Appeasing the Dead: The Blood Ceiling of Hosen-in

The paths one can take in Kyoto are long and meandering. As a city, Kyoto’s boundaries stretch about 830km², nearly seven San Franciscos in area. One of my favorite places to go is Ohara, a small mountain village to the north, about a forty minute bus ride from my house.

I discovered the beauty of the area about three years ago, when I decided to ride my bicycle as far north as the road would take me (though I don’t recommend it, as the pedestrian lanes all but disappear once  you reach the mountain!) At the time, the plum blossoms were in bloom and farmers were burning off all of their winter refuge: a classical image of simple life that is so easy to find in the rural parts of the city.

Ohara is famous for several things: Its pickles, the women known as Ohara-me, and a series of temples that boast gorgeous moss, flower, and maple tree gardens. The town is charming, in every sense of the word, and the quiet tranquility one can achieve there is faster and far more lasting than other respites in the area.

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I could talk about any number of things in Ohara that I love, or could suggest to others, but today, I’m going to focus on a small temple hidden amidst the larger attractions, Hosen-in.

While the temple has a long and assorted history, I’ll not go into it all today. I’d rather talk about the attraction that truly moved me to stillness – the blood ceiling (shitenjo) in the main hall. N J Magas, who went with me, will soon be debuting her Taiken Japan article on the series of temples that have these ceilings, but I feel I won’t be giving too much away to talk about my personal experience there.

Shitenjo are ceilings made from the bloody floorboards left after the brutal siege of Fushimi Castle in 1600, in which hundreds of samurai lost their life either to the enemy, or by their own hand in the aftermath. Buddhist superstitions believed that the souls of the dead samurai could not rest with the gruesomeness of their demise, and so it was decided that several temples around the Kansai region would take some of the boards into their temples, where the monks and peaceful atmosphere might appease the dead.

Hosen-in is situated in a quiet corner of Ohara, and the day we went, typhoon rains brought a strange curtain of silence to the town. Especially in Hosen-in, the stillness was palpable. Entry included a bowl of matcha tea, which N J and I enjoyed under the open concept of its main hall, which had unobstructed views of the garden for a full ninety degrees. Right above us, a dark mahogany ceiling bore the marks of fingers clenched in palms, a swash of bleached out color designating where, we would learn later, prisoners had been executed in expedited fashion.

Dark scuffs show the places where samurai had clenched their fists before death, and to the right, the executioner's block.
Dark scuffs show the places where samurai had clenched their fists before death, and to the right, the executioner’s block.

The juxtaposition of peaceful scenery and gruesome history of the boards brought both unease and reflection – those boards that had soaked up so much violence had sat in this temple longer than the U.S.A. has even existed.

The monk on duty spoke of a mother and child that had been caught in the fray; the mother died cradling her child against her on the floor. Nearby, the facial features of a samurai have all but impressed themselves on the wood, giving an immediate understanding of the paranoia in recieving ghostly retribution.

The left side of the samurai's face imprint is still visible.
The left side of the samurai’s face imprint is still visible.

The temple is not for the faint of heart, but it is a fascinating place, that left me recognizing the anger and anguish that has brought some parts of the world to develop better ways to communicate and solve disputes. Of course, we are a far way from being finished with that journey, and though our weapons have changed and gotten uglier, but in Japan, this is seen so starkly in the belief of non-violence whenever possible (Prime Minister Abe excluded).

I leave you with final gallery of the temple, and a video recording of Hosen-in’s sekiban, a musical water well that monks use to find the right pitch for chanting. Until next time!

Sekidan Water Well at Hosen-in: 

29 thoughts on “Appeasing the Dead: The Blood Ceiling of Hosen-in

  1. Amazing history and photos. The face print is totally eerie. I wouldn’t want to look up at that all day. : ( But it’s also kind of a nice idea. I’m glad the monks are doing what they can to bring these souls peace.

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    1. I agree. There was sort of a collective gasp when the monk showed us the face, which isn’t visible right away since it is sideways. I’m also the monks have taken on that sad duty. It’s very Japanese, though, I think, to honor even the horrible events of their past with gentle sympathy and respect.


  2. Fantastic post! Ohara was heavily recommended to me but with only 2 days in Kyoto there was no way I was going to make it. I want to spend one month in Kyoto next year so hopefully then.

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    1. Yeah, there was a lot of heavy thinking and stillness while we were there. A kid was running around, rolling on the mats and playing tag with his parents, but even that innocent joy couldn’t break the palpable atmosphere. Really nothing like being there, though I guess it would be the same for a lot of places, like Anne Frank’s house, or Custard’s Last Stand.


    1. Yes! It’s really overwhelming to think about sometimes! But on the plus side, I can see that the U.S. found its “union” and harmony far quicker than most other countries… maybe because our wars have always been so severe and so devastating.


  3. Fascinating. It’s eerie how the peacefulness and beauty of the temple contrast with the imprints of the blood ceiling and the brutality told by the floorboards. But there’s a deep spirituality and respect for the past there, too, and it’s hard to ignore. Thanks for sharing, Alex. 🙂

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    1. Eerie is definitely a good word for it! When I was taking photos, even my camera behaved oddly, sometimes darkening the boards to full red, deeper and darker than what was really there.

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    1. You’re quite welcome, Linda, and good to see you! Having English translations of stuff is certainly helpful; some places in Kyoto have none, and I have to sort of wade through the pamphlets and try to make sense of the kanji when I can. 🙂


    1. Thank you so much! I hope my other content will be just as interesting to you! I had a great experience at this temple, and it would have been remiss of me to not blog about it. 🙂


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