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Museum Savings Pass -- Since 2003, a combination ticket called a Grutt Pass has been made available every year by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government; it allows free or reduced admission to more than 60 museums, zoos, aquariums, and other attractions throughout the Tokyo area. Costing ¥2,000 and valid for 2 months, it covers all the museum biggies and is available at all participating venues and the city's Tokyo Tourist Information Center. Though the validity of the current pass expires March 31, 2010, it's a good bet that the pass will be extended for another year into 2011. Note that most museums in Tokyo are closed Mondays and for New Year's -- generally the last day or so in December and the first 1 to 3 days of January. If Monday happens to be a national holiday, most museums will remain open but will close Tuesday instead. Some of the privately owned museums, however, may be closed on national holidays or the day following every national holiday, as well as for exhibition changes. Call beforehand to avoid disappointment. Remember, too, that you must enter museums at least 30 minutes before closing time. For a listing of current special exhibitions, including those being held in galleries of major department stores, consult Metropolis, published weekly and available online at www.metropolis.co.jp.

The Masterless Samurai

Every Japanese schoolchild knows the story of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai), a story also immortalized in a popular Kabuki play. In 1701, a feudal lord (daimyo) named Kira was ordered by the Tokugawa shogun to instruct another daimyo, Asano, in the etiquette of court ritual in preparation for a visit from an Imperial entourage from Kyoto. The two quarreled, and the quick-tempered Asano, angered at the insults hurled by the older daimyo, drew his sword. Because the drawing of a sword in Edo Castle was strictly forbidden, Asano was ordered to commit ritual suicide, his family was disinherited and turned out of their home, his estate and castle were confiscated by the shogun, and his retainers (samurai) became masterless. Kira, on the other hand, was found innocent and went unpunished.

In those days, masterless samurai were men without a future. Their loyalty in question, they were unlikely to find daimyo willing to retain them, so many turned to a life of crime, hiring themselves out as mercenaries or becoming highway robbers. The 47 ronin, however, decided to avenge their master's death by killing Kira. Knowing that Kira was on the lookout for revenge, they bided their time until one snowy December night in 1702, when they attacked Kira's mansion, cut off his head, and paraded it through the streets of Edo on the way to their master's grave at Sengakuji Temple. Although the public was sympathetic toward the ronin for the steadfast loyalty they had shown their dead master, the shogun ordered all of them to commit ritual suicide through disembowelment.

In Tokyo today, all that remains of Kira's mansion, located near the Kokugikan sumo stadium at 3-13-9 Ryogoku, is a white-and-black wall crowned by a weeping willow and a small inner courtyard. The 47 ronin and their master, on the other hand, are memorialized by tombs at Sengakuji Temple, 2-11-1 Takanawa (tel. 03/3441-5560; subway: Sengakuji, exit A2, a 2-min. walk), and by a small museum (daily 9am-4pm; closed Mar 31 and Sept 30) containing some clothing, armor, and personal items belonging to the ronin but is most interesting for its three short videos about the ronin and their era (usually shown in Japanese, you can request to see them in English if there are no other visitors; otherwise you can skip the museum). Across from the museum, up a flight of stairs, are carved wooden statues of the ronin (included in the museum admission), while their tombstones are located past the museum on the hill. Admission to the temple and tombs is free; admission to the museum is ¥500 for adults, ¥400 for students, and ¥250 for children. Every December 14, 47 men dressed as ronin walk 3 hours from Kira's mansion to deliver a replica of Kira's head to Sengakuji Temple.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.