大原野 Under the Sakura Sea

When my parents came to visit (which was quite a long time ago now…) we decided to head to Oharano. This town is rather out of the way but we decided to go to get out of the crowds and check out some temples that I had read about in the wonderful book Exploring Kyoto: on Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy (I strongly recommend this to anyone spending a considerable amount of time in Kyoto). It was very out of the way, requiring 2 trains and a bus to get there, but I enjoyed getting out of Kyoto and into new territory. We visited a number of temples and shrines that day, all of which I enjoyed, though some were better than others.

The first shrine we came to was Oharano shrine 大原野神社, founded in 784 as the new shrine to the kami of the Fujiwara family. The Emperor had moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyo that same year and the powerful Fujiwara family needed a family shrine near to the new capital. It is said that the Fujiwara family kami accepted the move and appeared riding a deer. The Fujiwara family animal is a deer, it is the same deer that appears at the Fujiwara clan shrine Kasuga Taisha in Nara. The capital was moved by Emperor Kanmu due to the increasing influence of Buddhism on the court in Nara. See this post for more background on Buddhism and politics in Nara.

Oharano Shrine continued to flourish even after the capital moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), and in 965 Emperor Murakami ordered that imperial messengers should announce important events to the kami residing at this shrine. Also please note the little turtles in the picture above! Pretty rare sight but they are native to Japan.

The shrine should have been peaceful but we had walked straight into a corporate hanami event. Hanami 花見 (literally ‘seeing flowers’), is the ancient tradition of sitting under cherry trees during full bloom and getting very drunk (it started around 700AD). Well, at least that’s what it is in practice. This was a corporate-style event complete with microphones, pre-packed lunches and business suits. This meant that we couldn’t get anywhere near the lovely weeping cherry that Oharano shrine is famous for, but at least we got a taste for true Japanese corporate hanami, further cementing my view that I don’t ever want to work for a Japanese company in Japan.

The next stop was mercifully much quieter. This next temple was Shobo-ji 正法寺, a temple founded as a hermitage by Chinese monk Chii-Daitoku. Though there is very little information about Chii, he was the disciple of a very influential Chinese monk called Jianzhen, who tried to visit Japan 6 times before finally succeeding. One of his failed attempts led to an infection that rendered him blind, meaning he never got to see Japan. Jianzhen still ended up presiding over Todai-ji in Nara, the most important temple in the country at the time, and he ordained former Emperor Shomu and former Empress Kotaku.

Though Shobo-ji, originally known as Ohara-ji, was burned down in the Onin war (1467 – 77), it was restored under the name Shobo-ji in the 17th Century. The temple features a beautiful zen rock garden with views over to the Higashiyama mountains. The garden is famous for the rocks that look like different animals, such as mice, elephants and frogs. Some of the images were a bit of a stretch, but I could see most of the ‘animals’ the monk pointed out.

Shobo-ji also had an inside section with screens and scrolls which we were allowed to take pictures of (usually it’s banned). A really lovely temple and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

The next temple was a little way away from the other shrines, through the forest. We went through a rather dilapidated gate with a sad looking protective statue and up the hill past some rather worn out older Japanese who praised our youthfulness in getting up the slope (it wasn’t really that steep…). The temple at the summit was Shoji-ji 勝持寺, better known by the  name Hana-dera 花寺, meaning ‘temple of flowers’. It is famous for the cherry blossoms that surround the temple. We were a little late for full bloom but there were still blossoms on the trees.

Shojiji was founded in 679 and is famous for the Saigyo cherry tree that can be found here.  This is a special type of cherry tree that was planted (or created, it’s unclear) by the poet Saigyo. Saigyo (1118 – 1190) was a poet of the Heian period. He was a body guard of the retired emperor until age 22 when he suddenly decided to become a monk. He took the religious name Saigyo, meaning Western journey, as a reference to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. His poetry is fairly melocholy, lamenting the decline of Buddhism as a feature of Japanese politics and the sense of disillusionment with Buddhism felt by the Japanese people. His poems focus on sadness, loneliness, his path of Buddhism and his thoughts on the Buddhist teaching of releasing desire and its conflict with his love of nature.

An example of one of Saigyo’s poems is:

願わくは花の下にて春死なむ  その如月の望月のころ

Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month.

Kisaragi is the classical Japanese for February, and the kanji 衣更着 sometimes used to write it (sometimes its 如月) means ‘wear more clothes’. Normally a monk would pray to die facing West towards the pure land, but Saigyo, despite his name, wishes to die surrounded by his beloved cherry trees. Perhaps he would be happy to die at Shojiji. The third generation of Saigyo’s cherry tree still lives in the gardens of Shojiji.

