Zuihoden: Honoring Sendai’s Date Daimyo

Sendai became the Tohoku region’s premier city under Daimyo (feudal lord) Date Masamune (1567-1636) at the beginning of the Japan’s historical Edo Period (1603-1867). Images of Date, and especially his iconic samurai helmet with its ornamental crescent moon, are ubiquitous across the city, which well remembers its founding father. Another way in which Sendai honors the Masamune and his legacy is by its tender care of Zuihoden, the tomb of Masamune and several of his progeny on a hillside below the ruins of Sendai’s Aoba castle. Surrounded on three sides by the Hirose River, the hill, known as Kyogamine, was Masamune’s own choice for his memorial, construction of which was completed in 1637, just a year after his death.

In July 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II, American bombs fell on Sendai, inflicting major damage on the city, including destruction of the Date mausoleums at Kyogamine. Thanks to its deep respect for Masamune and his accomplishments, the city of Sendai reconstructed most of the mausoleums in the 1970s and 1980s, adhering as much as possible to their original Momoyama style. Just last year, the entire facility got a facelift that has left it sparkling. It’s a great time to visit.

Zuihoden, technically the name of Masamune’s mausoleum but also frequently used to refer to the entire site, is especially easy to access using the Loople tourism loop bus, which stops at the foot of the hill less than 15 minutes after leaving Sendai Station. The hill is not high or steep, making the visit relatively easy for most people (wheelchair access is very limited because of some stairs along the way).

The entire facility is heavily wooded with stately cedars that were mostly planted around the time the original mausoleum was constructed in the 17th century. They lend to the serene atmosphere of the hillside.

Although not as expansive or opulent as Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine, the style and color scheme of Zuihoden is redolent of that Tokugawa memorial. Was that an accident of the Momoyama style prevalent during the early 17th century, or was it a deliberate attempt to link the Date clan more closely to the Tokugawa shoguns in the minds of those visiting the site?

Masamune lost an eye to smallpox as a child and was popularly known as the “One-Eyed Dragon”. Perhaps it was this nickname that inspired the use of dragons on the Zuihoden memorial as well, as they appear on the roof ridges and even in some of the intricately painted carvings that adorn the structure. Damaged dragons from the pre-war structure are also on display on-site.

Just next door to Masamune’s Zuihoden mausoleum is a small museum containing both Date family relics and relics from the pre-war Zuihoden. There are also a couple of short films running on loops to introduce the family history and the history of the mausoleums themselves.

A short distance through the woods from Zuihoden are Zennoden and Kansenden, the mausoleums of Masamune’s successors. Zennoden commemorates Date Tadamune (1599-1657), Masamune’s second son. Just next to it is Kansenden, the mausoleum of Date Tsunamune (1641-1711), grandson of Masamune and sixth son of Tadamune. Simpler in style that Zuihoden, these, too, were destroyed in 1945 and there are signboards including photos of the pre-war structures.

Stone markers nearby commemorate later Date daimyos. Deeper into the woods is “okosamagobyo”, memorials to Date children who did not survive to adulthood.

As you make your way back down the hill to the bus stop, stop by Zuihoji, a temple just below the complex. It, too, shows off plenty of Date dragons.

Zuihoden is open daily 9:00 to 16:50 (16:40 in December and January; closed on December 31). Admission is JPY570.

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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