I feel a fool. I passed by signs and stone markers for the Sanjô Palace on more than one occasion, and though I took photos of them, I didn’t really give it a second thought, failing to recognize or realize the identity or importance of the site. I saw a model of the palace at the Museum of Kyoto (京都文化博物館), took photos of that, appreciated the opportunity to see an example of Heian period shinden-zukuri architecture, of which the Byôdôin may be the only remaining full-size, authentic, example, and still did not put it together. It was only later, while labeling photos and reading the sign which I previously had only photographed and not read, that I had the realization.
Above: All that remains today of the Sanjô Palace is this stone marker, just outside the Shinpûkan, a very modern (and quite pleasant and attractive) shopping / cultural center in a repurposed Meiji period red brick building. A wooden sign standing next to the stone briefly describes the history of the palace.
The Siege of the Sanjô Palace took place in early 1160, and marked the primary action of the Heiji Rebellion. Minamoto no Yoshitomo, along with Fujiwara no Nobuyori and about five hundred warriors, attacked the palace, kidnapping Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa and setting the palace aflame.
The attack is depicted in a quite famous handscroll painting, the “Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace” (三条殿焼討), in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and of which I happen to have a modern reproduction. The whole scroll can be viewed online at a great site run by Bowdoin University. One source (admittedly published by the Museum, though nevertheless quite trustworthy and reliable, I would say) describes the scroll as “universally considered the most powerful battle scene in all of Japanese art.”
And powerful it is. The handscroll format allows events to unfold in a chronological, storytelling-like manner. The viewer first sees a crowd of warriors, some on foot, some on horseback, some holding bows, along with a number of wheeled oxcarts, rushing to the left. They reach the gates of the palace, and already, in a lower register, we begin to see fighting. Scrolling just the tiniest bit further (from right to left, as Japanese scrolls traditionally are read), at the top of the image, we already begin to see smoke and flame. The battle is fierce; heads are chopped off, and by the end of the scroll, we see them displayed atop pikes. The Emperor is captured and taken away, and the palace burned down; the description of the flames in this 13th century work is really incredible.
As with any work, or event, or period, I cannot claim that I solely, or primarily, claim connection to it, let alone ownership of it as a subject of research or anything like that. For such a famous work, I am sure there are plenty of people who feel a special connection to it, and many with more reason than I. Still, this work, and the historical events behind it (the very first Wikipedia entries I ever wrote were on the Genpei War, which developed out of the aftermath of this conflict), are fairly special to me, and so I am surprised at myself for not recognizing the Sanjô Palace as being *that* Sanjô Palace, when I came across the model, and the site itself.
A model of the Sanjô Palace, on display at the Museum of Kyoto as an example of Heian period shinden-zukuri architecture. Click through for a more thorough description of this form of architecture, and for other photos relating to this model.