関西 Mossy Messiah, Cow-Sensei and a Soldier’s Shield

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:



Michinoku no
Shinobu moji-zuri
Tare yue ni
Midare-some nishi
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.

京都寺町通 Buddhas and Barbarians

Those visiting Kyoto for only a few days (or even a few weeks) tend to only see the famous temples of Kyoto, but I, having the luxury of time, decided that I should visit my local temples. Though they may not be as impressive as the likes of Fushimi Inari (the one with all the gates) or Kinkaku-ji (the one with all the gold) they have a rich history, and at this time of year any temple with maple trees looks fantastic. Both of these temples are on my road, which is indeed the ‘road of temples’ (寺町通 – teramachi-dori). It was also good to go somewhere close because today was bitterly cold – the humidity here means that the cold really bites.

The first temple I visited was Shojoke-in (清浄華院), a head temple of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (also known as the Jodo sect). The temple’s name means to strive to reach a state of perfection – it translates to ‘pure petals’, referring to the petals of the lotus flower.


Shojoke-in was originally a Tendai sect temple, founded by the monk Enin in 860. Enin is a figure I’ve learned about before – in first year I had to write about Japanese buddhism and its ‘Japanization’ – Enin was one of the monks that travelled to China to bring back texts and learning. There were several monks at the time that travelled to China to legitimise their knowledge of Buddhism; China was seen as a place of Buddhist learning and Chinese temples and Buddhist masters were greatly respected by Japanese Buddhists. China was the powerhouse of Asian learning and culture at this time (as it was for most of history) and its influence was felt all over Asia. Upon returning to Japan, Enin founded many temples, one of which was Shojoke-in, originally founded near the imperial palace as a training temple.


In the 13th Century the Emperor at the time granted the priest Honen the temple for use as a Pure Land Buddhist temple. Honen was another great monk in Japanese Buddhism – he is considered the founder of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism existed in the rest of Asia, but had not gained popularity in Japan. Honen read a text on Pure Land Buddhism that originated in China and began to spread the message throughout Japan.


This sect of Buddhism believes that rather than meditation or other methods to reach enlightenment, people should chant the name of the Amida Buddha to gain salvation and be allowed to travel to the ‘Pure Land’, a paradise. Pure Land Buddhism was originally based on the view that they were living in the ‘Ending of Times of the Law’; there was the view that the world and morality were decaying and people could no longer attain enlightenment, only seek salvation.

Honen Preaching (14th century print)

The Pure Land Buddhist sect’s tendency to invalidate other sects’ practices such as celibacy and meditation led to the main sects of Buddhism in Kyoto petitioning the Emperor to exile Honen. While this didn’t occur straight away, there was a scandal in 1207 in which two of his supporters were suspected of using the chanting time to conduct sexual liaisons. This sex scandal led to the Emperor banishing Honen and executing the two supporters. The chanting of Pure Land Buddhism was banned in Kyoto from 1207 until 1211, when the ban and Honen’s exile were repealed. He died a year later.


Shojoke-in became a head temple due to its proximity to the imperial palace; several members of the royal family became part of the priesthood and this gave it fame and importance. Though it was ruined in the Onin civil war (the war that started the ‘warring states period’ of Japanese history) it was rebuilt in the 16th century. The buildings of the 16th century remain standing today.


I then crossed the road and visited Nashinoki Shrine (梨木神社), a shrine founded in 1885. Despite being much younger than Shojoke-in and most of the other shrines in Kyoto, the architecture remains in the traditional style. Well, besides the huge building site just outside the shrine where they’re building a load of apartments. The crane looming over half of the grounds did somewhat ruin the timelessness of the shrine.

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Nashinoki shrine was constructed to enshrine Sanjo Sanetsumu and his son Sanjo Sanetomi (in Japanese surnames go first), both of whom were statesmen in the 19th Century. Their lives span one of the most interesting and pivotal moments of Japanese history: The Meiji Restoration. The father served three generations of Emperors from 1812. Though he did not live to see the Meiji Restoration, he fell out of favour with the shogunate for supporting the restoration of the imperial family and was exiled. His son continued his political ideals and was a key figure of the Meiji government after the restoration of 1868.

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The son, Sanjo Sanetomi, was a figurehead of the ‘Sonno Joi’ (尊皇攘夷) movement. Sonno Joi was a slogan that means ‘revere the emperor, expel the barbarians’, and was coined in reaction to the ‘opening’ of Japan by Western powers in the mid-19th century. The Tokugawa shogunate was perceived as failing to manage the ‘barbarians’ that were demanding access to Japanese trade (Japan had a policy of total isolation for over 250 years during the Tokugawa period). The Tokugawa Shogunate were unable to expel the foreigners despite the people’s wishes and so many samurai and Daimyo (regional lords) decided that power should be returned to the throne. After all, a military government derives its legitimacy from military strength – if it cannot expel an invading enemy it loses its right to rule. The Emperor regained power after centuries of military rule in 1868.

Samurai under the ‘Sonno Joi’ banner

“Expelling the Barbarians”

 Both the shrine and the temple were practically empty (I went at 3pm on a Tuesday). It feels a bit like  intruding into a home when no one else is in the temple, even though I knew both were open. I managed to get my book stamped at Shojoke-in by a monk for 300円 but at Nashinoki Shrine there was a stamp booth but no one around to stamp it. I plan to go back to get my stamp on the weekend when they’ll be more busy.


These shrines, though not strikingly spectacular, were worth the visit for me at least. I got to see beautiful crimson leaves and learn some more about the history of the area that I live in. If you visit Kyoto and have time I would recommend visiting some smaller shrines – many have hidden treasures in the form of gardens or beautiful buildings, and have the added bonus of being far from the maddening crowd.

Also I’ve finally made an archive page (located in the top menu) so if you feel like checking out my other posts its now a lot easier!