge of sword play from Yoshitsune himself, one would think that it’s possible to get an understanding of the great sword methods passed down from Kiichi Hogen. Perhaps. But with many arts that have a long history, there is a strong chance that the contents have changed based on the times, the necessity of certain techniques, and the vision the successors of the time may have had on Enmei ryu. Or association with a legendary figure like Yoshitsune may have been used as an angle to give more credibility to this sword school.

Here ends part 2 on the discussion of Kyohachi ryu and Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s connection with this sword system. In the next part, we will continue further with particular individuals said to be one of the 8 monks that received their sword training from Kiichi Hogen himself.

1) In martial arts, stories about being trained by tengu implies how extraordinary the techniques are. This also implies that the individual receiving the training was supernaturally skilled. Since there are many tales regarding Yoshitune achieving feats that seem impossible, it is most fitting to tie his abilities to be the making of the tengu.

2) Gikeiki (義経記) is a book on military-related tales concerning Minamoto no Yoshitsune. It is believed to have been written and compiled sometime between the Nabokucho period and Muromachi period.

3)  Rikuto (六韜, pronounced as Liu Tao in Mandarin), which translates as “The 6 Secret Strategies”, is a famous Chinese military manual written by Jiang Ziya, believed to have been first penned in the Zhou Dynasty. (circa 1100 BCE) This is 1 of 7 writings on warfare from China, which as a collection are referred to as “The 7 Military Classics of Ancient China”.

4) The name of Yoshitsune’s sword written in kanji (Chinese characters) is “車太刀”. This is read as “kuruma dachi”, and is very akin to the kodachi (short sword). According to the book “Koshirae – Japanese Sword Mountings” by Markus Sesko, this type of sword was possibly designed for use in confined spaces, such as while riding a coach-like vehicle. The sword length of Yoshitsune’s kuruma dachi is 53 cm with a rather wide curvature.

5) Musashibou Benkei, a famous sohei (warrior monk) who was a loyal companion to Yoshitsune. A rather large and brash monk who is usually portrayed wielding a naginata, Benkei proved to be a great support in the many adventures of Yoshitsune till the very end. While there are conflicting accounts as to when, where, and how the two became acquaintances, one of the more popular versions from the book “Nihon Mukashi Banashi” (written by  Iwaya Sazanami in 1894) tells the story as the following: On the Gojo Daibashi (Gojo Bridge) Musashibo Benkei was terrorizing any warriors that attempted to cross by beating them, and confiscating their swords. Benkei amassed 998 swords and would stop once he acquires 999 total. His 999th encounter so happened to be with Ushiwakamaru (Yoshitsune). Although Benkei tried intently to smite his young opponent, Ushiwakamaru used light footwork and agility to evade his attacks, and defeated him with his own counterattack. Amazed, Benkei gave full devotion to his young superior, and from there on joined Ushiwakamaru’s company.

6) Kumasaka Chouhan is a legendary leader of a gang of thieves during the Heian period. A popular version of his story from the traditional performance “Eboshiori” recites how Chouhan lead a robbery attempt with his gang of 300+ thieves on Ushiwakamaru (15 years old at the time) and his merchant companion Kaneuri Kichiji as they were traveling at night to an area called Oshu. Ushiwakamaru is said to have cut down 83 of the thieves with speed and agility, as well as beat Chouhan 1-on-1 with unique yet superior sword techniques.

7) The Genpei Gassen (1180-1185) involved the rivalry between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan. Both sides were struggling to maintain power over the Imperial court and gain control over Japan. Minamoto no Yoshitsune contributed to ending the war through offensive warfare and strategic approach during the progression of battles, which ultimately led to the eradication of the Taira clan.

8) Full explanations can be found on Musashi Enmei ryu’s official website here