Every practitioner of Japanese budo has heard about the legendary Butokuden. Completed in 1899, it served as the HQ dojo for the Dai-Nippon Butokukai from then until the end of World War 2, after which it changed hands a few times, finally coming under the safe ownership and protection of Kyoto city. Despite undergoing a slightly tumultuous ride for a number of years, it remained the venue for kendo’s most important yearly event: the Kyoto Taikai.
Prior to WW2 there were branch Butokuden’s built throughout the country (plus a dozen in Japanese occupied Taiwan and one in China), some of which not only still exist today but are even used for keiko. However, what many people – including Japanese kenshi – don’t know is that there were actually two Butokuden’s in Kyoto: the main one (nicknamed the “Okazaki Butokuden”) and a branch one (nicknamed the “Kitano Butokuden”).
Originally built in 1914 in the precincts of Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu shrine, the the Kyoto branch Butokuden (thus the “Kitano” Butokuden) served as a dojo for Kyoto’s numerous kenshi. Luckily the building survived the war undamaged and was in continuous use (rebranded as “Heian dojo“) as a budojo until 2000 when – due to age related wear and tear – keiko was ceased. The then current owners of the building (Kyoto police department) decided the building was too old to repair and planned to knock it down.
Fight for survival
At this point interested individuals got involved and tried to somehow save the building from being destroyed. A petition was signed by over 7000 people and presented to the Kyoto prefectural office in hope that they would somehow help.
At the same time the city and prefectural kendo, aikido, judo, and sport federations were approached and asked to help, but in the end none but the aikido federation were interested in contributing. Reasons cited was that it was too costly a project, that it was too much of a hassle, and even “we already have one Butokuden in Kyoto, why do we need another?” It was at this time that they realised that trying to save the building as a budo-jo was difficult, and that a change in tack may be required.
Success was finally had when they promoted the project as one to save an historic building, one that could be used as an exceptional example of traditional Japanese wooden building technique. That is, the building itself was talked about as a “cultural” space rather than for simply budo.
Kitano Butokuden was finally bought sometime in the mid-late 2000’s by Shoren-in temple with the aim of moving the entire structure from inside Kitano Tenmangu Shrine to the top of a large hill in the north overlooking the city.
* Please note that if I am being rather vague about the details in this section it’s because I am not 100% certain of the exact motivations of the parties involved nor the actual flow of events – I have little resources to work with. I will update this article with more information when/if I discover it.
Dismantling and conservation
The entire dismantling, reconstruction, and moving took a staggering 5 years, with the new structure finally opening to the public in autumn 2014.
The specialist carpenter who did the job has pictures on his website here. He also has a blog with more info and pics but it doesn’t look like it’s up to date. The following couple of pics are taken from there.
Currently – Seiryuden (青龍殿)
The building itself was completely renewed (it looks great!), renamed (“Seiryuden”), and is set on a kind of platform looking down over Kyoto (see below). A brand new front section was added onto one side which now houses the painting of the “Blue Cetaka” (a demon-like guardian deity) national treasure. But, truth be told, I had little interest in the location or the national treasure – I was here to see the dojo.
The building has been beautifully restored and – apart from the ugly extra part tacked onto the front to house the painting above – looks fantastic! What a gorgeous building! Inside the structure is pretty much identical to the Okazaki Butokuden, only smaller and without a Gyokuza. I planted a few fumikomi’s on the floor (ignoring the surprised looks of others!) and can confirm that it feels great. On the whole I was highly impressed.
However one thing was really annoying: in the literature they hand out (and online) there is almost nothing mentioned about the history of the building. By almost nothing, I mean it says “it was a dojo in the precincts of Kitano Tenmangu” and thats it. It doesn’t mention anything else. Sure the building itself has been preserved and kept for generations to visit, but I can’t help something has been lost at the same time. At any rate, please check out these iPhone snaps:
The current structure was moved to an a part of the Shoren-in estate completely separate from the temple itself called “Shogun-zuka.” Due to the fact that the location is at the top of a hill the easiest way to get there is by taxi. From outside Heian-Jingu it probably takes 10-15 minutes and costs around 1,500 yen or a wee bit more/less.
Another alternative route is to walk up through Yasaka-jinja and Maruyama park but it’s very difficult for me to explain here. I suggest getting a taxi up to Shogun-zuka and then – after you’ve finished visiting Seiryuden – walking down through the woods into the park. The path isn’t great so it’s not suitable for fancy shoes and might be a bit treacherous in the rain.
For those budoka interested in the architecture of dojo I definitely recommend a visit to Seiryuden. Most of the other people visiting the structure will be doing so to see the painting mentioned above, to see any art instillations, and to check out the view down over the city – all of which you can enjoy too. As a kendoka, however, you know the real score!