Japan in the middle of the 19th century was in turmoil. The country had been fundamentally closed to the outside world for 250 years, but the Tokugawa dynasty that effectively ruled the country during that period was moribund, unprepared to respond when American naval vessels steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and demanded that Japan open its doors. Opinions in the country divided as to the appropriate response and what Japan needed to do to secure its future.
Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867) was among the most influential figures of this turbulent time, an advocate of the abolition of feudalism, elimination the Tokugawa shogunate and the introduction of democratic principles. Sites associated with his life can be found across Japan from Tokyo to Kyushu to Kyoto.
Ryoma was born into a low-ranking samurai family in Tosa Domain (now Kochi Prefecture) on Shikoku. By his teens, Ryoma had become a skilled swordsman. He was engaging in further training in Edo (present day Tokyo) in 1853 when the Americans made their demands. Witnessing this led Ryoma and other young samurai to begin agitating for a return to Imperial rule and a complete revamping of Japan’s political order. By 1858 Ryoma had returned to his native Tosa Domain, but he continued developing his political ideas and became active in an anti-shogunate movement that took Sonno joi (Revere the Emperor; expel the barbarians) as its motto.
Unfortunately, the daimyo (feudal lord) of Tosa Domain did not share the opinions of this group of young nationalists, leaving Ryoma to conclude that he could only be effective by leaving the domain. In feudal Japan, no one was allowed to leave their domain without permission of the daimyo, on pain of death. Nonetheless, knowing that he would not be granted permission to leave due to his political views, Ryoma decided to abscond, surreptitiously travelling on foot through the mountains and avoiding checkpoints, committing a crime known as dappan.
Ryoma set out westward from his family’s home in the city of Kochi with his colleague, Sawamura Sonojo (1843-1868), on March 24, 1862. Their journey took them through the mountain town of Yusuhara, where they stayed the night before continuing on. Today, visitors to Yusuhara can explore several sites associated with Ryoma’s “dappan”. In the area around Yusuhara the trail, popularly known as “Dappan no Michi” is clearly marked, making it easy to visit on one’s own. There is also a one hour guided walking tour available for 3,000 yen, with prior arrangement at the Yusuhara Tourist Information Center (Tel: 0889-65-1187). Or borrow an electric bicycle from the tourist information center.
Although the guided tour begins in the town (from the tourist information center), consider starting from the Kumonoue Hotel a couple of kilometers to the east and following the scenic laneway into Yusuhara for a deeper sense of Ryoma’s experience. Just before the road descends into the town, there is a small chado rest house where you can imagine Ryoma stopping for a short break as many travelers did in those days.
Nearby, stone markers commemorate six men regarded as the Yusuhara imperialist samurai. All of these men lost their lives between 1862 and 1868 while advocating for their cause of restoring Imperial rule and introducing democratic principles to Japan (yes, those two don’t seem compatible, yet somehow they became so in the Japan of this period). Two of them, Nasu Shunpei (1807-1864) and his son, Nasu Shingo (1829-1863), guided Ryoma and Sonojo on part of their journey out of Tosa Domain.
Just down the hill from these stone markers is a thatched farmhouse, the preserved former home of Kakehashi Izumi (1835-1862), another of the Yusuhara six. One interesting feature of the house is its secret upstairs room, where people and goods could be secreted. The house is usually open to visitors (remove shoes, of course).
The guide suggests that Ryoma and others may have gathered around the fire here to share their political ideas and strategize his escape. Kakehashi later committed hara-kiri for his part in the plot. A memorial to him is set up in one room of the house.
After passing along the town’s “high street” and Yusuhara’s famous library, the trail reaches the torii gate of Mishima Shrine. The shrine is accessed via a beautiful covered wooden footbridge known as Miyuki Bridge. Ryoma is said to have prayed at Mishima Shrine for a safe and successful journey. Then he and his colleagues continued on the trail upward through the mountains, carefully avoiding checkpoints. After sleeping rough near a mountain pass they safely crossing into Iyo Domain (now Ehime Prefecture) and reached the coast on March 27.
Rather than following the trail into the mountains, the walking tour proceeds through the town to a small knoll above the river where there are dramatic life-sized statues of Ryoma, Sonojo and the Yusuhara six. The statue of the younger Nasu points the way westward through the mountains, the route of the dappan.
The walking tour finishes back at the tourist information center. Be sure to visit the Senhyaku-nen Monogatari Museum next door (open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 200 yen). The museum’s displays cover various aspects of Yusuhara’s 1,100 year history, and include some items relating to Ryoma and his dappan.
Following his dappan, Ryoma made his way to Satsuma Domain (now Kagoshima Prefecture), where he worked to create an alliance between Satsuma imperialists and like-minded samurai in Choshu Domain (now Yamaguchi Prefecture). It was this alliance that ultimately brought about the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of imperial rule in 1868. Alas, Ryoma would not live to see the fruits of his efforts. Although he had been forgiven by the Tosa daimyo and allowed to return home, he was assassinated by political opponents while in Kyoto in November 1867. He was 31 years old.
Various aspects of Ryoma’s life and principles have combined to make him an iconic historical figure, sometimes compared to 20th century Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara. He is well-remembered in Japan. Following his footsteps for this little stretch of his Dappan no Michi may help foreign visitors appreciate why.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today