An unexpected beauty of a special kind in an otherwise unimpressive Kumagaya
Kumagaya (熊谷 / くまがや), located in Tōkyō’s northern neighbouring Saitama prefecure (埼玉県 / さいたまけん) may not be that well-known. A look into Wikipedia tells you that this was the last city that became victim of US-American air raids at the end of WWII (on August 14, 1945, to be precise – hence, five days after the second atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki; a bomb of which our history books still tell the fairy tale that it was the one that ended the war). If you have also heard that Kumagaya is one of the hottest places in Japan in summer (one of the reasons is that southern winds bring all the heated air from the mega metropolis up north to Kumagaya), you’re practically an expert on the city….
As you may have realised in my other postings, it is not my habit to speak negatively about places I have visited. But in the case of Kumagaya, sincerity demands at least to mention, that this city (after all, it is one with about 200,000 inhabitants) is also quite an example for how grim Japanese provincial towns can be or become (and not just because the weather wasn’t that luminous during my visit), when they are being reduced step by step to places with affordable housing for those who work in metropolitan areas, in combination with a general depopulation of rural areas and the decline of farming.
The more one is surprised when one gets to the northern disctrict of Kumagaya, to Menuma (妻沼 / めぬま) and suddenly sees oneself confronted with the Shōden-zan Kangi-in (聖天山歓喜院 / しょうでんざんかんぎいん).
This temple dates back to the year 1179, when Lord Sanemori Saitō (斎藤実盛 / さいとうさねもり) requested the construction of a shrine for the spirit of Shōden (a protective divine spirit “Nandikeśvara”, which is also called “Kangi-ten” (歓喜天 / かんぎてん) in the Shingon- and Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism).
By the way: This Lord Sanemori is one of the medieval heros in the conflicts between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan – rather well-known from the war epics Hōgen Monogatari (保元物語 / ほうげんものがたり) and Heike Monogatari (平家物語 / へいけものがたり). Try not to get confused with all those names: The “Heike” are the “Taira” – and the “Minamoto” are the “Genji” (which you may know from the famous Genji Monogatari (源氏物語 / げんじものがたり)). All that mix-up comes from the various ways of reading old Names.
Anyway, the image of the protective spirit of the temple,”Kangi-ten”, that was brought by the founder of the Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan in the 8th century AD, is an important national cultural property. But the more practical sides of this divine spirit are also not to be sneezed at: Is is deemed a particularly powerful force, when it comes to finding the right partner in life or to strengthen the bonds of married couples; it ensures success in business and traffic safety – not to forget success in school examinations. In short: It’s quite indispensible for all aspects of life.
But let’s have a closer look at the temple itself. We are entering the temple’s compound through the remarkable…
Kisōmon (貴惣門 / きそうもん)
This main gate, built in 1851, would already impress with its sheer size (e.g. its respectable height of 16 metres). But the actual eye-catcher is the construction of the three-gabled roofing, as this is different from almost all other temple gates in the country (you’ll find it in only four temples – one of which is the magnificent Shitennō-ji in Ōsaka).
The gate is covered with particularly elaborate carvings that also demonstrate the development that was made in this craft in the 100 years since the completion of the inner sanctuary of the temple (we come to that later). The gorgeous wood carfings were carried out by Masamichi Hayashi, a master craftsman vom Menuma and his pupils. The complex roof construction of the gate was refurbished in 1987. Today the gate is regarded as an important national cultural property.
From the Kisōmon a dead straight cherry tree alley…
Bronze statue of Sanemori (実盛公銅像 / さねもりこうどうぞう)
The statue was built in 1996 in conjunction with the 818th anniversary of the temple’s foundation. Right next to it you will find a little “box” that will allow you to play the song “Saitō Sanemori”, that was composed for musical education in elementary schools to make the children familiar with Sanemori’s virtues.
After this little detour we’ll return to the cherry tree alley and reach the inner compound of the temple via the…
Niō Gate (Deva Gate) (仁王門 / におうもん)
Of this gate that is being protected by two deva dieties it is said that its original construction dates back to the year 1658. However, after this rather monumental gate was distroyed during a typhoon in 1891 (which the two deva dieties survived), it had to be re-built in 1894 – and the two deva statues “put back on duty”. The quite impressive roof of the gate was refurbished in 1982.
After you have passed the Niō Gate, you find one of the roots of the temple, the…
Daishi Hall (大師堂 / だいしどう)
This hall was built to worship the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai). (弘法大師・空海 / こうぼうだいし・くうかい) in 1197 – at that time as a storage building with earthen walls. In conjunction with a large scale refurbishment the hall we can see today was build in November 1995. It is the last of the “88 Sacred Places of the Kantō Region” and as such the final destination of the well-known pilgrimage..
But now we finally come closer to that part of the temple we had actually been looking for…
The Hall of Worship (拝殿 / はいでん)
This relatively modest part of the building complex is the biggest one (floor space: 127 sqm). It is connected with the inner sanctuary (本殿 / ほんでん) in its back via a connecting hall (27 sqm). This style of construction is called “byōgatashiki gongen zukuri” (廟型式権現造り / ぼうがたしきごんげんづくり), which could be freely translated as “design for a tempel to worship the epiphany of Buddha in a Japanese diety”.
Had the builders of the Shōden-zan Kangi-in had as much money as the principals of the temple and shrine district in Nikkō, also this part of the temple would surely have been built as gorgeously as the the part in its back, the inner sanctuary. But everybody who knows a bit about traditional Japanese architecture also knows to appreciate the fundamental modesty and is not surprised to find lots and lots of unexpected details – which we will also see, when we come the inner sanctuary itself..
