My favorite part of the Taishakuten temple in Tokyo’s easternmost Shibamata district is the extensive traditional Japanese garden and buildings right next to the main temple building. You need to pay an entrance fee of 400 yen but it is worth all of it. The gardens are surrounded by a covered walkway, and some of the rooms of the temple buildings are open to inspection. There is even a tiny tea machine in one of the rooms if you want something hot or cold to accompany a short meditation on the beauty of Japanese garden tradition!
The Lotus Sutra (or 妙法蓮華経 in Japanese, full name being Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma) is one of the most popular sutras of the largest branch of buddhism, Mahayana. A Sutra is basically a canonical text on the teachings of buddhism and in Mahayana buddhism there are about one hundred of them written in Sanskrit, Chinese or Tibetan. The Lotus Sutra is the main sutra of the Nichiren school of buddhism to which the famous Taishakuten in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward belongs. It was written within a hundred years before or after Year 1 A.D.
One of the great carved panels in the Taishakuten contains a scene taken from the Lotus Sutra’s third chapter, the Parable of the Burning House. It is the story of a wealthy man who is blessed with many children. One days on his way home he finds his children completely concentrated on playing games inside the house even though it has caught fire and threatens to burn down with the children stuck inside. Despite all his cries the children ignore him until he comes up with a clever idea: he calls out to the children that they should come out and have a look at the fun new cars he has brought them; pulled by a deer, a goat, and a bullock! The promise of these novel and unusual draught animals lure the children out of the house and to the safety of their fathers arms. But instead of giving him the novel carts to play with he has prepared on much better cart, gilded, draped in jewelry and pulled by two great white bullocks.
The parable is of course an illustration of the world (a house on fire), the clueless children being humanity and the three carts being examples of how the Buddha offers many neat and clever ways to reach enlightenment but that in the end they all lead to one big common, and much better path, the path to Nirvana. Buddha is like a kind father offering his children shinier toys to make them leave their old fun, but useless toys behind.
Of all the ten different boards of carvings, this one was my favorite. Both the details like the animals and the children, but also how the flames and smoke is rendered in carved wood! The carver who made this was one Master Kijima Koun.
Maybe the most outstanding feature of the famous Taishakuten are the wood carvings covering the sides and the back of the main temple buildings. There are hundreds of meters of carvings in total, all from huge corbels of dragon heads to tiny patterns in tiny brackets. Most famous of all the carvings though are the ten giant keyaki-wood boards featuring scenes from the Lotus Sutra. The first of these boards were carved in 1922 by a master wood carver, and the idea was to send out nine more boards to other master wood carvers around Tokyo. In 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Japan and the nice boards sent out were all destroyed. Board of this size of this kind of wood are extremely valuable and very hard to find, so it was not until 1926 enough boards had been found to have the work restarted and the last board was delivered in 1934.
To see these carvings you need to enter a special glassed in gallery section, divided into two floors and the entrance fee is 400 yen, which also gives you entrance to the attached temple gardens. It is really a must see, the skill of these old wood carvers is simply unbelievable!
Naturally photographing wood carvings attractively is not an easy task, and I was in a hurry to see them all before closing. Next time I visit I will try to do a better job of it!
One of the most interesting details when it comes to traditional Japanese architecture (or indeed worldwide traditional architecture) are the highly decorated and carved wooden beam ends and corbels at temples and shrines. At the Taishakuten Temple in Katsushika Ward, which is famous specifically for its wooden carvings (more on that in a post later this week) I found these excellent lion (shish) and dragon’s head carvings. Usually these are painted in bright colors or even gold laminated, but in this temple they are bare wood, and it is easy to see the craft that is necessary to form these carvings!
All Japanese structures were traditionally made of wooden beams, and it is the end of the wooden beams sticking out of the wall that makes these beam ends, a perfect place to add some extra decoration. Corbels are solid pieces of material that are designed to rest on the base wall, supporting weights and structures jutting out of or from the wall (such as roof overhang, second floors, statuary etc.). Sometimes corbels are made to look like beam ends for the purpose of symmetry. In most modern western architecture beam ends are hidden inside the walls or undecorated altogether even if left visible. As Japanese temple architecture often has very heavy roofs (to protect against typhoons and rain) it was necessary to create several layers of wooden beams, and you can see beam end carvings on top of beam end carvings (or corbels) in some places. At corners the crossing beams will create a perfect opportunity to have two carvings at right angles sticking out from the wall!