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  • Shona McCarthy

The Grave Of Ryoma Sakamoto


Ryoma Sakamoto was probably the greatest man in Japanese history. So, naturally his grave is a point of great significance. I described visiting a restaurant where he ate in another post. But visiting his grave site can also be done in the same area of Kyoto. I decided to dress for the occasion, wearing kimono, hakama and even a pair of slip-on shoes with thick wooden soles. What I didn't know was that Sakamoto's grave was half way up a mountain. While there were man-made steps leading up the mountain to this historic monument and graveyard, these steps were very old and made of natural stones cemented together at odd angles. As a result, the surfaces were jagged and lumpy: not a good fit for my chunky clogs. To even approach the graveyard, you need to pay a small admission fee at a temple where you can also buy various forms of Ryoma Sakamoto merchandise.

(A sign on the road on the way to Ryoma Sakamoto's grave. Taken by me, 2019.)

Getting up was what I found easy. I was able to weave and meander till I found paths that suited me. I climbed to a point that looked somewhat dilapidated and relatively contemporary and military. "What is this?" I wondered. So I took out Google Translate and used its camera function to read one of the many plaques on the wall. I felt so ambivalent and confused as I learned that I was at a memorial for Soldiers who had died during WW2. How should I feel about this? I feel so odd even as I write this, knowing I had once hobbled around Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance, weeping with admiration and gratitude for the lives lost so that Australians now could enjoy democracy and free expression. And then there I was, accidentally standing in a place memorializing people who had been the enemy long ago. I took a moment to think about the fact that regardless of what side you take in a war, you were still someone's baby once. What I found further up that mountain confused me all the more. The traditional old graveyard was full of the narrow, tall gravestones characteristic of traditional Japanese graveyards. I came to the grave of Ryoma Sakamoto himself and his best friend. A statue of them both stands by the grave, facing outward so that it is as though they are both watching all of Kyoto. My heart was so touched by this. Even as I write this I hold in tears to know how much love there is in this place.

Indeed I had wept a little most of the way up the hill, knowing how important this place was. Upon finding it all such a challenge to mount, I had lost some of my feelings, but seeing the statue, I had to take a photo. I was standing in front of the grave of a man who had been a champion of courage and diplomacy. And I was standing on the same mountain where an army that had no mercy at all was also remembered. I feel certain that had Ryoma Sakamoto been alive during the Second World War, that war might not have happened at all. Or, at least, Japan might not have gotten involved and maybe the world would be very different.

(A picture of the statue of Ryoma Sakamoto and his best friend. Taken by me, 2019.) As a Christian, I found myself morally conflicted about paying my respects in the Japanese manner. That means putting a coin offering in a coffer and then placing one's hands together as if praying, and then bowing. So ironically, I didn't carry out this ritual. But I decided to keep wandering the mountain. Many of the Bakumatsu warriors are buried on the same hill. Even the man who assassinated Ryoma Sakamoto is there. Ironically, I ended up performing the ritual of his grave. I decided that being respectful is the Christian thing to do, and that I was praying for those dead warriors rather than to them. It felt strange to know how well loved Ryoma Sakamoto is, and yet the same warrior that killed him is memorialised on the same mountain. Making my way down the mountain was really challenging. I became very afraid of how lumpy the stairs were and how steep the climb was. So I decided to get down on my side and sort of shimmy down the steps. But as I did, an old man can along, wanting to climb the stairs, "Please excuse me." I told him in Japanese, as he asked me, "Daijobu?" or "Are you okay?" in Japanese. He asked me this more than once. So I replied, "Gamman suru." which means something like, "I shall endure." But after a time, I realised how much I was inconveniencing him by blocking his path, so I gratefully accepted his help. His hand felt small, cold, wrinkled and kind as he helped to to understand where to place my feet so that I would not slip down the hill. In fractured Japanese I told him how scared I was. He said something like, "I remember being young and scared, too." When he got me to a point on the mountain where the stairs were more even and contemporary, he asked me if I would be okay onwards of that point. I coneeded and so he let me go as I thanked him and wished him well. I tentatively clambered the rest of the way. When I looked up, he was a tiny speck in the distance. I thought, "Old Japanese people must be so healthy!" Not far from this mountain is the Ryoma Sakamoto museum. But I'll talk about it in another entry.



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