Finally we got a taxi from the station to Yohsiminedera, a rather out-of-the-way temple in the mountains. Though it was a little far it was worth the visit, with a huge main gate and sprawling temple complex. It cost 500円 (£2.60) entry but it was definitely worth it.

Yoshiminedera 善峯寺, is a Tendai sect temple dedicated to Kannon, a Bodhisattva of Mercy. It was founded in 1029 by the monk Gensan as a personal retreat. It too was destroyed in the Onin war but it was rebuilt in 1621. If you are wondering, the short version of the Onin war is that it started as a dispute over shogunal succession and ended up starting the Sengoku-jidai, or ‘warring states period’ that lasted a hundred years.

Yoshiminedera is famous for its Yūryu no Matsu 遊龍の松, or ‘playful dragon pine tree’, a pine tree that has been trained to grow horizontally and stretches over 40m. This pine is 600 years old and used to be over 50m but 10m were cut off due to insect damage. It is indeed very long and supported by props in several places. It is intended to look like a dragon swimming through waves, and I could see the resemblance, though if you imagine the outline of a ‘dragon swimming through waves’, a long wavy line probably sums it up pretty well –  not exactly a challenging shape but still impressive for a tree.

Praying at Yoshiminedera is said to ease the symptoms of neuralgia and lumbago, and the temple has medicated baths that open twice a year (2nd Sunday of May and October) which are said to cure these diseases. I can imagine it gets very busy on those two days and the complex car park was  huge so they are definitely prepared. It is also very popular in the Autumn.

We had to phone a taxi to get back from Yoshiminedera as we went late in the day and it was deserted. Mum pointed out that I now bow on the phone when speaking to Japanese people… I suppose I am internalising Japan quite a bit. Tomorrow I am off on a spontaneous solo trip to Ise to visit one of Japan’s most sacred shrines, so no blog posts on the weekend, but I will have lots of material for next week!

横須賀 Metaphorical Mountains, Local Guardians and the Phoenix God

With all this travel to other parts of East Asia, you may have missed my frequent posts on temples. If you have been missing them, fear not, for they are back! It is also spring now in Japan, so my walk around the temples has been graced with various blossoms, I’ll add the pictures of the blossom among the temple pictures, as I saw them on my walk between the temples.

After my trip to Hong Kong and Seoul, I took some time out from Kyoto to visit my friend in Yokosuka, which is just south of Tokyo. Being out of Kyoto is strange from a temple perspective; when you live in Kyoto you get used to seeing temples everywhere, and usually those temples are large with a rich history. The temples I visited in Yokosuka were more functional than historical, focused on serving the community. It was interesting to see how temples are in the rest of Japan, and while I couldn’t get loads of information on them I learned quite a lot about temples while attempting to find these temples on the Japanese web.

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Most of these temples were part of the same walk around Yokosuka, but the first visit actually dates back to a brief visit before my holiday. We visited this shrine as we passed it every time we went to the train station. This shrine was Neno-jinja 子之神社, a Shinto shrine. We wandered around and took some pictures. I had my eye out for somewhere to get my book stamped, and though it initially seemed like there was no one around, I noticed a small handwritten sign on a building that advertised stamps, so we went inside.

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The man that did my stamp was very nice, and while he was writing my stamp his colleague explained to me about the shrine. Neno-jinja is a shrine dedicated to Nezumi, god of children, Okkuninushi (the god in the legend of the white rabbit), as well as the gods of the harvest. He gave us little pouches with beans in them and explained that they would bring us luck and health in the New Year. He was also kind enough to show us the shrine’s portable shrine, which is part of the festival held every June. The shrine is carried by around 100 men on long wooden poles, and paraded around the streets. A portable shrine in Japanese is a mikoshi, 神輿, and it is believed that the deity of the shrine can be transported to sub-shrines using this vehicle.

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Neno-jinja was initially built in 1220 on the peninsula that is currently occupied by the American military base, but it was moved to its current site around 1830. The protective Komainu (lion dogs) were new and painted with gold and red accents.

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Another Shinto shrine I came across on my walk was Hirasaku-jinja 平作神社, a tiny shrine that served the area around it as a protective shrine. Known as chinjusha, 鎮守社, this type of shrine enshrines the kami that protects the local area. These kami are not necessarily well known or very powerful, but hold importance in the area as guardian spirits. The view from near the top of this shrine was pretty great, making up for its size.

