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!

奈良 Buddha of Bankruptcy

Let us begin our Buddhist side of my visit to Nara. If you were hoping for more cute deer, don’t worry, they were everywhere and I have countless deer pictures so I’ll include some more in this post too. The main Buddhist temple that we visited in Nara was Todai-ji, the temple that pretty much everyone who visits Nara goes to see.

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Todai-ji 東大寺, was once one of the seven great temples of Nara, a term that refers to the most powerful temples in Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794). The Nara period can be characterised by the flourishing of Buddhism and its influence upon the elite and the imperial family. Several members of the imperial family actually became monks, something that worried many people who saw Buddhism as a non-native invading religion. It was at Todai-ji that this imperial religious fervour reached a fever pitch.

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Todai-ji was founded by Emperor Shomu in 728, quickly becoming a temple of influence and power. Emperor Shomu, worried by the large number of disasters during his reign, decided that in order to bring peace to the land he must ensure the spread of Buddhism. Therefore he issued an edict that promoted the construction of provincial temples throughout the land to counter the blight of rebellion, smallpox and poor harvests. I suppose when you’re in power and all of that happens you have to look like you’re doing something, even if realistically there’s not a lot you can do.P1070276 P1070288 P1070286 P1070294 P1070296

It was at Todai-ji that all Japanese monks of this period were ordained, making it one of the most important temples in Japanese history. In addition, this temple is where the Daibutsu 大仏, or great buddha can be found. This too was built by Emperor Shomu, who felt that he must construct a great Buddha to show the appreciation of the Buddha by the Japanese people. This is the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, (there are other larger statues of different Buddha) in the world. Vairocana is the Buddha that represents the East Asian concept of ’emptiness’. The Buddha was constructed through donations of bronze and other materials that were persuaded out of the Japanese people, and it was gilded in imported gold. Many later accounts of the construction blame the construction of the Daibutsu for the subsequent near-bankruptcy of Japan and shortage of bronze. Rather amusing that the Buddha of emptiness also emptied Japan’s treasury…

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The Daibutsu was finally completed in 745 and it is estimated 350,000 people worked on its construction. It weighs 500 tonnes and measures nearly 15m tall. Unfortunately around a century later, in 855, the head of the Daibutsu fell off and further donations had to be taken from the people in order to construct a more stable head. I am not sure if these were genuine donations or if they were ‘donations’ that were ‘requested’ by the Emperor. Shomu himself, in a final act of piety, became a monk upon his retirement.

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The current building of Todai-ji dates back to 1709; like most wooden temples in Japan the hall burned down several times. The current structure is actually 30% smaller than the original and lacks the two pagodas the original had. There was a small scale model of the original Todai-ji in the temple itself. The current structure was the worlds’ largest wooden building until 1998. It is now beaten by a Japanese baseball stadium among others. I really liked the gold horns on the top of the main building, they remind me of a samurai helmet. It’s certainly something different to other temples, something you start to appreciate when so many look similar.

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Inside the main hall was the main Buddha as well as a couple of rather large flanking Buddha. We saw a long queue of children with their parents waiting for apparently nothing, until I noticed that the children were taking it in turns to crawl through a small hole at the base of one of the wooden pillars and then have a photo taken stuck halfway through. This apparently ensures enlightenment later in life (the crawling, not the photo, one assumes). You can only do this as a child, unless you are very small, as most adults simply will not fit through the hole.


A small shrine outside was dedicated to what looked like a skeleton. The idea was that if you touched the figure where you were suffering from some kind of pain or disease, it would be cured if you prayed at this shrine. I had a go because I was very allergic at the time, though I feel that it was eventually the medicine that fixed me.

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Todai-ji is an impressive structure and definitely worth seeing. It, along with Kasuga Shrine in my last post, is a designated World Heritage Site. Unlike the shrine, it did cost money to enter (around 500円 I think), but it’s definitely worth it.