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Storm of the Meiji Restoration

  In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu established the shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo), marking the beginning of the over 200-year-long Edo period. In the 1640s, the Edo shogunate implemented a policy of national isolation, allowing only Nagasaki to remain open as a trading port, and permitting trade solely with China, Korea, and the Netherlands.

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Matthew Calbraith Perry


        In 1853, U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry led a fleet to Japan, demanding the opening of ports for trade, an event known as the Perry Expedition . Under pressure, the shogunate opened the country to foreign trade and established embassies in Edo and Kyoto. However, this action displeased the Emperor. The Emperor's declaration, "I do not like foreigners," became a mandate for many samurai opposing the shogunate. Local samurai saw the shogunate's actions as weak and dishonorable, tarnishing the divine land of Japan and the Emperor. They left their domains and gathered in places like Kyoto and Edo, rallying under the slogan "Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians," and began assassinating shogunate officials, foreign envoys, and merchants. These acts were termed "Tenchu" (divine punishment) by the samurai, who saw themselves as executing traitors on behalf of the gods.

           However, some forward-thinking individuals believed that merely killing foreigners would not protect Japan. Especially after witnessing the advanced products of the Western Industrial Revolution, they advocated for learning Western technology and systems to strengthen Japan. This thinking profoundly influenced the later Meiji Restoration. Several prominent figures, using Kyoto as their stage for reform, left a significant mark on Japanese and world history.

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Sakamoto Ryoma

          Sakamoto Ryoma is a household name in Japan. Born in the 1830s, he was a lower-ranking samurai of the Tosa Clan. In his youth, he studied swordsmanship in Edo (now Tokyo). After the Perry Expedition, Sakamoto initially believed that killing all the foreigners who intruded into Japan and the shogunate officials who allowed them was the only way to bring peace to Japan. This changed when he met Katsu Kaishu, a shogunate official.

Sakamoto Ryoma


          Sakamoto Ryoma, initially intending to assassinate Katsu Kaishu, was moved by Katsu's passionate arguments and realized that changing Japan required learning from the West. Thus, Ryoma joined the Kobe Naval Training Center founded by Katsu, where he studied the most advanced Western naval and artillery knowledge. He also began to understand Western political systems, advocating for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy centered around the Emperor to transform the old, decaying Japan into a modern state.

          In 1865, Ryoma opened a company in Nagasaki, trading advanced Western weapons with clans opposing the shogunate. He also facilitated military alliances among these clans, pressuring the shogunate to return power to the Emperor. His actions made him a target for the shogunate, which repeatedly sent the Shinsengumi to assassinate him. In November 1867, while hiding in a small inn in Kyoto, Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated. His death remains one of Japan's greatest mysteries, as much evidence suggests that the shogunate was not behind the assassination.

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Katsu Kaishu



          The Shinsengumi was a samurai group established by the shogunate in Kyoto to maintain order. Many interesting stories are associated with them, detailed in our separate story "Shinsengumi"


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Nijo Castle

          Nijo Castle, located in Kyoto, was built in 1601 under the supervision of Tokugawa Ieyasu. It served as the shogunate's office in Kyoto and as a palace for the shogun when visiting the Emperor. The Ninomaru Palace within the castle is lavishly constructed and is an important asset in Japanese architectural history. It houses numerous paintings on paper sliding doors and screens by the Kano school, Japan's largest painting school, along with many sculptural art pieces.

         The castle's gardens were designed by the famous 17th-century garden designer Kobori Enshu and are typical of the "strolling pond" style gardens. These gardens, which miniaturize the legendary Mount Penglai, celebrate the Tokugawa family's glory and are a prime example of Japanese garden design.

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         In 1867, with increasing calls for the shogunate's overthrow, the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, decided to return power to the Emperor to avoid being targeted. On November 1867, at Nijo Castle, Yoshinobu gathered the lords and court nobles and announced his resignation as shogun, returning authority to the Emperor, an event known as Restoration of Imperial Rule, the main hall of Nijo Castle has been restored with models to recreate the scene of Restoration of Imperial Rule.


Teradaya is an inn located in Fushimi, Kyoto, known for two famous incidents:

1.     In 1862, the Satsuma Clan's lord, Shimatsu Hisamitsu, led his troops to Kyoto for routine patrols to protect the city. Some soldiers wanted Hisamitsu to seize the opportunity to overthrow the shogunate, but he refused. Seven Satsuma samurai left the army, hid in Teradaya, and plotted to assassinate shogunate officials in Kyoto to force Hisamitsu into rebellion. Hisamitsu sent men to persuade them to surrender, but they refused, leading to a sword fight at Teradaya. Hisamitsu ultimately suppressed the rebellion.

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Shimazu Hisamitsu


2.     In 1866, Sakamoto Ryoma was active in Kyoto, and Teradaya was a hideout for him and his girlfriend. In March, the police discovered Ryoma's whereabouts and sent 30 men to capture him. Ryoma and his girlfriend defended themselves with pistols, killing several policemen before escaping from the second floor. The current Teradaya still preserves the pillars with sword and bullet marks from the fight.


Kyoto Imperial Palace

        The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the Emperor's residence from the 14th century until Emperor Meiji moved the capital to Tokyo in 1869. For centuries, although the Emperor did not wield political power, the palace remained the nominal center of Japanese politics, akin to the role of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

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        During the late Edo period, the Emperor's status was exalted. Local samurai, aiming to overthrow the shogunate, rallied under the banner of "Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians" and gathered around the palace. The Choshu Clan was particularly radical in their activities. In September 1863, Choshu samurai pressured the Emperor by stationing troops outside the Sakai-machi gate of the palace, resulting in punishment. The lord of Choshu was ordered to confine himself, and court nobles close to Choshu were exiled. In August 1864, dissatisfied with the punishment, Choshu samurai assembled troops and planned to set fire to the palace, abduct the Emperor, and force him to issue an anti-shogunate decree. However, the plan was leaked, and the Aizu and Satsuma clans, guarding Kyoto, fortified defenses at the Hamaguri gate and clashed with the Choshu rebels. Unable to fire towards the palace, the Choshu samurai fought with swords, while the Aizu and Satsuma forces used guns and cannons. The Aizu Clan's Shinsengumi, all master swordsmen, also outmatched the Choshu samurai in close combat. After a fierce battle, the Choshu forces were defeated, and several leaders committed seppuku, bringing temporary peace to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The pillars of the Hamaguri gate still bear bullet marks from the battle.

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         The Kyoto Imperial Palace is now fully open to the public but requires a guided tour. Visitors can see the living quarters of past Emperors, the gardens, and the palace's interior decorated with paintings by renowned artists. The entire structure is a precious national treasure of Japan, providing valuable insights into the history of the Japanese Imperial family.



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