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I also came across another chinjusha attached to one of the Buddhist temples. This shrine, Kasamori-Inari Daimyoujin 瘡守稲荷大明神, was dedicated to one of the most well known protective kami in Japan – Inari, the fox spirit. This shrine was actually hilarious, as whoever made or found the fox statues seemed to have an eye for the grotesque. All of the fox statues were pretty unconventional-looking, and I suspect they had been found at a car boot sale or in the woods somewhere. Though they were sporting lovingly made knitted red hats, they looked a sad state as half of them were damaged and the rest were plain ugly. I mean, some probably used to be normal-looking but several clearly didn’t even start that way. Perhaps the curator felt sorry for all the rejected fox statues and gave them a home. In my head I dubbed it ‘Ugly Fox Shrine’ and every statue seemed funnier than the last.

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Ugly Fox Shrine was attached to Myotozan Ookuraji 明登山大蔵寺, which was comparatively uninteresting and had no sign of stamps. This is part of a series of temples that I visited which all used to belong to the same network of Nichiren temples. These temples were part of the head-temple, sub-temple system until 1941. The reason for the dissolution of the network was due to the advent of the modern Japanese schooling system; temple schools slowly fell out of use and several sects fell into extinction. In reaction to this, the old Nichiren, Kenpon-hokke and Honmon sects fused together to form a single new sect, confusingly also called Nichiren. The old head temple system was abolished in favour of a religious council that managed all the temples and the whole system experienced an overhaul. Despite these changes, the appointment and dismissal of head priests, supposedly managed by the religious council, is still largely managed under the old head-sub temple network; it was difficult to totally erase such a long-standing relationship between temples.

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The other temples in this group that I visited had very little information on them on site or online. Heisakuzan Daikouji 平作山大光寺 was interesting in that it had a large courtyard with very well kept gardens and a lot of buildings, very different to the others in the old Nichiren sub-temple network. They kindly let me have a look inside the main hall (the guy even spoke English to me which was surprising).

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The last temple in this group, Gyokuryuuzan Fukusenji 玉龍山 福泉寺, was probably the most disappointing as it was simply a white building. It was redeemed by the large number of cats sunning themselves outside it, and also the fact that its mountain name has ‘dragon’ 龍 in it.

You may have noticed that all the temples (not shrines) I have talked about so far have had two names, the first ending with the character and the second with the character . The first name is known as the ‘mountain name’, as is the character for mountain. This dates back to when temples were typically monasteries built upon mountains – the mountain name was often a geographical reference to the mountain upon which it was founded.

Though not all temples are now built on mountains, temples are seen as metaphorical mountains and are counted with the counter ‘~san’ ~山. Founding a temple is called , literally ‘opening a mountain’. Temple names are now not always references to the mountain nearby but can be referring to the name of a founder, the founder’s parents, a deity or several deities. As mountains are naturally sacred places, temples are known as mountains to emulate or embody that sacred nature.

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The final temple I visited was Shomyouji 称名寺, a Buddhist temple belonging to the Jodo Shinshu sect. Originally a Nichiren temple, the popularity of the Bodhisattva Kannon increased dramatically in the area around the temple, and it was converted to Jodo Shinshu in 1233 due to popular pressure. The temple was moved to its current location in 1443 after it was burned down in a storm. The Kannon hall burned down but it is said that in the ashes of the hall, the head of the old statue of Kannon remained like a phoenix egg, and when the new statue was constructed the head was placed in its belly. This is why the Kannon statue has its right hand on its belly, and is said to bring the blessing of easy childbirth. Sadly I could not get or find a picture of the statue.

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Unfortunately this wasn’t the last burning this temple would receive; in 1970 it burned down again and was reconstructed in reinforced concrete – the monks were clearly pretty determined that it shouldn’t burn down a third time. Fortunately the red Kannon building with the special statue survived.

This temple is part of a Kannon pilgrimage circuit around Yokosuka, and it appears it gets a lot of sponsorship – we noticed a wooden board with names and numbers on it, which I worked out corresponded to the amount of money an individual or a family had donated to that temple. Also, the garderner seemed to have a penchant for perfectly straight tree branches, which was pretty weird considering I thought Buddhism was into things looking natural.

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Walking around the local temples in Yokosuka was great and I am glad I found out so much more about Buddhism and Shinto from them. It is always nice to go for walks around the neighbourhood, especially in spring time when the blossoms are out. Expect plenty more pictures of blossom soon as it is approaching Sakura season in Kyoto.