Tokyo’s north eastern Taito ward is dotted with temples, dozens of them, and most of them are the earliest temples to be located in the Tokyo area. One of them is Matsuchiyama Shoden, located just next to what was once a ferry crossing of the large Sumida river to the east of the temple. It was famous for being a beautiful spot several hundreds years ago and the temple can be found in many old drawings and prints. You can find a 19th century drawing and photograph here. These days it is famous for its daikon, giant radishes, that are still grown on the temple grounds. I also found the many symbols representing treasure and great fortune, the sacks! Even the large censer in front of the temple is in the form a giant sack!
The temple itself survived quite a lot only to be burnt down in 1923 and again in 1945, the present building was erected in 1963.
Mount Takao is not only popular due to its beautiful nature but also for its many spiritual and religious aspects. It is said to be inhabited by tengu, winged mythical creatures, as well as all sorts of spirits, demons and mystics. Even before you reach the Buddhist temple on top of the mountain your path will take you past several buddhist statues and even one little mini-temple, the Jinbendo very near the main temple. The Jinbendo is dedicated to the mountain mystics, apothecaries and hermits that devoted themselves to spiritual experiments in Japan’s semi-mythical past. The most famous of these was a man called Ennogyoja, who in 699 A.D. was said to have been banished to live alone on a mountaintop for his alleged powers of black magic. During his stay he enrolled the services of two demons, a husband and wife, who helped him in his daily life. The husband demon seated on the left holds an axe with which he chops wood for Ennogyoja and clears his way while his wife, the demon holding a vase of water, helped with other domestic chores. The demons had no choice but to obey their orders or risk the displeasure of Ennogyoja. His power and knowledge made him quite a reputation and even though he had been banished, one of his students was elected the top apothecary of the royal court in 734. Followers of his mystical teaching called themselves followers of the Shugendo and formed a peculiar mystical religion that was a mix of buddhism, taoism and shinto. They believed in testing themselves and putting themselves through trials and experiments to enable themselves to become one with god, and many lived as mountain hermits, alone. In 1613 the Shogun ordered the followers of Shugendo to join up with an established temple, and since then the religion has been closely associated with buddhism. There are still people practicing Shugendo around the world, but many believe in keeping a low profile. They call themselves Shugenja and about the only time you will see one is when they embark on one of their mystic pilgrimages. From reading about the things they submit themselves to, I would imagine that they are very fit.
On the side of the Jinbendo is a lot of miniature wooden geta, symbolizing the traditional footwear of the mountain mystic, but these are the geta of the Tengu. The normal geta has two “toes”, or wooden blocks, whereas the winged Tengu spirits have only one (and for the record, the highest class of courtesans had three).
I suspect that the red leaves of the trees on Mount Takao has already fallen for this year, but if you are in Tokyo in November next year I recommend that you visit to see the wonderful nature.
More photos from my trip to Kamakura the other week. I visited the Kotokuin temple, famous for its 11th century great buddha statue, the big buddha of Kamakura. The city of Kamakura is also in essence the quintessential Japan. It has everything (except rice paddies): the ocean, temples, mountains, shrines, caves, culture, history, shopping, trains, winding old streets and a much needed intensive does of nature.
The Kotokuin temple has two parts, one garden part and one main courtyard where the big buddha is. Most people tend to spend time the big buddha and miss the other parts which might not have anywhere near as much drawing power as the statue. But there are a few things to see, not least (in this season) being the wonderfully red momiji, or Acer Palmatum, or Japanese maple as it is most commonly known in the west. It is the essential autumn tree in Japan. You can really have an autumn fair, an autumn postcard, serve an autumn meal or wear an autumn kimono without making some sort of reference to the momiji. Think of it as the sakura (cherry blossom) of the autumn!
Kotokuin temple is a nice longish walk from Kamakura station (you’ll need a good sense of direction or a map) or a quicker walk from Hase station on the Endoen. It is easy to combine with a short trip to the Yuigahama beach to get a nice view of the Pacific Ocean as well!
One of the things I love the most about Japanese festivals is that they are so multi-generational. Everyone gets a chance to join in and there is a place for everyone regardless of age or ability. One of the most exciting festivals in Tokyo is the massive Oeshiki buddhist ceremony at the huge Honmonji in Ikegami, Ota Ward in southern Tokyo. I took these photos of kids joining in, mimicking the adults with their matoi poles and ritual dancing. The kid’s versions are obviously much smaller but they still take it very seriously. Some of the kids are taped up like pro athletes! I can imagine that the constant twisting of the matoi poles can be very hard on fingers, hands and wrists. They also use a very fine talcum powder to get a proper grip on the poles, as the evening progresses the talcum tends to get everywhere! I found when I got home that evening that I too had been covered in a grey mist of powder! Even my camera was coated in it.
One little kid in particular caught my attention, too small to take part in the dancing the kid was still participating fully even from the pram!