(Friday Night History) Episode 28: Mount Aoba, a Short History

Mount Aoba. 203.16 meters in height, its peak has a commanding view of most of modern Sendai. It is home to museums, two major shrines, historic ruins, and some of Sendai city’s old growth forest. Today, much of its significance to Sendai city comes from its history as the site of Aoba Castle, the Date clan’s seat of government and residence during the Edo period. We’ve talked about various aspects of its history over the length of this podcast and its prior history as a Twitter-only thread. It’s to be expected of course, given the Tohoku and Date focus of Friday Night History, but still, it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually tried to sketch out an overall history of Mount Aoba itself. So, let’s try and do that inside of the usual timespan of one of these episodes, shall we? Some of what you’ll hear will be familiar, but some will be new.

So let’s talk Mount Aoba.

Interestingly, the fact that it’s now called Mount Aoba at all only dates to 1602! In that year, the house of Date moved a temple from Mount Shinobu in what’s now Fukushima Prefecture to the slopes of this hill inside the Hirose riverbend. By then, the Date castle there was already under construction, and the stonemasons– who also came up with the Sparrow Dance, as we discovered in the episode on the topic– invited up from Sakai to build the castle’s walls. The temple was called Jakko-ji, but its sango, its mountain name, was Seiyozan. Seiyozan is the on-yomi of the characters otherwise read as Aobayama. And thus, Mount Aoba received its name. Also interestingly, this was not the first temple there, nor was Sendai Castle the first castle, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

According to Tohoku University’s campus guide, some of the oldest artifacts found onsite are earthware and stoneware dating back to the Jomon period (14000-1000 BCE) at six locations; the artifacts themselves are between 5000-2000 years old. So, its inhabitation by humans goes a long way back.

By the Nara period, this area and points north were being actively colonized by the Yamato state. Northern Honshu’s original people were the Emishi. There is rich archaeological evidence from digs around Kawauchi– the riverbend within which Mount Aoba sits– that suggests that it continued to be a location of both residence as well as places of worship. The region was under the control of the mixed Emishi-Yamato Northern Fujiwara clan in the Heian era, the clan that merged Japanese and non-Japanese sources of political legitimacy in order to justify its semi-independent rule of the northeast in those years. While they were deposed by the attack of Minamoto no Yoritomo during the Bunji War, the region remained semi-independent, far from the imperial center, and Mount Aoba and the Kawauchi area continued to be actively inhabited and used as a site of worship. Tohoku University notes that there are stone monuments there called Itabi– tall, column-like stelae– dating to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), and still located in the botanical gardens there today.

Edo period map of Sendai Castle and Mount Aoba. To the right is the bend of the Hirose River. (image in PD)

While Sendai Castle’s ruins still dominate the peak of Mount Aoba, it wasn’t the only fortification that’s ever been there. There had been a small fortification there before 1600, whose name is deceptively similar to the modern city’s name, but which was written with the kanji that translate as “a thousand generations.” If you’re listening to the podcast, check out the blogpost to see what I mean– 千代 rather than 仙台․ This was a small fort controlled by the Kokubun family, which was a local lordly family during the Muromachi period. As noted in some past episodes, the Kokubun family eventually became mediated– that is, absorbed via intermarriage– into the house of Date. Also on Mount Aoba at the time was a temple to Kokuzo Bosatsu– the bodhisattva Akasagarbha, bodhisattva of space– and one period source says that the bodhisattva as enshrined there had “a thousand forms”– which is another interesting pun on the later city’s name. “Thousand forms” is “Sentai” 千体 — which scans neatly into 千代 and then 仙台․ Again, if you’re listening to the podcast version of this thread, check out the blogpost– these are three different homophones, three different spellings.

It was there on that hill, still not known by its modern name– that Date Masamune chose to build his new castle in late 1600, when he celebrated groundbreaking with a five-part Noh and amended the place’s name to its current spelling of 仙台 (仙臺 in old-form kanji): “Home of the Immortals.” As Masamune was a lover of the Chinese classics, the name should come as no surprise to those who know their Chinese classics– this is the name of the place in Journey to the West where the Monkey King steals the Peaches of Immortality. Relatedly, a common– although spoken rather than written– name for the area of the city until the mid-20th century was Rakuchu. This is still used to refer to Kyoto, but was also used to refer to Sendai starting in those early days. It positions Sendai as a successor to Luoyang (Rakuyo in Japanese), once a capital of the Eastern Han dynasty in ancient China. So in short, Masamune had grand dreams for himself and big plans for his capital.

While Sendai never quite became the sort of capital for which Masamune would have hoped, it remained the capital of Japan’s third largest feudal domain, after Kaga and Satsuma domains. It was, among other things, the birthplace of Russian studies in Japan, as well as the site of Japan’s first miso factory. Sendai Castle and Mount Aoba were the Date clan’s residence, but they were also a military installation and strategic asset, so they were a location that was off limits to people from outside Date lands. Local historian and folklorist Mihara Ryokichi notes that when the house of Date did receive dignitaries from elsewhere in Japan, any reception would happen at the Matsuyama Estate in Sendai’s Katahira district, which was the residence of the Moniwa family, a senior vassal family in service to the Date. As a family with its own income equal to that of a minor independent lord, the Moniwa’s Matsuyama Estate was quite fabulous in its own right.

The castle remained in Date hands through the end of the Boshin War. Some, but not all, of the Date command during the Boshin War, was coordinated from Mount Aoba, though some of it was also nearer to the battlefront at Shiroishi Castle, in the southern end of the domain. At war’s end, it was surrendered to the imperial government, and the domain-turned-prefecture’s administration was relocated across town to Yokendo, the Date domain school, on whose footprint more or less the prefectural government is still located, at Kotodai Park just north of Sendai Station.

Between the end of the Boshin War and the end of the Second World War, Mount Aoba and the Kawauchi area were for the most part a military base, the headquarters of the Sendai Garrison, which became the Imperial Army’s Second Infantry Division. At war’s end, the US Army took possession of the castle site and the outer baileys became home to the US Army’s Camp Sendai, one of the US occupation forces’ 13 bases in the prefecture. After the US withdrew, the area finally passed from military use. Today, parts of it are a botanical garden, parts of it are a park, other parts are residences. And rather prominently, the core of the old US military base is now the campus of Tohoku University’s Kawauchi Campus.

On the peak of Mount Aoba today sits a museum focused on the Date clan’s history, alongside Miyagi Gokoku Shrine. And there near the edge of the walls on a high stone plinth, the equestrian statue of Date Masamune looks out over the city that still bears the mark of those long-ago grand plans for making a second Luoyang. There was an original statue identical to this one that once occupied the same plinth, but which was melted down during the Second World War for use of its metals. The current statue was recast, in the same mold, after the war. I remember standing in its shadow in 2005, the day I first visited Mount Aoba, and thinking “this is a fittingly sized statue for the man’s personality.”

Sendai City Museum. (image in PD)

At the foot of Mount Aoba is the Sendai City Museum, which still preserves many treasures of the city, the region, and the Date clan. Masamune’s famous armor with the crescent-moon helmet crest “lives” there. And I suspect the man would’ve been proud that so much of the hill that his family called home, is still a place of quiet, contemplation, and culture.


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