My favorite building on the massive Gokokuji temple compound in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward is without a doubt the relatively tiny Taishido (大師堂). The patina and the robustness of the old wooden building is very attractive for some reason, partly helped by it secluded location on the temple grounds, off to one side. The temple was originally built in 1701 and went by the name of Yakushido (薬師堂) but was moved to its present location and received a new name in 1926 after the large Tokyo fires. From the look of the roof I have a feeling it might been covered in straw in the old days.
Since 1975 the Taishido has been designated an important cultural relic by the Bunkyo Ward office. I wish I could have gotten better photos but there was a very very devout man praying in front of the temple and he made no signs as if he was about to move anywhere soon so I gave up on the project for this time. See, there is a story behind all these images I post. (^-^)
For someone interested in Tokyo history there is one tiny point of interest in the historical district of Yanaka that is unique in the whole of Tokyo: the famous mud and brick wall (築地塀, tsuijibei, with the full name of 観音寺築地塀). The wall is 37.6m long and just over 2m tall and seems to have been built in the latter part of the Edo period, which means it is most likely 200-250 years old. It is remarkable in that not only did it survive the bombing raids and earthquakes but it managed to stay out of the hands of the real estate developers as well. Today the wall is the last fragment of a wall system that must have covered hundreds of miles of street sides not even 150 years ago. Edo, as Tokyo was called back then, used to be strictly divided into zones, for artisans, government, samurai, temples, royalties, merchants etc. The better class of neighborhood the bigger and fancier the walls. Each zone would then be subdivided into yet more sub-zones, belonging to merchant companies, individual temples, clans, nobles, functionaries, factories, etc. which would all have their own walls. Between the walls would generally be the streets, which were nameless and irregular, not only to protect the capital from invading armies but also to protect the citizens from vagabonds and miscreants. Edo in this period had about 1.25 million inhabitants (according to some historians the biggest city in the world at the time) and strict rules were necessary to keep order, in an age before welfare, ID cards etc.
Out of all these walls, the (probably) only section to survive into modern times is the 37.6m here in Yanaka, facing the Kanonji Temple (観音寺). There are some other, rebuilt walls on other parts of Tokyo but this is the oldest one still in use in the capital. The wall was made with a cut stone block footing and then formed in formworks, just like modern rammed earth or cob houses are made. Workers would add a layer of mud at a time, mix in mortars, pebbles or whatever the local soil needed, and ram it or trample it hard. To give walls extra stability they would add recycled fired roof tiles or bricks that would be even stronger than the rammed earth and also help protect the wall from rain. A clay or plaster wash would then be added and rewashed once every year or so depending on the needs and status of the area the wall covered. Even recycled roof tiles would be expensive so you can tell just by looking at this wall that it must have been quite expensive! No doubt the temple it used to surround was rich enough to afford the very best. Apart from the fire wood needed to make the roof tiles and the form work itself, the entire wall would be sourced, built, and maintained using only materials from within feet of where it was located, making it perfectly sustainable and environmentally friendly. The wall would then be topped off with a projecting “roof”, just like any normal building, giving the wall solid boots (the stone footing) and a strong hat (the roof tiles), recognizable to any architect or builder from ancient Greece to the modern age.
Another reason to favor big, thick and strong walls would be as insulators from fires. If the winds were not too bad or if you had good enough fire fighting readiness, the walls would act as fire breaks in the densely packed cities of Japan at this time. The excavated ditches would serve to channel excess rain water into the nearest river and canal and help save the city from flooding.
This wall was identified in the nick of time, only in 1992 was the value it represented pointed out and it was given official protection from the city government. There are other places in Japan, like Nara, Kyoto, etc. where much longer parts of this old wall system remains. While the walls helped protect whole neighborhoods from thieves, bandits, floods and fires, they are absolutely no match for the modern tourists who arrives in mighty hordes to photograph and enjoy the remaining walls. I wonder if their builders ever imagined that their humble labor would one day help bring in millions of dollars in tourist revenue?
One of my favorite walled streets are the one in Nara. Have a look here. The oldest wall found in Japan dates from the 8th century, in Kyoto. The oldest one still standing and in everyday use is wall around Nishinomiya Shrine, right between Kobe and Osaka、247m long with a wooden frame and built sometime in the second half of the 14th century A.D.
In this post you can see the old wall on the right and the new wall on the left, which was probably built using old techniques but recently, to harmonize with the old wall.
Some more photos of the nearly 400 years old Gokokuji temple in Tokyo’s culture rich Bunkyo ward. I took these a few weeks ago and the trees have yet to shoot any leaves but it was a brilliant day and I seldom pass the area so I took my chance. The tample is located on a simply huge piece of land for being central Tokyo and if you take of your shoes you are free to enjoy the stillness, the sounds and the smells of the main temple building.
Few temples in the Japanese capital manage what the grand Gokokuji in Bunkyo ward manages – it gives its name to a subway station: The Gokokuji Station on the Yurakucho line. Exiting from the station the temple is right in front of you and it is hard to miss either of the grand gates leading up to the main temple building. As usual with these huge temple compounds, a big part has been given over to more modern endeavors, offices and car parks, but the upper part remains impressive. The temple itself was founded in 1681 by the fifth shogun and is one of the few temple buildings in the capital that survived all earthquakes and bombing raids unscathed. The temple compound might not look like much in the winter, but come summer the whole compound looks much better with trees full of leaves and life. More images to come, and more details on what is found here.