On a boiling hot morning in May 2017 I set off armed with a 50 year old picture to find the grave of the person who I consider the single most influential kenshi in the history of modern kendo: Naito Takaharu sensei. I had known for a while before then the general location of his grave, but it was the first time I had actually attempted to find it. It was said to located within the precincts of Konkai-komyo-ji (usually referred to as Kurodani by the locals), one of the head temples of the Jodo sect (Pure Land) of buddhism. Founded in 1175, the place is full of old structures, lots of greenery, and many, many, graves. Although I gave up trying to find Naito that day, it never strayed far from my mind.
Naito Takaharu sensei was born in Mito domain on the 25th of September in 1862. He studied kenjutsu at Mito Tobukan, before heading out into the world. Eventually he became an instructor at Keishicho, before being recruited as to the Butokukai’s HQ in Kyoto. There he would spend 30 years developing kenshi. He died of a sudden cerebral haemorrhage on the 9th of April 1929. A more extensive bio can be read here and here.
I haven’t stopped reading and researching in the last few years, but I could never find more information about the grave. Every now and then I searched online, but there was nothing there either. One night last week – for no real reason, the idea just randomly floated to mind – I thought about asking a good kendo friend of mine. He was born and raised in Kyoto, and is a well known and popular sensei (he was a member of the Japanese team in Paris 1984). I thought “if he doesn’t know, then nobody knows.”
He got back to me quickly and said “Kurodani? I never knew Naito’s grave was there… let me see what I can find out.” I must admit, I wasn’t feeling very confident.
The very next day he got back to me: amazingly a childhood friend of his was a head priest of one of the temples in the precincts! The gentlemen not only located the grave for us (seemingly it wasn’t listed on whatever records are normally kept of these things), but he kindly sent us a video of how we could get there. I was amazed!
The Butokukai is often referenced in this history-heavy blog, so I needn’t go in to detail for this article. It’s HQ dojo – the Butokuden – was completed in 1899, and it would serve as the centre of kendo in Japan for decades (and still does to an extent). It is mostly known as the location of the yearly Kyoto Taikai event today. Next to the dojo a school for kendo teacher instruction was set up in 1905, with Naito soon becoming its chief instructor. Many of the most influential kenshi in the kendo community came through this school, training directly with Naito in the early years, or under his students and methods in later years. Orthodox kendo training generally follows Naito’s methods even today.
If you have been to the Butokuden you might have seen a number of stone plinths dotted around the area. The one pictured here is a memorial set up to Naito by his students (Miyazaki Mosaburo being the main driver behind its installation). It is located next to the west entrance to the Butokuden. A small remembrance ceremony to Naito sensei is held here during the Kyoto Taikai.
On Sunday the 14th of June 2020 (the morning after my friend gave me the good news) I set out early from Osaka. The rainy season had just started and it was wet and muggy, but I had to go. Since Kurodani is about 10-15mins north-east from the Butokuden, I obviously popped in to have a look.
The Butokuden is closed due to the current pandemic, but it still looks awesome. I checked out the plinth to Naito sensei that was set up by his students in 1965. As I mentioned above, a small buddhist memorial ceremony is held here during the Kyoto Taikai. This didn’t seem to the case when I first visited the taikai (I’ve been attending for nearly 20 years now), but a ceremony had definitely been held there in the past. Whether it was stopped (or was forgotten about) and then re-instated recently I have no idea. Perhaps I just didn’t notice it happening before.
Anyway, the first time I did see it being held there was some official looking gentleman trying to coax people into the area to sit and participate in the memorial, as almost nobody was showing interest. When I tried to go in I was rudely shooed away. Obviously it was because I must have looked like I didn’t know what was going on. They were very wrong of course. I bit my lip and stayed quiet.
After visiting the Butokuden I headed over to Kurodani. One effect of the current pandemic here in Japan is there are no tourists. This, thankfully, makes visiting temples and shrines in Kyoto a lot more … peaceful than they have become in recent years.
With the video in hand I easily followed the path to the grave. As I turned the corner I was surprised to see my good kendo friend – the gentleman that managed to get the final bit of info needed to make this reality – standing there already. He looked at me and laughed:
“Oh!! George… I knew you’d come… hah hah hah!”– awesome kendo friend
Finally I was there, standing in front of Naito sensei.
I can’t describe the moment exactly, as we were kind of laughing at our own craziness and then we just got to work. The graves – Naito sensei’s and his wife’s) were in decent shape but kind of “empty” and a bit dirty. We cleaned all the leaves from around them, washed the stones, and put down some flowers and a small cup of sake (next time I will bring something for his wife as well). The place was crawling with mosquitos and insects of every kind (I also saw a sign that said “beware of poisonous snakes”) but that didn’t stop us. By the time we were finished we were soaking with sweat.
Afterwards, while we walked through the temple grounds and visited a few other areas (we called on the head priest to say thanks, but he was out), we made a kind of pact to come now and again to look after the graves. I will come at least once a year, during the Kyoto Taikai. My friend – and this is quite funny – actually only lives about 10 minutes walk away. He never even knew where the grave was, despite being born and raised in Kyoto, having practised kendo his whole life there, and even training under a direct disciple of Naito sensei. He chortled away about how it took some kendo-crazed mad Scotsman to make this discovery. Since he is well known in the scene, it will only be a short time before other kenshi make the pilgrimage, and I am sure they will help with the maintenance as well.
If you even plan to visit Naito’s grave, remember and treat it with respect. You can find it in the grounds of Konkai-komyo-ji, behind the three-storied pagoda at the back.