johnliddlephotography

Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


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Ninnaji and Rengeji (Kyoto)

Like most visitors to Kyoto I was keen to experience the great temples and I was not disappointed. However, I also made the effort to seek out lesser-recognised temples, which was equally rewarding and often left me shaking my head as to why they are less popular. The answer is, I think, simply attributable to our fickle human nature, where one can find parallels with virtually every aspect of life.

Visiting the two temples featured in this post was easy. Each is located within easy walking distance on the same street as two of Kyoto’s jewels, namely Kinkakuji and Ryoanji. Ninnaji and Rengeji are, in effect, neighbours and are the head and secondary headquarters respectively of the Omura School of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.

Rengeji was founded in 1057 and had operated at several sites before being restored at its current site in 1928. Similarly the five large stone statues (pics 1 to 3) for which Rengeji is best known were brought together in 1958 from dispersed locations and set out in their current arrangement. The five Buddhas of Yakushi, Hosho, Dainichi, Amida and Shaka are believed to be the patron gods of scholastic achievement.

Ninnaji is one of Kyoto’s oldest temples and dates back to 888 during the Heian period, though none of the foundation buildings have survived. However, several buildings including the front gate (pic 4) and the Pagoda (pic 12) date back to the early 1600s. Ninnaji, which enjoys world heritage listing, is one of those vast, sprawling temples with impressive architecture and gardens, as well as being historically significant. For almost one thousand years from its formation to the end of the Edo period in 1868, the temple’s head priest was always the son of a reigning emperor. When one considers its history and continuing magnificence, it is difficult to understand why Ninnaji has lower patronage than its more popular neighbours.

Another significant attraction is Ninnaji’s famous grove of late blooming cherry blossom trees. The trees are a local variety known as Omura Zakura cherry trees and are a smaller variety well suited to mass plantings as can be seen from pics 5 to 8. However, even during the cherry blossom season, the appeal of Ninnaji’s gardens does not rely on a single species (pics 9 to 11). Indeed, the combination of interesting architecture such as the Reihoken (Treasure House), which is open to the public during April and May and the well-maintained gardens within sprawling grounds positions Ninnaji favourably among Kyoto’s temples.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)

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Sensoji Temple – Asakusa

With an estimated 30 million visits a year from locals and tourists, it is safe to conclude that Sensoji Temple is Asakusa’s most popular drawcard. First established in 645 AD, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and has been revered by many influential historical figures through the ages, as well as by the general population. Sensoji is devoted to the Bodhisattva Kannon who is regarded by followers as the most compassionate Buddha and is seen as a source of benevolence and relief from suffering.

Judging from my personal visits the temple is always busy, somehow befitting its background as the centre of Edo (present-day Tokyo) culture. Such busyness also fits well with Tokyo’s image as a bustling, vibrant metropolis.

Looking back from the temple steps (pic 1) through the Hozomon Gate to Nakamise Dori gives some impression of the temple’s popularity. Indeed, for some visitors it is likely that the highlight of their visits will be walking the gauntlet that is Nakamise Dori (pics 2 to 4). This is a long approach path through rows of souvenir shops and food stalls. Whilst such an approach to Japanese temples is quite common, I found Nakamise Dori to be overly commercial, though its longevity suggests that my view may be in the minority. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to observe the contrasting and sometimes individualistic dress styles of visitors.

Japan has many impressive temple gates and the Hozomon Gate (pics 5 and 6) is yet another. First built in 942 AD, the Hozomon Gate has been destroyed twice; firstly by fire in 1631 and again in 1945 during the bombing of Tokyo. The current structure of steel-reinforced concrete houses many of Sensoji’s treasures in its second-storey; including a copy of the Lotus Sutra that is a designated national treasure. Standing almost 23 metres high, 21 metres wide and 8 metres deep, it is a commanding presence and a worthy gateway to Tokyo’s oldest temple. However, the most eye-catching feature is the large red chochin (lantern) weighing approximately 400 kilograms that hangs from the gate’s central opening.

Passing through the Hozomon Gate brings one into an area (pic 7) where official temple souvenirs and worship related materials such as amulets, incense and scrolls may be purchased, beyond which lies the temple’s main entrance. Upon entering the main hall, one’s eye is immediately diverted upwards to a series of impressive ceiling paintings (pic 8), which, despite the different subject matter, reminded me of Kyoto’s Kennin-ji (covered in a December 2014 post). Ceremonies occur throughout the day and although one’s view is generally restricted, it is always satisfying when one can experience any temple ceremony (pic 9).

