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Gessho-Ji Temple

The Temple of Moonlight and the Matsudaira Clan

The Tokugawa shōgunate was preceded by the Sengoku period (Warring States.) It was the last feudal Japanese military government that ruled over Japan from 1603 through 1868. It was during this period that Japan adopted a policy, “Sakoku,” that isolated the whole country from the outside world. During the Warring States period, the chieftain of the Matsudaira Clan’s main line was Matsudaira Motoyasu. He was a powerful daimyo of the region under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Matsudaira Motoyasu later changed his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu and is considered to be one of the Three Great Unifiers of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu woodblock print, ukiyo-e

Tokugawa Ieyasu woodblock print, ukiyo-e.

The longest ruling clan

The Matsudaira clan (松平氏, Matsudaira-shi) descended from the Minamoto clan, both prominent samurai clans. Matsudaira-shi adopted its name from Matsudaira village, in Mikawa Province (modern-day Aichi Prefecture). Tokugawa Ieyasu (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616) was the founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate. He ruled Japan during the Edo period until the Meiji restoration of 1868. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, many other branches of the the clan retained the Matsudaira surname, other numerous branches were produced in the years after Ieyasu with some also being in the daimyō status. Subsequently after the Meiji Restoration and the abolition of the han system, the Tokugawa and Matsudaira clans became part of the new nobility. Temple turtle statue.

The wandering turtle of Gessho-ji temple

Gessho-ji Temple or the ‘Temple of Moonlight’, is the family temple of the Matsudaira clan, considered to be the longest reigning  family from 1638-1871. The gates and grave sites of generations of the Matsudaira clan members represent the different period throughout history as seen in the craftsmanship of the stone sculptures.

The most popular feature of Gessho-ji Temple is the giant turtle statue. Turtles are a symbol of longevity in Japan ,and it is believed that touching the head of the statue will bring goof fortune and long life. However, there is a dark story behind the notorious turtle and is one of the well known ghost stories of Matsue. As the story goes, when evening comes, the turtle comes alive and devours trespassers who comes into contact with he turtle. It is the main reason why a pillar rests on top of the turtle’s back to prevent it from wandering away from the temple.

The nine graves of the Matsudaira clan lords are said to be under the protection of the turtle. Each gravesite is designed to epitomize each lord based on their lives.

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Read all about Japanese immersion learning and studying abroad. Check out our eZasshi archives for more articles!