The best way to enjoy a visit to a temple or a shrine in my opinion is to go for the details. Just like older western Churches, temples and shrines in Japan (and indeed in the rest of Asia as well) are absolutely loaded with details all of which carries tons of symbolism and meaning. Most Japanese can’t actually “read” these details either (it is not a lost skill, as these details have long been the domain of specialists and professionals). I have always thought it interesting in Japanese that there is one word for “leg” that covers everything from the hipjoint to the big toe, but there is also a very specific name for each part of the spire on top of a pagoda, with incredible detail. Every time I visit a temple in Japan I learn something new about the symbolism or naming of the different parts of it. Sometimes I take a lot of photos of details to remember them, like with this temple that I visited in Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture, the Senjuin (千手院). This temple is on the slopes of a hill neatly placed to overlook the city and the castle that makes the city famous. The temple belongs to the oldest and largest of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. I was too late in the season to experience the famous weeping cherry blossom tree (shidare sakura) which is over 200 years old. The temple itself is very old but it was moved here in the 19th century after a large fire burned down the original buildings in 1678. If you visit Matsue City and have a bit of free time and the weather is good I recommend visiting this temple if nothing else than for the news.
A few of the interesting details on this temple was the elaborate (even more than usual) bright vermilion ceramic roof finials, complete with the famous kamon (heraldic sign) Gosannokiri which is extremely similar to the official heraldic sign of the prime minister and can be found in all Japanese passports for example (to be honest there are 129 official kamon based on this simple design and it could be anyone of them). I also enjoyed seeing the printed prayer slips pasted on one of the walls which I have never seen in Tokyo (I am sure there must be some). Another one I liked was the little votive painting of the Senjukannon, the buddhist patron saint of people born in the year of the rat and often prayed to by people with poor eyes.
Right now the fourth Shinjuku Creator’s Festival is taking place mainly around Shinjuku station, but with far flung satellite exhibitions taking place around Shinjuku ward, like Hatsudai, Ichigaya and even Kagurazaka. I went to see the work of famous artist Yoichiro Kawaguchi, which you might remember from this blog last year.
This year Mr. Kawaguchi exhibits two statues called Ficco at the Zenkokuji temple in Kagurazaka, famous for its statue of the Bishamonten which is only uncovered for the public on special days. The temple was originally erected in Bakurocho in 1595 but moved to Kagurazaka in 1793. In 1945 the original temple was destroyed in air raids, the only thing that survived was the unusual guardians from 1848, which here are actually tigers whereas they are usually lions or foxes: these are the only guardian tigers in Shinjuku ward. You can see the patchwork of repairs on one of the tigers in the third image.
So in a sense, placing these to Ficco on either side off the temple guardians makes perfect sense. The Shinjuku Creator’s Festa goes on for one more week, ending on the 7th of August.
Tokyo is full of history and interesting stories if you just know where to look and aren’t too distracted by the food, the fun and the shopping! I have passed these two statues at the famous Sensoji Temple in Japan’s number one tourist site, Asakusa, maybe over a thousand times but I only recently learned about the history of them.
In the first half of the 17th century when Edo was the trading and crafts center of Japan and the home of the ruling Shogun (Warlord) a struggling trader in rice took in a small boy from modern day Gunma prefecture and did his best to teach him about trade and commerce. Eventually the boy returned to his home town and started a very successful trading business. His old master though was not so lucky and died impoverished and destitute. The former apprentice, Takase Zembe, heard of the tragedy and ordered two huge statues of the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi. They were donated in 1678 to the memory of the rice merchant and his son. Both the statues miraculously survived the US fire bombings of 1945 and they are still in their original positions to the right of the second Nio gate.
But the story doesn’t end there, because almost 300 years later one of Zembe’s direct descendants, Takase Jiro who was the Japanese ambassador to Sri Lanka in 1996 developed a cultural exchange and partnership between the Sensoji Temple and the famous Isurumuniya Vihara temple in Anuradhapura, the capital of ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As the Senso-ji’s pagoda was rebuilt in 1973, the temple in Sri Lanka dispatched its senior abbot to the dedication ceremony, bringing with him a granule of the physical remains of the Buddha, a massively important relic, to dedicate to the Japanese temple.
The granule remains in the pagoda to this day and I hope both it and the two statues representing the gratitude of a devoted apprentice to his former master will remain for many thousands of years to come.
I passed the statues a little while ago, and found them occupied by two birds who posed perfectly for the camera.
If Nara City in Western Japan is know for anything it is the Big Buddha and for the hundreds of wild deer roaming the streets. If there ever was a popularity contest I wonder who would win, the temple or the deer? Although I have never really had the time to focus an hour or so to taking photos of the deer it is hard to miss them just walking through the city and I took these snaps as I visited Nara a couple of years ago. Nara is one of my favorite places in Japan and I am always looking for excuses to visit. It is also a good place to base yourself for tourism to western Japan if the Kyoto hotels are full or the big city feel of Osaka is too intimidating. Nara is full of the old time small city charm even though there are close to 340 000 people living there.