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.
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.
GOJŌ TENJIN SHRINE
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.
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 meet⁴ 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).
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.
POTENTIAL HISTORICAL INACCURACIES
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.
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.