Where art, culture and historical upheavals meet
Beyond its famous Izumo Taisha (出雲大社 / いずもたいしゃ), the Shimane Prefecture (島根県 / しまねけん) is not necessarily at the top of the list of people visiting Japan for the first time. That is as shame, because the prefecture in the west of Japan not only knows how to inspire with breathtaking landscapes, but also has plenty of historical places and great works of art to offer.
Today we are going to have a look at the Manpuku-ji (萬福寺 / まんぷくじ) in Masuda (益田 / ますだ), which is considered one of the oldest temples in this region (at least as far as its founding legend is concerned), but at the same time it is also calls some unique works of art its own and once played a rather important role in the days of the greatest historical upheavals in Japan. It is also an important cultural asset of Japan.
The Manpuku-ji is said to have been founded under the name Anfuku-ji (安福寺 / あんふくじ) at another location (Nakasuura / 中州浦 / なかすうら) during the Heian period (794-1184), but was relocated in 1374 to its present location – closer to where the lords of Masuda were based.
The temple gained historical importance in the final phase of the rule of the Tokugawa Shōgunes, when the Shōgunate forces had camped here. They had embarked on a punitive expedition against the rebellious Choshu domain (長州藩 / ちょうしゅうはん) (today: Yamaguchi Prefecture) in 1866. After the Shōgun’s troops had initially been successful (e.g. bombing Suō-Ōshima / 周防大島 / すおうおおしま – today also located in Yamaguchi Prefecture), it quickly became clear that their ancient weapons and equipment were no match for the modernised troops of the rebellion. The punitive expedition ended in a military disaster for the Shōgun’s forces. After the early death of the 14th Tokugawa Shōgun (Iemochi Tokugawa / 徳川家茂 / とくがわいえもち) in 1866, it came to the 15th and last Tokugawa Shōgun (Yoshinobu Tokugawa / 徳川慶喜 / とくがわよしのぶ,) to negotiate an armistice, but the defeat irreparably weakened the reputation of the Shōgunate. His military showoffs had turned out to be mere paper tigers, and it also became obvious that the Shōgunate could no longer force its will on the domains. Many historians see the defeat in this punitive expedition as one of the last nails on the coffin lid of the Tokugawa Shōgunate.
Unfortunately, the area surrounding the temple was also badly affected in June 1866. The Shōgun’s forces set fire to a gate of the temple – Masuda clan followers, who supported the Chōshū soldiers, put the fire out again.
The main hall of the temple has been recognised as an important cultural asset of Japan since 1904. It was built in 1374, in the early Muromachi period, and still exudes the atmosphere of the war period in the Middle Ages of Japan. It survived natural disasters and the turmoil of war without significant damage. The statue of Amitabha (Amida Buddha) worshiped here dates from before the construction of the “new” main hall.
The main attractions of Manpuku-ji include:
Sesshū’s Garden (萬福寺雪舟庭園 / まんぷくじせっしゅうていえん)
This garden, recognized as “Scenic Beauty of Japan”, is said to have been created around 500 years ago by Tōyō Sesshū (雪舟等楊 / せっしゅうとうよう) (who came from the samurai family Oda / 小田 / おだ, but later adopted the artist name “Sesshū” ), a painter monk who brought Japanese ink painting to perfection. He is considered one of the most famous Japanese masters in his field.
The garden could be taken as a symbol of the Zen Buddhist world. The large rocks of the rock garden are arranged so that the “Shumisen” stone forms the center and the highest point. Mount Shumisen (須弥山 / しゅみせん) is considered the Buddhist center of the world. The pond around it, graced with the rock garden, is in the shape of the Chinese-Japanese character for “heart” or “sense” (心 / こころ), if you look closely – unfortunately not regonisable in my photos.
If you announce your visit three days in advance, you can enjoy your green tea (Matcha / 抹茶 / まっちゃ) with a perfectly shaped and delicious candy here and let your eyes wander over the garden.
The Manpuku-ji’s Treasuries
The Manpuku-ji has two treasuries, in which statues, pictures, documents, a palanquin with which the main priests visited the imperial court in Kyoto, and skulls of earthquake victims are exhibited.
The most striking and probably also the most important exhibit is a replica of the picture “Niga Byakudō” (二河白道 / にがびゃくどう) (freely translated: “two rivers and a white path” or “white path between two rivers”) – the white path that leads to western paradise. The work dates from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and is recognized as an important national cultural asset.
The original of the painting is also available, but can only be made accessible to the public on 30 days a year.
Opening hours of the Manpuku-ji:
8.30 am to 5:00 pm (according to the temple’s leaflet it remains open for half an hour longer in summer)
Adults: 500 Yen
16 to 18 year old: 300 Yen
15 year old and younger: free
(groups of 20 people or more receive a 100 Yen discount per person)
Parking is available for one bus and 15 cars.