Some respite from the crowds can be found within Sensoji’s gardens, which, as can be seen from the glimpse viewed from the left-hand exit of the main hall (pic 10), are quite beautiful in their own right. Within the gardens are many statues of deities, including those at pic 12 where the statue to the right of the shot is said to represent the image of the Bodhisattva Kannon. I have always found Jizo (protectors of children) statues to be rather comforting (as in pic 13) and given that Sensoji is associated with compassion, it seemed an appropriate way to conclude this post.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Nikko (Toshogu & Taiyuan Shrines)

Someone told me that Nikko is the place every Japanese person wants to visit at least once.  After visiting there twice in different seasons I came to understand why, but I had no idea how their words would resonate on my feeling that this post does not do justice to Nikko’s importance to the Japanese.

In Nikko, all roads lead to the complex including the Toshogu, Futarasan and Taiyuin shrines and it is from this complex that today’s images are drawn.  Words that may typically be used to describe Japanese temples and shrines such as subtle and understated do not apply here.  There is nothing understated about these shrines.  Quite the opposite, yet still their underlying message is that of reverence and respect for those honoured here.

Toshogu is the dominant shrine, as evidenced by the buildings of the Taiyuan Shrine being oriented to face Toshogu as a mark of respect for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa era.  As well as being the driving force behind the construction of Toshogu Shrine to honour his grandfather, Iemitsu (the third shogun) is perhaps better known as the shogun who closed Japan to foreign commerce and isolated it from the rest of the world for 200 years.

The tree-lined path to Toshogu Shrine is dominated by Ishidorii (pic 1), a granite torii gate that majestically draws one forward.  In my humble opinion, it must surely rank among Japan’s most significant torii.  To the left of Ishidorii is the five-storey pagoda (pic 2), where the storeys represent, in ascending order, the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and heaven.

Toshogu’s most famous attraction is perhaps the Sacred Stable (pics 3 and 4), or more specifically the story of stages in a monkey’s life told through a series of carvings on the walls of the building.  Since early times in Japan, monkeys have been regarded as guardians of horses, hence their significance to the stable building.  The most famous carving is, of course, that of the three wise monkeys, whose message of “hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil” has been an aspirational refrain of parents through the ages.

Other structures of interest include my favourite, the relatively subdued Rinzo or Holy Sutra Library (pic 5), which houses a collection of valuable Buddhist scriptures; the heavily decorated Yomeimon Gate (pic 6) flanked on each side by statues of the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose presence remains imposing (pic 7); and the designated national treasure – the Karamon Gate (pic 8).

The heavily wooded setting makes for pleasant walking and throughout the grounds one finds areas of interest such as small roadside shrines (pic 10) and many stone and metal lanterns (pic 9) donated by feudal lords.  To walk these grounds with someone steeped in Nikko history would be a pleasure, though the stories behind each building and object may require a lifetime of walks.

Although not as grand as the Toshogu Shrine, the Taiyuan Shrine is no less interesting.  Prior to climbing several sets of stairs and passing through a series of gates, one finds The Cistern for Holy Water (pic 11).  Water from a nearby stream is channeled down through a system of gutters into a solid granite basin so perfectly aligned that the water evenly overflows each edge.  Visitors stop here for purification before proceeding to the Nitenmon Gate, which can be seen in the background.

Taiyuan is built on a fairly steep slope, thus opening up vistas such as those shown (pics 12 and 13) at various points during the climb.  Reaching the upper level, one finds the largest building (pic 14), with this view showing the Ainomo or connecting chamber between the Haiden (sanctuary) and Honden (inner sanctuary).  Adjacent to the Honden is the Koukamon Gate (pic 15), the final gate behind which lies the Okunoin – the tomb of the third shogun Iemitsu.  Neither the Koukamon Gate nor Okunoin are open to the public.

Finally, walking back to central Nikko, one passes the Shinkyo Bridge (pic 16), regarded as one of the three most significant bridges in Japan.  The bridge across the Daikyo River was originally built in 1636 (rebuilt 1907) for the use of the Shogun and imperial messengers.

A visit to these sites is at first a visual assault on the senses, such is the splendour and grandeur one encounters.  However, the true value is felt by slowing down and allowing Nikko to seep into one’s senses.  One can then begin (only begin) to understand why it is so revered by the Japanese people.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)