Mimizuka (耳塚) and Toyokuni-jinja (豊国神社)

While I have been thinking about Miyagawa-cho and our machiya experience this year, I have been reminded of our first encounter with this part of Kyoto. My husband, as I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, is interested in the samurai history of Japan. I’ve bought him a couple of books over the years, and one time he was reading about Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He ruled Japan in the Momoyama period, and is thought of as the second leader to unify Japan during its feudal history. Toyotomi was the builder of Osaka Castle and consolidated the samurai system by declaring that only samurai could bear arms, and by ordering the samurai to live in castle towns. He also forbade political marriages, in an attempt to prevent rival clans from usurping his rule.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi is remembered across Japan in a number of shrines, all of which bear the name Toyokuni. One of those shrines is located in Kyoto, east of the city centre, towards Higashiyama. Toyotomi died in Kyoto in 1598 and the Toyokuni-jinja in the city is his official shrine and mausoleum.

Knowing how impressed my husband was by Toyotomi’s achievements, I suggested we went to look at the shrine. At the same time, he had read about another of Toyotomi’s ‘achievements’. He was responsible for a number of invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598. During those invasions, Japanese soldiers would slice off the noses of the fallen Koreans to bring home both as a trophy and as a kind of proof that they had killed as many as they claimed to have done. Toyotomi had ordered his troops to spare nobody and to send the heads of the slain back to Japan, but Korea was too far away from Japan for this to be practical. The trophies had to be brought back on the Japanese ships, so space was at a premium, and heads are apparently hard to preserve. My husband told me that the noses were transported back to Kyoto in barrels of salt water. Then they were enshrined in a monument called Hanazuka. A few years later, it was decided that Hanazuka was too ugly a name for the monument (perhaps noses were thought to be too gruesome a trophy by Toyotomi’s successors? I don’t know) and it was renamed Mimizuka, or Hill of Ears.

Intrigued by this tale, I looked the monument up on Google Maps, and found an anonymous looking mound with a stone structure on the top, that seemed to be in the middle of a residential area with a children’s play park next to it. It was  just down the street from Toyokuni-jinja, though, so we decided to take a look at both, hoping that such tourism wouldn’t mark us out as disrespectful.

The day we went to Kiyomizudera, we decided to return to the machiya via the shrine and monument. To reach the monument, I worked out that we needed to head down Gojozaka to Gojo-dori, find the post office and turn left. Unfortunately, the post office was a little anonymous, and we ended up walking the entire section of Gojo-dori that leads to the Kamo River. Along the way we were stopped by a fellow traveller who was looking for a particular hostel she was booked into, and who was also struggling to make sense of the info-lite Japanese maps.

When we reached the river, we turned left and walked south past apartment buildings and ryokan. Eventually we reached a junction where it seemed that the road would lead to Toyokuni-jinja, and we turned left again. It was a quiet residential area, with old houses and shops, and gave us a sense of what it’s like to live in Japan. As we followed the road, it did the kind of dogleg that tells you this is an old road following an old feudal lay of the land. As we jinked back on ourselves, Mimizuka came into view. It really was in the middle of the residential area, with a motorbike shop across the road and a play area next to it. It was a strange feeling, standing in the late afternoon sunshine, away from the tourist areas, looking up at a structure that has existed for over 400 years and that contains the remains of ears and noses.


As we stood at the gates, a couple of women also appeared and read the sign on the fence. A young girl arrived after them and said a prayer at the gate. The monument is maintained by the local residents and most visitors are apparently Koreans, as until fairly recently, the Hill of Ears wasn’t mentioned in Japanese history texts at all.

Having spent a few minutes reflecting on how different the physical reality of the mound is in comparison with the somewhat emotionless recording of its existence in a book, we decided to move on to Toyokuni-jinja.

The shrine’s original location was further east, at the foot of one of the mountains in the Higashiyama range, but the Tokugawa shogunate wasn’t happy about the loyalty shown by Toyotomi’s followers (who had been defeated by Tokugawa Ieyasu after Toyotomi’s death) and wanted to remove this focus for their celebration of his enemy. The shrine was closed in 1615, and the current shrine wasn’t rebuilt until the restoration of the emperor that brought in the Meiji era. It was rebuilt on the site of a defunct Buddhist temple, Hokoji, in 1880.

The temple’s bell is believed to be the largest in Japan, and possibly in the world.

It is the original bell cast when the shrine was first built, and is housed in its original bell tower.

The main gate to the shrine, shown in the picture at the top of this blog, is one of three Chinese style gates designated as National Treasures in Japan. Toyotomi built it for his castle at Fushimi and it was moved to the shrine  when it was rebuilt.

It was an interesting way to spend the afternoon. I’m glad that we did it, even if it isn’t what you’d call a standard tourist experience! If you’re interested in Toyotomi Hideyoshi, though, it’s well worth heading east to see these two structures.

The best way to reach them from the centre of Kyoto is head east on Shichijo-dori, crossing the Kamo River, to the Kyoto National Museum (buses 100, 206 and 208 go from Kyoto Station to the National Museum). Head north with Hoko-ji temple and the museum on your right until the road really widens out. Toyokuni-jinja will be on your right and the road leading away from the shrine to the left is the one with Mimizuka on it.


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] spent more time wandering along the Kamo on other trips to Japan. In 2013, we stayed near Toyokuni-jinja and joined the river at Shomen-bashi to walk north to Gojo-dori. We were there in April, and it was […]


  2. […] foto’s van vandaag zijn genomen bij de Toyokuni-schrijn in […]


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