Be that as it may, the centre of it all and the climax of the whole temple compound is the inner sanctuary, the…
Honden (本殿 / ほんでん)
The architectural style is called “yatsu mune zukuri” (八棟造り / やつむねづくり) – a literal translation of the term hints at a building with eight gables (at one with many gables for sure). But as gorgeous as the roof construction may be, the eye-catcher of this element of the temple is the lavish design of its outer walls.
The main building was designed by Hyogo Masakiyo Hayashi and building was continued by his successor, Masanobu Hirauchi, who was the head carpenter at the construction division of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. After 25 years of work on this building, the remaining work was handed over to his son, who brought the construction to its glorious completion in 1760.
After that this treasure was exposed to the harms of nature for about 250 years and finally showed grave signs of decay. However, before major parts of the gorgeous wookworks could get lost, a laborous restoration process was started in 2003 that took about seven years to complete. Since 2010 the inner sanctuary of the temple shows is original colours again, its breathtaking carvings and all its splendour. One of the local guides mentioned: “That was the last time we’ll ever be able to restore this building – we will never be able again to raise the enormous amount of money necessary for such an effort.”
I have to admit: The excessive flamboyancy of the walls’ decoration is quite overwhelming at first glance. Some people might be scared off by it. But take the trouble to have a closer look at the individual elements of the grand picture ensembles! On the one hand, you will realise that even recurring style elements (e.g. the dragons) are never really repetitious – each of them are individual works of art. You will also realise that these three-dimensional “pictures” of Chinese scenes are mostly of a non-religious nature – or show religious (Buddhist) scenes and dieties in situations that are usually not to be expected.
Let’s have a look at a few of those:
As the Shōden-zan is a place of all-encompassing happiness and security there is only very little to do for the divine spirits and dieties. That’s why you find some of them depicted as “idle gods”, enjoying themselves (at the picture below on the left, they are just playing a game of go). Otherwise rather mischievous mythologic elements (have a look at the red sculpture in the left picture) are in such a carefree mood that they start flirting with goddesses in a picture on their right….
Many of the details reveal quite an amount of humor the artists had put in their work. For example have a look at the scene below, where one person is indicating that he is making fun of others by pulling down the lid of his right eye…
When you visit a Buddhist temple, would you ever expect to find a scene like the one on the “winter side” (of course, the north side) of the sanctuary? Here a boy was hit on his head by an enormous snowball.
You wouldn’t expect that, would you? Or how about this rather unreserved portayal of fishermen…
The relief-like carving on the south side of the temple is rather famous; it is called “eagle and monkey” (鷲と猿 / わしとさる). It is assumed that this work of art was carved by Jingorō Hidari (左甚五郎 / ひだりじんごろう), a carpenter that may not even have existed in reality (nobody knows for sure), but if he has, it was in the early Edo era (born around 1596, died around 1644). Hidari is also said to have carved the “sleeping cat” in Nikkō. In the picture an eagle rescues a monkey which is about to fall into a rapid current. The monkey represents the uncontrollable evil passions of humans and the eagle saving the monkey is indeed the principal image of Shōden.
And if the monkey sculptures of Nikkō are world-famous, the Shōden-zan Kangi-in has no reason for excessive modesty – its carvings are more refined and anyway much more expressive in a cute way. And keep on searching in Nikkō – you’ll hardly find a monkey taking care of its baby.
Other buildings on the temple’s grounds:
Tower of Peace (平和の塔 / へいわのとう)
This medieval-looking two-storied pagoda that shows a particularly complex construction of semibeams beneath its upper roof, was in fact only built in 1958. It is made entirely of Japanese zelkova. Inside the pagoda the names of those who fell in a war are being stored. It is also the place for prayers for the ancestors, miscarriages and aborted foetuses (it is a “contrast” so to speak to the more self-centered aspects of life that are taken care of with prayers at the main building of the temple).
A little outside the temple’s compond, located in the south:
Main Hall of the Head Priest (本坊本堂 / ほんぼうほんどう)
While the central and main buildings and sanctuaries of the Shōden-zan Kangi-in where built under Sanemori Saitō (斎藤実盛 / さいとうさねもり), this part of the temple was constructed by his son, Rokusanenaga Saitō, who had become a high-ranking priest at this time and called himself Ashobo Ryōō. The facilities serve the purpose of exercise and meditation.
How to get there:
From Shinjuku station (新宿駅 / しんじゅくえき) take the Shōnan Shinjuku line (湘南新宿線 / しょうなんしんじゅくせん) heading for Takasaki (高崎 / たかさき) directly to Kumagaya (熊谷 / くまがや).
Travel time: about 1 hour by special rapid train (特別快速 / とくべつかいそく)
Fare: 1,140 Yen (as per February 2016)
As Kumagaya is also a Shinkansen station, you also have the opportunity to take one of the super-express trains from Tōkyō station (東京駅 / とうきょうえき) or Ueno station (上野駅 / うえのえき).
Travel Time from Tōkyō: 38 minutes
Travel Time from Ueno: 32 minutes
Fare from Tōkyō: 3,190 Yen (as per February 2016)
Fare from Ueno: 2,980 Yen (as per February 2016)
There is quite a number of busses from Kumagaya station into northern directions. Take the Asahi-Bus at bus stop number 6 heading for Ōta (太田 / おおた), Nishi Koizumi (西小泉 / にしこいずみ) or Menuma Shōden-mae (布沼聖天前 / めぬましょうでんまえ) and get off the bus at Shōden-mae (聖天前 / しょうでんまえ) – as the name of the bus stop indicates, it is right in front of the temple’s grounds.
The temple’s grounds are open every day
Honden: daily from 10 am to 4 pm
There is no admission fee for the temple’s grounds a such
Admission to the Honden: 700 Yen