An insider tip – for the claustrophobic and those who want to become one
Sometimes it is the most inconspicuous places in this country that have the greatest impact on our emotions. And most of the time we are talking about rather positive impact – now and then wondrous ones. Today it’s all about a place for the fearnoughts among us – or for those who a yearning for that very special spiritual experience. If you a have a little religious background knowledge, it’ll help, but it is not necessary for the impact of the sensation. It’s all about the “experience” – some may say: To feel the divinity of light.
To begin with, I am talking about a buddhist temple that belongs to the Shingon branch of Japanese esoteric buddhism. And the founder of this sect can be worshipped here. It is the legendary Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師 / こうぼうだいし) (originally also called Kūkai (空海 / くうかい) – changing names was a common thing in the old Japan; obviously money laundry wasn’t an offence in those days). The popular name of the temple is, therefore, simply “Tamagawa Daishi” (玉川大師 / たまがわだいし). Wikipedia and Google impudently claim that the temple’s real name is “Gyokushin-in” (玉眞院 / ぎょくしんいん). But actually, it is called “Gyokushin Mitsu-in” (玉真蜜院 / ぎょくしんみついん). So much for the linguistic confusion – but that alone wouldn’t qualify the place for being mentioned here.
If you have a look just at the exterior of the temple’s buildings, one feels compelled to call it “trivial”, “unspectacular” in any case. The main building seems to date back to the day of the foundation of the temple (1925) and also doesn’t seem to have witnessed too much of attentive care. Compared with other temples in Tokyo it looks rather shabby – but also somehow more antiquated than those. The small gardens in front of the main building are contemplatively quaint and display a multitude of divers statues.
One of the most striking of those statues is a less than half life-sized one of a monk with a particularly fierce look on his face. I wouldn’t be surprised, if this was a representation of the founder of the sect, Kōbō Daishi (or Kūkai).
If the exterior of the temple hasn’t impressed you, get ready for a small surprise when you enter it – of course, after taking off your shoes first. Also it seems inappropriate for women to wear too much of sun-protective gear during prayers in front or inside the temple – at least that’s what signs indicate. The interior of the temple is even more quaint than the outside indicates. Walls, pilars and beams are virtually covered with pilgrims postings and descriptions. At first glance the impression is a rather chaotic one.
But to reach the climax of the whole temple compound, you have to turn left, once you have entered the main hall through the main entrance. There you will find the temple’s attendants who will eagerly explain to you what your visit to this very special place is all about. Don’t worry, if you don’t understand Japanese that well – instructive material is available in English. But be prepared! Here it comes:
Beneath the Tamagawa Daishi you can have your own pilgrimage through the intestines of Buddha. Don’t turn away in disgust just yet! There is nothing slippery or unappetising about it at all. It’s just an affair of utter darkness (obviously Buddha’s enlightenment didn’t reach as far as the digistive tract…). According to the English instruction provided by the temple, you will be confronted with the following:
The pilgrimage through the “intestines” leads through an extremely narrow and really pitch-dark path for about 100 metres rughly five metres below the main building. Torches or the like are not allowed in there. One is requested to keep contact with the wall on the right hand side at all times – and be warned: The tiny corridor makes its way down a mild slope at the very start of the course. After following the winding path for a while, there will be a long hall with 88 miracle-working statues of Buddha that is slightly illuminated. In this hall you have to look for the statue that has the number that corresponds to your own age (some basic knowledge in Japanese is helpful here, but if you have asked the temple’s attendants kindly before entering the tunnel, I’m sure they’ll show you what you ought to be looking for) – if you find “your” statue, a long and happy life will be ensured (since there are only 88 statues, I gather people of more than 88 years of age are not covered by the blessings of the temple). If you advance further, you will – connected by pitch-dark, narrow and winding paths – pass the great statue of Buddha, depicting Kōbō Daishi himself, a corridor with 300 further statues of Buddha and also a chamber with 33 statues of Kannon. Once you have managed the whole pilgrimage through Buddha’s bowel, you may ring a bell.
