Magnificence that hardly anybody knows
Everyone who wants to admire grand Buddhist architecture doesn’t necessarily have to leave the city limits of Tōkyō. A little outing that goes ways beyond what Mr. Baedeker has to tell, brings us to Ikegami (池上 / いけがみ), in the south of Ōta-ku (大田区 / おおたく). And there, the giant Honmon-ji (本門寺 / ほんもんじ) is our destination.
You’ll reach it either from Gotanda station (五反田駅 / ごたんだえき ) by Tōkyū Ikegami line (東急 池上線 / とうきゅういけがみせん) to Ikegami station (池上駅 / いけがみえき)(from there it’s about 400 meters in northern direction) or from Shinagawa (品川 / しながわ) by Keihin Tōhoku line (京浜東北線 / けいひんとうほくせん) to Ōmori (大森 / おおもり) and from there by bus to Ikegami station – closest bus stop is „Honmon-ji mae“ (本門寺前 / ほんもんじまえ) – two stations before the bus reaches Ikegami station. It’s just a few steps from there, also in northern direction.
Already when you walk through the area beneath the wide grounds of the Honmon-ji (本門寺 / ほんもんじ) on an afforested hill, you’ll feel a bit like strolling through the temple districts of Kyōto. All those whose picture of Tōkyō is more on the contemporary side and those who haven’t gone far beyond Meiji Shrine and Co., will be in for an amazing surprise.
There is an enormous flight of stairs at the southern main gate of the Honmon-ji – 96 steps lead up to the top of the aforesaid hill and the temple itself.
The main gate of the temple which is more than 300 years old, offers already a bit of hunch of the gigantic scale of the temple that celebrated its 400th birthday in the year 2008.
But the buildings of the Honmon-ji are anyway in such a good shape that one wouldn’t be able to tell the age of the temple by looking at their condition.
The temple dates back to the 13th century, when it was erected under Nichiren (日蓮 / にちれん – the founder of the Buddhist sect of the same name) in the year 1274. Only eight years later Nichiren died at this very place – reason enough to keep his ashes here and to honor it as a relic. The Hōtō, a particularly gorgeous, colourful pagoda a bit below the temple’s grounds that has just been restored recently, marks the place where Nichiren was cremated. The pagoda we can see nowadays is a reconstruction of an older one that was built in 1830 (other sources mention the 80s of the 18th century). In remembrance on Nichren’s anniversary of death (he was 61 years old when he passed away) the Honmon-ji celebrates a big festival (Oeshiki/お会式) from 11th to 13th of October. The parades of the “mandō” (万燈 / まんとう; “10,000 lanterns) and matoi (纏 / まとい; the flags of the firemen of old Edo), accompanied by flutes and drums are a stunning event that attracts a large crowd of visitors and worshipers every year.
If you want to know a bit more about the life of Nichiren, have a look at this posting:
Kamakura – 鎌倉 (3)
– Following the trail of the great buddhist sect founder Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra
– Or: Again, off the beaten tracks of the tourists there are the prettiest spots
Besides the main hall of the temple, of course, the five-storied pagoda is one of the main attractions on the temple’s grounds. Like the main gate of Honmon-ji also the pagoda survived World War II. rather unharmed – all the other buildings of the Honmon-ji are reconstructions). This pagoda that was built in 1608 is regarded as the oldest five-storied pagoda of Tōkyō and as an important cultural asset. With its 29.4 meters of height, it’s also not one of the small ones. And with its 45 cm strong main beam that is stretching the full height of the pagoda from its foundation to the top, the construction is said to be so strong and flexible at the same time that it can withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 7. Of particular interest: The 12 Chinese animal symbols in the lowest section of the pagoda.
The original name of the temple’s compound is, by the way, “Chōeisan“ (長栄山 / ちょうえいさん; “long-blossoming mountain“). No wonder that also the large graveyard of the Honmon-ji is worth a visit.
During my first visit to the Honmon-ji I was witness to a ceremony that may seem a bit strange for those unacquainted with Buddhist and Shintō customs: A young couple had their – obviously brandnew – white BMW-convertible blessed in a Buddhist ceremony. Some people may blame Buddhism for various things – but it can’t be blamed for not having a healthy business sense…
Only on very few days of the year also the Japanese landscape garden of the Honmon-ji is open for visitors (please try to inquire in advance – there is also some information in the Japanese part of the Honmon-ji’s website – if you can read it… http://www.honmonji.jp/index.html) – but on those few days there is also no admission fee. This garden is really a gem and, if you have a chance, go and see it. It is located in the north of the administration building (be warned: this building is everything but pretty) and can only be accessed via this building. A stroll through this garden around a picturesque pond is a joy – and a number of tea houses are welcome resting places.
The garden is a site of historic importance, as it was here, where the last defenders of the Tokugawa Shōgunate gathered in the late 60s of the 19th century – a last attempt to rescue the Shōgunate from the imperial troops. There are a number of memorial tables – for all of you who enjoy reading Japanese.
While you’re on the hill of the Honmon-ji, don’t miss the view from up there!
And there is another spot you should not miss: Not far from the Honmon-ji you’ll find the Ikegami Bai-en (池上梅園 / いけがみばいえん ), a pretty, little garden that – especially during the time of the plum blossoms (February) – is a kind of insider tip for foreign tourists. Have a look at the following: