Sanjo Bridge was a place where the samurai displayed the chopped heads of their arch-rivals. There are also reports that Hideyoshi Toyotomi (the samurai who built Osaka Castle) displayed the chopped heads of his adversaries on the bridge and threw the head of Sen no Rikyu (The founder of Tea ceremony who later was charged with seppuku) under the bridge. No doubt, the bridge is most famous for being the last battle stage for Shinsengumi and the Choshu clan during the Bakumatsu period.
The second half of the 19th century was a turbulent time in Japan. Tensions between pro-Imperial loyalists and shogunate loyalists starkly divided the country. Old grudges from the founding of the Tokugawa regime continued to fester. The Mori clan, which had been defeated by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the battle of Sekigahara two hundred and fifty years earlier, now maneuvered for power with a series of loose alliances, calling themselves Choshu han. Unfortunately, the Choshu weren’t unified in their goals or methods. While some participated in violent anti-foreigner expulsions at the behest of the Emperor, others actively plotted against the Imperial palace in Kyoto. This had them declared enemies of the Imperial Court in 1866.
In September of that year, a signboard was erected at Sanjo Bridge, publicly announcing that the Choshu han were enemies of the state. Its placement was strategically significant, as Sanjo Bridge was historically the final leg of two of Japan’s “Five Routes” for travelers embarking on long journeys. Placing the indictment there ensured that it would be seen, and travel broadly across the country. This angered the Choshu who repeatedly tore down the sign whenever it was replaced. Finally, a detachment of Shinsengumi was sent to capture the vandals and bring them to justice. Thirty-four Shinsengumi were sent in three units. Two dressed as beggars on the side of the bridge, laying in wait. When eight samurai approached the sign to destroy it, three were brought down while the remaining five escaped.
If you go to the Sanjo Bridge from the Sanjo Shopping Street side (Starbucks would be on your left) the 2nd pole on your right still has the scratches from the last fight between the Choshu clan samurai and the Shinsengumi fighters. There is no explanation in English so you can stop by the Kyoto Samurai and Ninja Museum which is 3 minutes from the bridge to learn more about the samurai.
Sanjo bridge is also special as you can still see the supports under the bridge that are about 400 years old. In the Spring and summer, many people sit by the river and some musicians perform near the bridge. You get a very unique small town feeling passing on the bridge in the early evening anytime of the year.
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