Stunningly impressive – and yet an insider tip
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Everyone who has the chance to spend a little while longer in Japan and who is interested in the astonishing culture of the country, may find out sooner rather than later: It is not always the world-famous spots that trigger the most passionate reactions. Quite the contrary! On this website also I have shown more than once that the interesting, the charming, the breathtaking may just be found where hardly anybody would be looking for it.
Tōkyō’s Jōshin-ji (浄真寺 / じょうしんじ) is one of the best examples for that. Even the English-speaking internet that is supposed to know everything has surprisingly little to offer when it comes to this temple. That surprises even more, as this temple of the nine Buddha statues – that’s why it is also called “Kuhonbutsu” (九品仏 / くほんぶつ) – doesn’t have to fear any comparison with other temples in the country.
Treat yourself with a pretty prelude to your visit to the temple by taking the Tōkyū Ōimachi line (東急大井町線 / とうきょうおおいまちせん) to Kuhonbutsu (don’t let them confuse you, if it’s sometimes also written “Kuhombutsu” (九品仏 / くほんぶつ). A few steps from the north exit of the station you’ll reach the crossing “Kuhonbutsu Ekimae” (九品仏駅前 / くほんぶつえきまえ). Cross it and get absorbed by the picturesque alley, the Jōshin-ji Sandō (浄真時参道 / じょうしんじさんどう), that brings you directly to the temple’s grounds.
If you enter the temple’s compound via the south gate, you’ll soon pass those cute sculptures of Jizō which you can see above. Don’t get too much shocked, when you enter a small temple building on your right hand side, because this is home to a rather frightening religious manifestation. It is the sculpture of a figure of the Japanese underworld. It is called “Sōzukaba” (葬頭河婆) – the “”old woman who strips clothes”. According to a popul tradition of the Japanese Buddhism, this scary old haggard lady is waiting at the river that separates the underworld from this world and is stripping the dead off their clothes.
The spacious (120,000 sqm), very neat site on the compound of the former Okusawa Castle (奥沢城 / おくさわじょう) would certainly deserve to be overflown by masses of tourists. However, the fact that this is not the case, is nothing to be complained about, as it is this particular combination of grand dimensions and ruminant calmness that account for the charm of the Jōshin-ji. Have a walk in the park-like garden of the temple and allow yourself to be captured by the atmosphere of the location. You are going to ask yourself why you burdened yourself with exhausing city tours in Kyōto (of course, that doesn’t mean that I am of the opion the temples of the old imperial city had nothing to offer!).
The “Kuhonbutsu” can look back on a long history of almost 350 years. It was established in the year 1678, the 6th throne-year of the Enpō-Tennō, back then, when the actual power over the country was with the Tokugawa Shōgunes for three quarters of a century already and when Tōkyō was the capital for just as long. But there are also witnesses of days passed even longer – the trees on the temple’s grounds belong to the oldest in the city. One is even more than 700 years old.
Besides the Founder’s Hall (開山堂 / かいさんどう) of the temple, the grand Main Gate (仁王門 / におうもん) and the almost baroque Bell Tower (鐘楼 / しょうろう), it is the three Buddha Halls (佛堂) opposite of the Main Hall (本堂 / ほんどう) that guard the main attactions for visitors. That means, only if you know about the “secrets” contained in these halls (which cannot be entered – but if you step to the windows close enough, the sanctuary will open its secret for you). Each of these halls protects three of the nine Buddha statues that are the reason for the Jōshin-ji’s additional name (“Kuhonbutsu”). Each of these larger-than-live statues shows a different hand position, called “Mudra”, that is of symbolic meaning in the esoteric Buddhism. Don’t be sad, if one or the other of those nine Buddhas is missing during your visit. Starting in 2014 they will all undergo restoration until 2034.
But don’t forget the Main Hall itself. The inside is a real gem (even though obviously not open every day) – have a look at the pictures below:
The fact that the statues are being kept in something of a seclusion in the Buddha Halls (rarely ever open to the public) adds to their mystical charisma.
The Buddha-Halls date back to the years 1698 and 1699, were, however, seriously affected by earthquakes in the middle of the 19th century and the great Kantō-earthquake (1923). Though the building saw some repair and regular maintenance during all the centuries, it is only since 1983, after a thorough restoration that they show their original splendour.
