Who were the Saionji

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Several years ago when I decided it was time to pick a properly Japanese name, I have to admit I didn't know very much. I did know that I wanted a surname that would work for a court noble from about the mid 13th century. Saionji no Sanekane's name appears in the diary of Lady Nijo and I went with that: it was kuge and I liked how it sounded.

In learning to write my new name, I discovered that the kanji 西 (sai) 園(on)寺(ji) translate as "Western garden temple." The Saionji were a branch of the northern Fujiwara family. In 1224, Fujiwara Kintsune*, during his posting as Chancellor to the Kamakura shogunate, acquired an estate in the Kitayama mountains overlooking the Imperial city of Kyoto. The temple and mansion he built there became known as Saionji and with Imperial approval, he and his descendants took on the name for themselves. (*also known as Saionji Kintsune.)

Kintsune, married to a member of the Minamoto clan which had founded the shogunate, imitated his successful Heian forebear Fujiwara Michinaga by marrying a Saionji daughter into the Imperial line to consolidate the family's influence. His grandson, Saionji no Sanekane followed suit, marrying his own daughter Kishi to Emperor Go-Daigo. The family enjoyed great prestige through the end of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333.


When Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who became shogun in 1368, decided he wanted it for himself, he acquired the property from the Saionji family in 1397. It's now home to the Zen temple Rokuon-ji and the famous Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. I admit I'm insanely curious to know how hard it was for the family to part with the estate and how much shogunal pressure was brought to bear. The pavilion itself is a 1950's reconstruction and the garden, while lovely, dates from the Muromachi period. I have to wonder what the place was like when it belonged to the Lords of Kitayama.
In 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Japan for the first time with my SCA friends Ii-Saburou Katsumori, Abe Akirakeiko and their family. During the internet planning sessions leading up to the trip, Ii-dono discovered a Google Map reference for "Saionji" and said maybe it should be part of our itinerary. Kinkaku-ji already was on it, even though I didn't realize the association immediately.


On October 31, on a slightly drizzly afternoon, Abe-hime and I split off to find the Saionji. Just a few blocks from the Kuramaguchi subway station and not far from the Goryo shrine, we found it on a quiet side street: the "new" Saionji, which dates from 1590 at its current location. According to the bilingual signboard out front, the temple relocated to somewhere in the Muromachi area of Kamigyo Ward (about a mile southwest) in the 1390s. I don't know if there are any traces of that one left.


The temple doors were closed and signs of construction work were everywhere. But it was "my" name on the signboards. The Saionji triple tomoe kamon was on basins and woodwork and roof tiles. Even with wheelbarrows and caution signs, it was a peaceful little neighborhood temple. There was no bell, the doors were closed, but I tossed a coin into the offering box and breathed a prayer anyway.

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