Temples Galore! ( Akita and Iwate )

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TUJ’s final organized trip of the semester was the road trip to the Akita and Iwate prefectures. Our group of around 50 loaded onto a bus starting TUJ at around 6:30 in the morning, most of us heading out from the dorms at around 5:15 AM to make the commute and catch the earliest train. The hours spent on the way up were mostly in silence, due to most of us opting to sleep rather than view the landscapes. Headphones and ipods galore – it wasn’t much of an exciting ride, with a few rest stops to tide us over so we could empty our bladders and refill our snack supply.

We spent the days on the road in plenty of different settings, but for now let’s just talk temples.

Traffic ended up keeping us a bit behind schedule, so we had to cut a few of our views short, spending only a little time at the Hiraizumi Cultural Center so we could get our bearing on the area. Afterwards, with some hot cocoa in hand, we made our way up to the first major stop on our tour of Northern Japan: Motsu-ji Temple, also known as the Motsu-ji Jodo Gardens. The temple was founded by the Jikaku Daishi Ennin in Year 3 of the Kasho Era (850). At the time there was also established the Shichido Garan (a seven-temple compound) and a 40 temple, 500-monastery compound was also eventually constructed for the successor to the grounds. Most of this has been lost to fire and only a few buildings remain, which include several small shrines, including one where the Yakushinyorai (a Buddha to cure all ills) is housed.

The grand feature of the area, though, is Oizumigaike Pond, that stretches out in the center and has not changed in over 800 years. Near the center there is an artificial mound known as tsukiyama and an arrangement of stones, that form the garden stream, called the yarimizu. The landscape is simply breathtaking, and when we arrived the time of day was perfect for viewing, the sun reflecting on the pond and the water crystal clear. We spent a good 30 minutes taking a lap around the pond, pausing at the shrines and a few of the natural marvels, such as a forked tree which may have had artifacts hung from it at one point. The area itself is very peaceful, and despite all the people there it was quiet and serene and relaxing compared to the hours spent jammed into a bus.

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Afterwards we made our way to the largest temple grounds in the area of Hiraizumi, the Chuson-ji Temple grounds. In the latter half of the 11th century there were two bitter wars fought in Oshu, the northeastern area of Japan. In the first fo those, Lord Kiyohara lost his father, wife and children during the conflicts. Instead of seeking revenge or hatred he instead turned to constructing the Chuson-ji Temple and offered a pledge to Buddha to console the spirits of the dead, whether friend or foe, human or animal. The main hall is called Hondo and is the center for the services and rituals of the temple and even open for members of the general public to practice Zen seated meditations and copy sutras. There is also the Sankozo, a museum to house over 3,000 treasures from the time of Oshu Fujiwara, among which are three massive seated buddhas.

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By far the most amazing building is the Konjikido, also known as the ‘Golden Hall’. It was completed in 1124 and the principal image of the hall is Amida (Buddha of infinite light). The entire inside of the building is cast in a bright, golden glow and the inlay is a work of iridescent shells, the Southeast Asian rosewood, and African ivory, representative of the trade network at the time. In the center there is a small daises, which houses the mummified heads of four generations of Fujiwara lords.

Outside of these temples the area is just as vibrant. Much of the land is against a rather deep chasm, which stretches a good distance across. There are small shrines dedicated to the symbols of the Chinese zodiac as well as structure near the entrance dressed in vibrant flowers. The slope downhill is rather harsh, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people took a little tumble over the years, but beyond that the area surrounding the temple is inviting and serene, just as the last.

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On the second day our group only made a small pause at a shrine but it was a marvel none the less. Our bus pulled up alongside a shrine known as The 10,000 Buddhas of Shinzan. The outside resembles any other shrine one would come across in the area, the familiar wooden structure and the box left out front for offerings, but the inside is a marvel. The walls of the temple are entirely constructed with thousands of small statues of Buddha, lined up against one another. Even the ceiling is filled with these, smiling down at you as well as watching over you. There is a small shrine in the back corner with a large, golden statue, some fresh flowers surrounding it which shows the shrine is still being taken care of, despite being a little out of the way and hidden.

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The final temple on our trip was the Takkoku no Iwaya Cave temple. The main hall is known as Bishamondo, built to give thanks to Bishamon, the god of war. It was built into the rock wall next to it, becoming a ‘cave temple’. There are 108 statues of the temple’s namesake installed inside and the temple was erected as a place to pray for peace in times of turmoil. The temple itself was burnt down in 1490 but immediately rebuilt, so the one that stands today isn’t the original, in fact it was rebuilt again after a fire in 1961 and many of the statues were lost. The stone wall near the temple features a carving of Buddha that legend says was carved by Minamoto no Yoshiie firing arrows at the sandstone cliff. The 16.5 meter high Buddha is one of the five largest in Japan and is more commonly known as the Northern Rock Buddha. It was originally a full figure of a seated Buddha but the lower part was destroyed during an earthquake in 1896.

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Several smaller halls dot the area as well, included one dedicated to Benten, a goddess said to protect people born in the year of the Snake and who promotes intelligence, happiness, and skillfulness. The pond in front of the hall is known as Gama no Ike, or Toad Pond, though now it seems to be mostly inhabited by rather large Koi fish eagerly awaiting a meal. There is also a hall for the god Fudo, who has a similar job as Benten, as he protects people born in the year of the Chicken (Also called Rooster) which happens to be my Chinese Zodiac sign, so I took a moment at the hall. While the area was a lot smaller than the previous temples, mostly due to fire and other disasters, the same feeling of serene calm slid through the grounds. Perhaps even more so, as there were less people in the area and our group was more or less left to ourselves.

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It was wonderful being able to see such ancient history up close and though there are trends to the designs and structures of these temples each one has a unique flavor and feeling to it. I’d love for a chance before the year ends to visit the temples of Kyoto as well, but for now the Akita and Iwate prefectures were enough to give me a taste of Japanese culture and history.

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