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Ernest Fenollosa’s Grave and the Historical Sites of Otsu

Ryan Johnson

Up the foot of the mountains of Otsu overlooking Lake Biwa, a stone path overgrown with grass winds between an archery range and an apartment block. At the foot of the path stands a worn sign, 法明フェノロサの墓. There is no translation indicating that a few minutes beyond lies Hōmyōin and Ernest Fenollosa’s grave. 


Sign for Hōmyōin and Fenollosa’s grave


The Nature and History Walk Plaque

Even in Otsu few residents seem to pay much attention to the site.[1] Yet on the other side of the signpost is a plaque, again untranslated, indicating that Hōmyōin and Fenollosa’s grave are part of the “Nature Walk and History Walk” (自然の道・歴史の道) of the city. Other historical sites include the memorial site of Emperor Kōbun (弘文天皇陵), Enman-ji (円満寺) and Onjyō-ji (園城寺, more widely known as Mii-dera 三井寺), Minamoto no Yoshimitsu’s shrine (新羅明神, the Shiragi myōjin),[2] and, occupying pride of place on the plaque, Yoshimitsu’s grave (新羅明の墓). Among these sites Mii-dera[3] is the most famous and the most oriented towards non-Japanese visitors. But the more insular, almost forgotten atmosphere of the other sites lends them a unique charm.

Fenollosa stayed at Hōmyōin during both of his sojourns in Japan. He had, of course, long been interested in Buddhism, the orientation of which he found more intriguing than that of Christianity. Whereas in Christianity, he thought, there is a clear division between the saved and the damned, in Buddhism all souls are capable of salvation.[4] In 1885, with his friend the American doctor and art collector William Sturgis Bigelow, Fenollosa converted to Tendai Buddhism at Hōmyōin. At that time, Sakurai Keitoku was in charge of Hōmyōin. Sakurai continued to instruct Fenollosa whenever the American stayed at Hōmyōin until Fenollosa’s final departure from Japan in 1900. After his sudden death in England in 1908, Fenollosa was buried in London. He had, however, previously declared his desire to be interred at Hōmyōin, and the following year his relatives and former students had his remains moved to Otsu.[5]


  Stairs leading to Hōmyōin


Entrance to Hōmyōin

Seeing what attracted Fenollosa to the spot is not difficult. Even now, with an apartment block next door and a power plant half a kilometer away, Hōmyōin exudes tranquility. The gate is unattended. Only an easy-to-miss signboard requests a fifty-yen donation. The garden is chisenkaiyūshiki (池泉回遊式), a style built around a pond. The pond itself with a view over Lake Biwa awaits on the other side of the gate. A stone staircase overgrown with grass and strewn with leaves and branches leads up to the graveyard.


The chisenkaiyūshiki


Stairs with Fenollosa’s grave on the far side

Fenollosa is not the only one buried here, but his marker is the grandest. The city of Otsu has placed a wooden placard outlining his history in Japan and the reasons for which he was buried at Hōmyōin. To the right is a stone marker in English, one of only two non-Japanese markers on site. The other belongs to Bigelow, who rests next to Fenollosa. Otsu has given placard to Bigelow as well. Perhaps due to recent typhoon damage, his is broken and sodden, propped up against his English epitaph. The epitaph itself is worn, its letters growing illegible in places. Fenollosa’s grave might have been forgotten by many, but considering the effort that has gone into maintaining and advertising his site in Japanese relative to Bigelow’s, he has fared well in the century since his burial.


Fenollosa’s grave


Bigelow’s grave

Walking back towards Otsu Station, we came across another Japanese sign indicating Emperor Kōbun’s memorial site and the shrine of Minamoto no Yoshimitsu. Kōbun’s misasagi is caught between the city hall and the power plant. It is well preserved and well guarded. Visitors can come up to a long short wall prohibiting access to another taller wall beyond. On the other side of that is the misasagi. A great mass of tall trees obscures vision of that which is contained therein.

Yoshimitsu’s shrine is more intriguing. A colorless torī towers at the entrance, in so far as, without a gate or attendant, there is one. Recent typhoon damage has left its imprint here as well. Tree limbs from the small to the massive lay confusedly across the paths on the other side of the torī. A tangle of signs indicates the shrine to the right. The shrine looks to have been abandoned temporarily. The perimeter gate is locked and broken in places. Around the shrine itself the grass has shot up over a meter high. As we stood before trying to get a glimpse inside, another sightseer, a Japanese man on a motor bike, rode up and joined the investigation. None of us resolved the mystery of the abandoned shrine.


Kōbun’s misasagi


Entrance to Yoshimitsu’s Shrine 


Returning to the tangle of signs, we noticed one indicating Yoshimitsu’s burial mound pointing strangely to the west. Nothing looked to be in this direction save the power plant and a jumble of fallen branches over a barely perceptible trail extending up the forested mountainside. Hopping over a toppled tree, we began uncertainly to move westward. No one joined us this time. The trail kept splitting off without a sign to guide us. After a few false turns, we hit on what promised to be the right path. As we advanced deeper into the forest, a stray turtle far from any water welcomed us as our sole companion. A couple more signposts promised the grave further still, but the entire area felt frozen in time, forgotten by the modern city less than a kilometer away.


Yoshimitsu’s Shrine (新羅明神)


Turtle on the path to Yoshimitsu’s grave


Eventually we came upon the burial mound. Another colorless torī smaller than its fellow at the entrance at the entrance to Yoshimitsu’s shrine, greeted us. And just there rose Yoshimitsu’s mound. Some offerings were visible around the mound’s gate. Time was draining their color as well. The mound itself was gated, but the gate was unlocked. Should we have been so minded, we could easily have walked inside and taken as close an inspection as we liked. We left the gate shut, however, paid our final respects, and walked back down the mountain path. Our turtle had disappeared. The man on the motorcycle started his engine and sped off. With our departure Yoshimitsu was left once again at complete peace.


Torī to Yoshimitsu’s grave


Yoshimitsu’s grave

Fenollosa had made it his business to translate Japanese art into universal appreciation and to make the Japanese government appreciate the many treasures history had left as its testament to the Meiji era. Fenollosa’s name in katakana marks him as a foreigner at odds with the kanji and hiragana that otherwise take up space on the mass of signs gesturing towards the many historical sites of Otsu. Nonetheless, it is a Japanese and not a Western writing system that marks the way to his final resting place. All around sites important to the history of Japan sit in states of various upkeep, some threatening, at least in the typhoon-stricken time in which we visited them, to be forgotten by the modern Japanese city in which they are found. It is only fitting that Fenollosa himself was translated into Japan. It is only fitting that Fenollosa himself seems to have been translated into Japanese, and today rests in a landscape recalling the work that he had done over a century earlier.


[2] Yoshimitsu had his coming-of-age ceremony at this shrine, though I doubt this is the original. For this reason he came to be know as Shiragi Saburō 新羅三郎. 

[3] Certainly, Hōmyōin is part of Mii-dera, but Mii-dera is colloquially linked with Onjyou-ji, as our visited showed. 

[4] (キリスト教には最後の審判があり、そこで少数の天国へいくものと大勢の地獄へ落ちるものとがはっきりとわかれてしまう。仏教はそれを選ばず、誰もが等しく慈悲に包まれて仏になることができる。)

[5] Ito, Yutaka. “Words quite Fail”: The Life and Thought of Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002. 283.