It is said that the whole tour takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Hence, if you feel like it, here is your chance to have the full range of religious experience and blessing without the trouble of a pilgrimage of many weeks. There is just one precondition: You have to endure constrictness and darkness (in combination!).
There are, by the way, two very profane reasons for not showing any pictures of this “pilgrimage”: First of all, it is strictly forbidden to take pictures underground (the paths are under video surveillance) – and I’m usually following rules like that. And secondly, the excursion brought the realisation that I might be plagued with claustrophobia. Be that as it may, I wasn’t able to progress any further than the first few steps into utter darkness and confinement.
Everyone who is free of those burdens (or believes – like I had done before – to be free of it), may pay 100 Yen at one of the temple’s attendants and get a pair of rubber slippers for the way down into the dark of the crypt, via a steep staircase on the left hand corner of the temple’s main hall.
By the way: Don’t be fooled by the quaint look of the inside of the temple’s hall and also the narrow staircase. The labyrinth of “intestines” is rather new. I was build in concrete in 1934.
After this extraordinary experience (and I’m surely not promising too much), should you feel like some further adventure, there are several places right in the neighbourhood of the Tamagawa Daishi you may wish to have a look at: There is the pretty Gyokusen-ji (don’t be upset and don’t lose your confidence in your language skills, should you read the name “Tamagawa-ji”, as it is really written “玉川寺”, but read “ぎょくせんじ”).
Just a few metres uphill, you’ll pass the Seta Tamagawa Jinja (瀬田玉川神社 / せたたまがわじんじゃ), a shinō shine that was first founded as “Mitake Jinja” and dates back to the Meiji era. As the shrines buildings had to be reconstructed after the Great Kantō Earthquake (1923) and a devasting typhoon (1966), the main building of the shrine, as we see it today, dates back to the year 1968.
Right next to the Seta Tamagawa Jinja you will come across a rather inviting and new temple gate. It belongs to the “Jigen-ji” (慈眼寺 / じげんじ) (other sources read the name “Jigan-ji”, but the temple’s website also uses “Jigen-ji” or “Gigen-ji” respectively – another fine example for the confusion created by otherwise very beautiful characters adapted many hundred years ago) Also this temple belongs to the Shingon sect of Japanese buddhism and dates back to the year 1309. It looks like the temple was moved here in 1533. The present main hall was erected 1975. More impressive, however, is the beautiful main gate. And the highly modern adminstration building right next to it provides and interesting contrast in style – also to the traditional architecture of the building next to the main hall.
How to get there:
From the centre of Tōkyō take the Tōkyō Metro Hanzōmon line (東京メトロ半蔵門線 / とうきょうめとろはんぞうもんせん), that continues from Shibuya (渋谷 / しぶや) as the Tōkyū Den’entoshi line (東急田園都市線 / とうきゅうでんえんとしせん) into western direction to Futako Tamagawa (二子玉川 / ふたこたまがわ) – time of travel: 10 to 15 minutes.
You may reach the station Futako Tamagawa also by the Ōimachi line (大井町線 / おおいまちせん) that has its terminal in Ōimachi (大井町 / おおいまち) in Tōkyō’s Shinagawa ward (品川区 / しながわく) – time of travel: 16 to 24 minutes.
The area around the station of Futako Tamagawa (directly upon the river with the same name – the Tama river) has been upgraded just resently (mainly during the course of the last five years) with highly modern shopping malls. With other words: This area may be worth a detour, even if you are not up for spiritual sensations.
From Futako Tamagawa station walk in western direction first, cross below the stilted expressway and turn right (i.e. into northern direction) into a pretty shopping street, cross a small river and reach the neighbourhood of the places that have been described above.
For a walk from Futako Tamagawa station to the Tamagawa Daishi you may need about 10 to 15 minutes.
For the “pilgrimage through the intestines of Buddha” at the Tamagawa Daishi:
Daily from 9 am to 5 pm
Admission fee (“rubber slipper-rental”): 100 Yen