One of the greatest tourist attractions in Japan is the Nara Daibutsu, a huge buddha statue housed in the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. Apart from the big statue itself there are plenty of smaller statues scattered around the main hall of the temple. The atmosphere is fantastic, air thick with incense smoke, prayers bells and the sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Well, at least if you go off season and on a weekday. Weekends and high season tends to get quite crowded especially recently with the absolute boom in overseas tourism.
There is statuary of all kinds of materials, millennium old wood carvings, bronzes and clay to name a few materials. If you have the opportunity to visit, spare a few minutes for the “other” art treasures of the Todaiji!
It is March 18th 628 A.D., and two fishermen, Hinokuma Hamanari and his brother Takenari are out fishing in the Sumida River when their accidentally pull up a strange statue. The village headman identifies it as a statue of the important Buddhist deity Bodhisattva Kannon. The headman took vows and devoted his life to the preaching of buddhism and even his home was remade into a buddhist temple. This is the foundation story of today’s massive Sensoji in Tokyo’s Asakusa district and the background to the equally massive Sanja Matsuri attracting millions of tourists and participants in Tokyo each May.
To commemorate the actual spot where the statue was pulled up a smaller temple was founded, the Komagatado, that exists in the same location this side, with its back towards the river, facing west. The temple has been destroyed in many fires and wars, and the structure we see today was built in 2003. Apart from the 19th of every month when the temple is open to visitors, nothing much goes on here despite it being such a historic spot. I passed a couple of times in the last couple of months and tried to get some photos worthy of showing you, but alas, I think this historic woodblock print by the master Hokusai (1760-1849) is as atmospheric as it will ever get (see the last image).
Since the history of this Sensoji and the Sanja Matsuri ties in with this little temple and the festival takes place later this month I thought now would be a good time to introduce it!
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.