The Buddha statues themselves are works by the great master, Kaseki Shōnin (1617-1694). When he was only 18 years old, he vowed to create nine different manifestatios of the Amida (Japanese for “Amitabha”)-Buddha. It was to become a work of a lifetime, because he had reached the age of 51 when the nineth of the statues was completed. All the statues together are regarded as a national cultural treasure and can adorn themselves with the fact that there is only one other complete set of nine Amida Buddha statues, the ones of the Jōruri-ji (浄瑠璃寺 / じょうるりじ) in Kyōto (京都 / きょうと).
Click to enlarge.
The middle of the three Buddha Halls houses the manifestations of the highest level Buddha, the right one the second-ranking and the left one the lower-ranking ones. Also each of the three-Buddha-sets in the three halls follow the same principle of order: The Buddha of the highest being is the one in the middle, the Buddha of the middle beings to the right and the Buddha of the lower being to the left.
And there is more about mystical order here:
It’s not by chance that the temple’s precincts measure 120,000 sqm. This space just happens to be (roughly) equal to 36,000 Japanese “tsubo” (坪 /つぼ ), thus relating to the Amida Buddha’s 36 vows. There are also 36 rounded pillars in each of the Buddha Halls and 36 pillars made of keyaki-wood in the Main Hall.
Just in case you are interested in this kind of religious order.
The nine statue of Buddha are being restored since 2014 (to be completed by 2034). When I last visited the temple (November 2018) two of them had already been completed (in the Buddha Hall on the right hand side – one was still “out to be cleaned”, hence missing). The following two photos give you an impression of what kind of splendour is going to be expected once all the nice Buddha sculptures will be restored in 2034 (you may want to mark to the year in your calendar).
But order isn’t something that comes at random in Buddhism. It is part of its teaching and, in this particular case, also expresses the differentiation Buddhism makes also for sentient beings. Very roughly spoken, it differentiates by:
- the level and path of enlightenment on the way to gain belive in the “Pure Land”
- the spiritual condition and purification by the invocation of Buddha and
- the capability to understand and to follow the teaching of Buddha.
The temple is also well-know for its “Festival of the Welcome to the Pure Land” which is helt every three years on August 16th. This festival is regarded an “intangible cultural asset” and represents the firm believe that the Amitabha Buddha and his 25 attendant bodhisattvas come to greet the believers in the dying moments and guide them to the “Pure Land in the West”. And everyone who, in his afterlife, want’s “live” in country where heavenly music can be heard and where the grounds are of gold, and where its “inhabitants” spend the day collection flowers falling from the sky in order to donate them to the Buddhas, should study the teachings of the Amitabha Buddha. In this “Pure Land” rare and beautiful birds are singing the most beautiful songs of the Buddhist wisdom six times a day. If deemed approriate this could be a viable alternative to the reciting of “hosanna” in the Bavarian-Katholic heaven….
On this day of the festival a bridge is suspended between the Buddha Halls and the Main Hall. Believers wearing masks of Bodhisattva cross over this bridge in a noble and solemn ceremony.
In addition, also the temple’s Treasure House is opened for public viewing.
If you feel like it, why don’t you also have a look at the large graveyard of the Jōshin-ji – but, please, don’t disturb the peace of the dead and the prayers of the visitors.
No admission fee
How to get there:
As mentioned above, take the Tōkyū Ōimachi line (東急大井町線 / とうきゅうおおいまちせん) from Ōimachi (大井町 / おおいまち) to Kuhonbutsu (九品仏 / くほんぶつ).
If you start your trip from Shibuya (渋谷 / しぶや) or with the Tōkyō Metro-line Fukutoshin (東京メトロ副都心線 / とうきょうメトロふくとしんせん), take the Tōkyū Tōyoko line (東京東横線 / とうきょうとうよこせん) to Jiyūgaoka (自由が丘 / じゆうがおか) and either walk from there in western direction to the Jōshin-ji or change here to the Tōkyū Ōimachi line (東急大井町線 / とうきゅうおおいまちせん) for one more station to Kuhonbutsu (九品仏 / くほんぶつ).