Recently I have visited a number of interesting temples that I have been unable to fit into blog posts, so here I would like to present a small trilogy – two shrines and a temple. Each of them has interesting features and a very different location. We have one shrine in an Osaka old-style alleyway, an apparent anachronistic bubble in an otherwise bustling modern city. We have a shrine all the way in West Kyoto, well-known and popular among locals to the point that they were doing a tv spot there when we visited. Finally we have a shrine tucked away in the middle of Kyoto’s pedestrian covered shopping district, an island dedicated to learning in a commercial sea.
The first of our trilogy is Houzenji 法善寺, a temple located in Osaka near Namba, the popular shopping district. Houzenji, founded in 1686, is located in a small side alleyway that has remained the same for several hundred years. This area is surrounded by high-rise buildings and shops, so the Kyoto-esque old-style alleyway feels a little out-of-place. It is an oasis of old Japan in a modern city.
Houzenji is famous for its ‘Mossy Buddha‘, a Buddha statue completely covered in moss. It is said that the Buddha is mossy because those who did not bring the Buddha an offering would wash their hands to purify themselves and then pray (by clapping their hands) in front of the Buddha with their hands still wet, leading to the Buddha to become damp and grow moss. There is a saying associated with the Buddha 「水をかけて、願もかける」, which requires a small Japanese lesson for you to understand. The Roman alphabet translation reads “mizu o kakete, gan mo kakeru”. Notice the two uses of the verb ‘kakeru’, declined in the present tense in the first half of the phrase. This verb means several things, including ‘to be covered’ and ‘to grant’. Therefore we can translate the phrase as ‘As he is covered in water, he may also grant wishes’, but the wordplay stems from ‘cover’ and ‘grant’ being the same word in Japanese. When looking up the correct translation to the second part of this phrase, I used Google translate with amusing results. I will post my Facebook post on the matter below, as those who are not friends with me on Facebook will find it amusing.
This temple is also famous for the practice of ‘a thousand days of Buddhist prayer’, giving it the common name ‘thousand days temple’ 千日寺. There is a district of Osaka very close by that is named 千日前, meaning ‘in front of a thousand days’ in reference to this temple.
The next temple, Kasuga Jinja 春日神社, is back in Kyoto. I dragged my sister and cousin here for the sole purpose of buying this temple’s stamp book. I had found the book on the internet and, having just finished my last stamp book, simply had to get this one for my next book. It features the deer of the shrine under an arc of leaves. This shrine, as most with deer, is related to the Fujiwara family and is closely linked with Kasuga Taisha 春日大社 in Nara (see blog post here).
Kasuga Jinja was founded by Emperor Junna (ruled 823 – 33) when he abdicated so that he would have a shrine for his protection. This is a fairly large shrine and within its grounds it contains Modoroki Jinja, a shrine that is said to grant travellers safe travel. Many soldiers’ families would come to this shrine to pray for the soldier’s safe return. Those that lived in the shrine’s ward and died in the first Sino-Japanese war are enshrined here. This may explain why this shrine had a politician or some other important person visiting when we visited – there was a camera crew and several people helping out and they were filming him praying at the main shrine, I suspect it had something to do with the soldiers enshrined there.
Kasuga Jinja is also famous for a ‘hoso-ishi‘ or smallpox stone, famous for an event in which a princess contracted smallpox but was cured by the stone. A nice shrine, though not that interesting compared to some in Kyoto, I would recommend it if you happen to be in the area or love the look of their stamp book. The book was 2000円 but definitely worth it in my eyes.
Our final shrine is nestled on Teramachi-doori 寺町通, or Temple Street. This is actually the street I live on; it stretches the whole length of Kyoto as Kyoto is a grid-based city. This shrine is in the shopping district of Teramachi, surrounded by arcades, clothes shops, souvenir shops and restaurants, Nishiki Tenmangu 錦天満宮 is a shrine dedicated to the god of learning, Tenjin. Tenjin was a real person, a scholar of the Heian period, who was so respected and accomplished he has become worshipped as a deity. He is particularly popular among students attempting to pass exams.
Nishiki Tenmangu goes back a fair way – from the outside it looks like it only goes back a few metres but there is actually a whole complex inside. The cow statues in the shrine are due to their association with Tenjin. The story goes that when Tenjin died his funeral cart was pulled by a bull. They reached a certain point on the funeral procession when the bull refused to move any further. Taking this as a sign from the gods, the people founded Tenjin’s first shrine at that spot. Today there are many shrines to Tenjin throughout Japan – I have already been to at least 3!
Enshrined alongside Tenjin is another important Heian period scholar, Minamoto no Toru (822 – 895). He was a poet and a statesman, famous for his poem that appears in the collection of 100 Japanese poems. The poem reads thus:
Tare yue ni
Ware naranaku ni.
Like Michinoku prints,
Of the tangled leaves of ferns,
It is because of you,
That I have become confused;
But my love for you remains.
Michinoku prints are complexly patterned prints made by placing vine leaves on fabric and pressing them onto the silk to leave a mark. The word ‘shinobu’ しのぶ in the second line has multiple meanings, including ‘a vine’, ‘to love’ and ‘to hide’, adding extra meaning to the poem.
Nishiki Tenmangu was originally connected to a Buddhist temple, but they were separated during the Meiji period due to the state policy of separating Buddhism and Shinto. Its proximity to Nishiki market (see post) gave it the name ‘Nishiki Tenmangu’. All shrines dedicated to Tenjin are called ‘Tenmangu’. This shrine also has slightly creepy karakuri puppets for its fortune-telling. These are old-style automatically moving puppets, popular from the 17th – 19th Century.
This brings us to the end of our trilogy, I hope you found these temples interesting. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – even the smallest temples in Japan are interesting and many have a history or folk tale behind them that is more interesting than the founding tales of a lot of the big temples.