Come closer, friend, and learn a tale of two brothers in arms. The son of a clan leader with devastating swordsmanship, of nimble footing and quick action. A holy man of great size with a large heart, of immense power and uncommon compassion. This is a story about Yoshitsune, the Prince, and Benkei, the Priest, who they were and how the became friends.
Yoshitsune's father was Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the head of the Minamoto Clan. One of the Minamoto Clan's primary rivals were the Taira. The Taira Clan was incredibly powerful and they had an even more incredibly cruel leader, Kiyomori. One might suggest that, rather than calling him cruel and making a moral judgement, I regard him as "efficient". You see after his clan killed Yoshitomo in battle, Kiyomori gave the order to have all of his children murdered. Lucky for the kids, and for Yoshitsune, Yoshitomo's wife, Tokiwa, was smart and brave. She was willing to do anything to save the lives of her children so when Kiyomori offered to spare their lives in exchange for Tokiwa becoming his wife, she accepted without hesitation.
Tokiwa's other children were old enough to work and live on their own, but Yoshitsune was still very young and so Kiyomori permitted him to stay with his mother and to live under his roof until such a time that he was old enough to leave. Tokiwa was grateful for this permission but would not allow herself or Yoshitsune to forget that the Taira had murdered Yoshitomo. Every day she would remind Yoshitsune, "Remember your father, Minamoto Yoshitomo! Grow strong and avenge his death, for he died at the hands of the Taira!"
When he turned seven years old, Yoshitsune was sent to a monastery to be brought up as a monk. He performed well in his studies but he could never get his mother's words out of his head, he was forever aware of his duty to avenge his father's death. Each day he would steal away to a quiet valley for a few hours to practice his swordsmanship, at first with nothing more than a makeshift wooden sword. He would strike at the trunks and branches of trees and fight imaginary foes. He dreamed of becoming a great and brave warrior, perhaps an assassin, one who could unleash his vengeance upon the Taira Clan and avenge his father's death by killing Kiyomori.
One day, while fighting tree trunks and imaginary samurai, he was startled by a great shot of lighting landing just behind him. He jumped, surprised, but swung around bravely to confront the noise. Standing before him was a lumbering giant with glowing red eyes, claws like a bird, and an long red nose. Yoshitsune was brave and stood his ground asking the giant who he was. The giant replied that he was the King of the Tengu, a breed of mischevious goblin or elf which have a habit of playing tricks on Buddhist priests whom they view as "out of sync" with Dharma.
The King of the Tengu explained that he had chosen to appear to Yoshitsune because he admired his tenacity and his dedication to his training. He went on to offer to teach Yoshitsune everything about swordsmanship that could be learned by a mortal.
So began Yoshitsune's formal training.
Under the tutelage of the Tengu King, it wasn't long before Yoshitsune could vanquish as many as twenty Tengu. A feat that is no small accomplishment as the Tengu are as good of warriors as they are tricksters. Yoshitsune learned everything they Tengu had to teach him: how to fight, how to strategize, and most importantly he gained the power Tengu agility. Yoshitsune was ready to avenge his father.
Benkei was a Buddhist Priest and an impressive human being. He was nearly twice the height of the average man and had an unmatched courage. In addition to his size and bravery Benkei was known for his love of practical jokes as well as his uncommon tenderness and compassion. He was a man who could philosophize on scripture then turn around and slay dozens of samurai with relative ease.
It is said that Benkei was born with a full head of hair, a complete set of adult teeth, and that he could run as swiftly as the wind blew. It was also said that he was too big to live in a normal sized home, that he uprooted pine trees to chop for firewood, and that he once struck a blacksmith's anvil so hard with his bare hands that it sunk a hundred feet into the ground. In short: Benkei was a gentle giant who was, when necessary, capable of inflicting great damage.
When he was seventeen years old he met a girl named Tamamushi and she ignited in him a passion for adventure and of lawless behavior. He would often sneak away from his priestcraft to do battle with the local undesirables.
When he left the monastery he built a home and took up residence near the Gojo Bridge of Kyoto. He would spend his days challenging knights who attempted to cross the bridge. His intention was to collect a thousand swords by defeating a thousand knights (or other warriors). Beyond this being his intention it was his given task by the swordsmith Kokaji Munenabu who agreed to make Benkei a magical armor only after he had proved his worth by defeating a thousand warriors and taking their swords. By the time Yoshitsune had finished his training with the Tengu, Benkei had collected nine hundred and ninety-nine swords. And this is precisely when Benkei's existence became known to Yoshitsune, now an expertly trained swordsman who was looking for ways to make a name for himself.
Yoshitsune and Benkei do battle
Yoshitsune stopped just out of sight of the Gojo Bridge and pulled out a small flute. He didn't want Benkei to know that he came specifically looking to fight him, he wanted to give the impression of being unaware or perhaps indifferent. Thinking maybe this would give him an advantage when facing the priest. Yoshitsune began playing the flute as he continued on his way to the bridge. When Yoshitsune arrived at the bridge he found before him the enormous Benkei, clad in black iron armor and prepared to stop any who dared to cross. Prepared to earn his one-thousandth sword.
But when Benkei saw the small size of Yoshitsune, and perceived his youth, he laughed and dismissed him as an unworthy opponent. Fighting Yoshitsune would have been beneath his dignity given all the great warriors he had already defeated. He didn't want his last sword to come from a lesser man. Benkei said to Yoshitsune, "I'm sure you're good at playing like a child or writing poems about the shimmering moon, but you are no warrior and I won't waste my time fighting you." Yoshitsune was, of course, angered by such a flippant response and reacted by swiftly kicking Benkei's halberd right out of his hands.
Benkei was furious and quickly bent down to retrieve his weapon. He then proceeded to swing and cut at Yoshitsune in a blind rage, wanting nothing more than to kill him for embarrassing him so badly. Benkei swung and swung but his adversary was far too quick. Yoshitsune jumped around nimbly, bouncing around the giant Benkei and insulting him at every opportunity. Eventually the priest grew tired and Yoshitsune once again kicked the halberd from his hands. Benkei tried to recover it but Yoshitsune was quick to trip him and force him down to his hands and knees. Yoshitsune then climbed atop Benkei's back and pronounced his victory over the warrior priest.
Benkei was gobsmacked that his defeat had come at the hands of such a small opponent, but he accepted his defeat with grace. However when he learned that Yoshitsune was the son of the slain Yoshitomo, he begged Yoshitsune that he become the boy's official retainer. Yoshitsune obliged and for the rest of their lives, and throughout the rest of Japanese mythology, we see Yoshitsune and Benkei always together.
They went on to take Yoshitsune's revenge and to a final battle with the Taira by the sea in Dan-no-ura... but that's another story for another day.
Learn more about the elements of this story:
- Minamoto no Yoshitomo - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minamoto_no_Yoshitomo
- Musashibo Benkei - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benkei
- Minamoto no Yoshitsune - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minamoto_no_Yoshitsune
- The Minamoto Clan of Japan - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minamoto_clan
- The Taira Clan of Japan - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taira_clan
- Taira no Kiyomori - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taira_no_Kiyomori
- The Tengu - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengu
The primary source of information for the story discussed in this post was F. Hadland Davis's Myths & Legends of Japan.