Aoba-jō: the one-eyed dragon’s castle

“Otsukaresama desu!”
As I close the office door and step outside into the crisp evening air, I am greeted by a familiar scenery. Around me, big powdery snowflakes slowly drift towards the ground. Though they sometimes swirl up briefly at the whims of the wind, they eventually find their way towards the roofs, the branches and the canopies below to cover them in an ephemeral white veil: a beautiful spectacle, yet also short-lived. By the time I walk back towards RCNS the following morning, ice and snow have made way for puddles, leaving little more than straggler icebergs, floating adrift on an ocean of bricks and muddy concrete.


Overseeing the waxing and waning of the cold, white blanket, as if staring with a fixed gaze unto the shore, the statue of an unyielding horseman looms over the city of Sendai. It stands as a tall reminder of the provincial capital’s history. When the sculpture’s subject figure, Date Masamune, first set foot on the hill where his image now watches over the city, the area must have looked quite different. A humble fishing village likely lay at the mouth of the nearby river. And scattered mountain temples occupied the surrounding hills. Besides these however, the location scarcely presented itself as a place a mighty samurai lord would pride himself on. How come then, that Date Masamune, the “one-eyed dragon of Oushu”, designated the area as his seat of power?

The century prior to the founding of Sendai-city had been a tumultuous one. Sparked by a successional dispute over who was to become the next shougun1 and stoked up by the territorial claims of an increasingly wealthy class of feudal lords, the period from 1467 to the end of the 16th century had seen unending conquest and uprisings. The Japanese remember her by a telling name: “Sengoku-jidai”, the age of the country at war.
Tucked up in the Northernmost provinces of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Date Masamune’s progenitor clan (the Date clan) had no direct involvement in the primary power struggle near Kyoto. Nevertheless, the capital’s reach could be felt clearly even there. As the influence of the central government waned, many lords started to vie over control of the Northern domains. Date Masamune not only succeeded in consolidating the Date territory in the face of such hostile incursions, he also managed to unite his neighbours in defiance of the major warlords of his time, resisting most large-scale invasions successfully.
By the time the warring states period had come to an end, the Date clan had managed to set a name for itself as one of the major powers in Northern Japan. And it would remain so, over the next several centuries. When the new military ruler of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, established his court in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1603, Date Masamune tactfully relocated his own palace to Sendai, which lay on a busy trade-route between the North and the South. Though small at first, the village soon grew into the main economical and cultural center of the region.


Today, many Sendai landmarks stand as reminders of the rapid change that took place at the start of the 17th century. I’ve been able to visit two of them over the past few weeks. The first site I happened upon — admittedly semi-accidentally — Aoba-jō: literally “blue leaf castle”. Although I had been aware of my dormitory’s close proximity to what had once been Sendai’s historical castle town, my first encounter with one of its outer wall gates took me by surprise. Not even five minutes ago, I had still been walking across the university campus, with libraries and modern lecture-halls, popping in and out of view as time went by. Yet now, I stood face to face with the facade of a building that reminded of a Kurosawa movie. I approached the structure to find a small explanation about its history near one of the walls.
Standing at the entrance of what would have once been the castle’s third ring, the white building before me apparently formed the reconstruction of one of the outer wall’s corner towers. It had been designated a national treasure in 1931, together with the adjacent Otemon gate. However, a devastating airstrike at the end of the second world war laid the tower to waste, along with nearly the entirety of the rest of the castle, leaving only one of the stone inner walls intact. What can be seen at the site today, therefore, can only hint at the architectural marvel that once occupied the castle hill. But that is not to say that the location is unimpressive or that a visit is not worthwhile. Who ventures to the top of the castle hill, immediately understands why Date Masamune chose to house his administration there. A balustrade offers a spectacular view of the surrounding area. In the distance, mountains and valleys rise and fall among the clouds, whilst the skyline of a sprawling city marks the foreground. A warlord settling here, would have claimed not only an area that offered great defense, but also a location which provided ample opportunity to impress guests and subordinates alike with extensive views over his vast domain.


The hilltop itself stands mostly bare today. A great square in the center points to the area which once housed the castle’s main keep. Tourists and children wander over its cobblestone paths wearing giant 3D-goggles, which can be used to re-envision what the interior was like. Other people gather around a group of actors, dressed up as Masamune and his loyal retainers — eye-patch on and sword at the ready. “See no… Banzai!”. Whilst the group and several tourists shout a victory-cry into the air, an actor dressed in monk’s robes, takes a merry picture.
I walk on as the sun sets in the distance. At the end of the balustrade, I find the statue of Date Masamune riding on horseback, his gaze fixed upon the city below. Though advertised as Sendai’s main icon and landmark, his figure doesn’t form the only sculpture on the hill. A few steps onward along the path to the parking lot, lies another statue of an entirely different theme. Fiercely spreading its wings, as if just having landed on top of its prey, a giant eagle perches on an orb, whilst obscuring the stone image of a turret in the back. The statue’s composition seems to carry great weight. With the apparent decoupling of the statue’s animal subject and its would-be nest or pedestal, motion is created where stone and mortar would have otherwise formed a stale and stationary mass. Though perhaps not as iconic as the samurai on his horse, I can’t remember having seen anything quite like it.


Walking further down along the path, I soon encountered a giant red Torii marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Although I had read a thing or two about the proper etiquette in and around a shrine, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat unsure about what to do. Around me, Japanese nationals walked towards a stone water basin to wash their hands and mouths. I had read that this is part of a small cleansing ritual, which every shrine visitor is supposed to observe. As a tradition which largely centers its morality around the concepts of musubi and tsumi (i.e. the creative and harmonizing powers in the world on the one hand and spiritual or physical pollutions which separate us from these on the other), Shintoism places great emphasis on the purity of the body and the soul. It’s for this reason that men and women wash at the entrance of a Shinto shrine. The kami2 which reside and are worshiped inside, must be approached with clean body as well as pure intent. Anyone who does so, may call for the kami’s attention by ringing a bell at the site’s main building and praying in the hopes of being granted good fortune.
Since it was my first time at a Shinto shrine and since I didn’t have anyone with me to show me the way, I decided to stall the bell-ringing and praying for another time, opting to observe and listen to the rituals for now instead. The time for me to do it myself might come soon, however! Since its custom to visit a local temple and shrine at the start of the new year and since I’ll be spending the new year celebrations in one of Japan’s most shrine- and temple-rich cities, I expect myself to have rung quite a few bells by the end of next week. There will be new entries on this and on other experiences in January 2019.

For now I would like to wish you all a happy new year! Although it’s not always been easy to decide upon a proper writing approach for some of the blog posts, nor to find the time to jot all of my experiences down, I’m grateful to hear that many of you have enjoyed reading up on a few of my adventures on this website so far. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue doing so even better next year! あけましておめでとうございます! また来年!


1. “Shougun” was the title worn by the military dictators and de-facto rulers of Japan, in the ages between 1185 and 1868. Although the emperor still maintained nominal rule over his subjects, he had little say in most governmental decisions. This changed when the emperor was restored to power at the start of the Meiji restoration.

2. It’s very hard to give a satisfactory definition or description of the word kami. Where I look for it, the word is often translated as “spirit” or “god”. Yet I also read that these are oversimplications, which can lead to misunderstanding. Almost anything can serve as a kami: birds, animals, trees, mountains, rocks, lakes or oceans. There are even several human kami. As far as I understand the concept now, they can all be understood as large natural or physical embodiments of the energy (or rather: musubi) which pervades and connects the natural world. If that’s too vague, however, simply regarding them as the things and beings which abide in and are worshiped at Shinto shrines, seems to be sufficient.

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