Unexpected splendidness at the gates of Tōkyō
The Shinshō-ji (新勝寺 / しんしょうじ) which is usually called by its “mountain name” (sangō / 山号 / さんごう) Narita-san (成田山 / なりたさん), is, beyond any doubt, one of the most magnificent Buddhist temple complexes of the country. And probably there are more foreign visitors that know it “by name” than those who have actually visited it, as the international airport of Tōkyō is also called “Narita” – named after the nearby city in the Chiba prefecture (千葉県 / ちばけん) that belongs to this district.
Neverless, hardly anyone would assume that a temple complex of that grandeur can be found so far away from the gates of Tōkyō (we remember: Narita airport is about 60 km away from the big city). Hence, the journey to the Narita-san is somewhat inconvenient (unless you’re on your way from or to the airport anyway and don’t mind sightseeing with your luggage… well, there are coin lockers for that). From the center of Tōkyō you’ll hardly reach any of the two stations more or less conveniently located in walking distance from the temple (there is one station for trains of Japan Rail and one station for those of the Keisei Railways) in less than 75 minutes’ time.
But that es all rather relative, compared with the charm that is waiting for you already a couple of hundred meters before you reach the temple as such. The street that leads right to the temple’s precinct, the Omotesandō (表参道 / おもてさんどう), is one of those rare examples of traditional Japanese city architecture that has made it to our days (the other districts of Narita can, by all means, be called “rather ugly” – even by Japanese standards).
I had chosen to visit the Narita-san on those special days between Christmas and New Year – when the temple is, on the one hand, already prepared for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that usually fill its grounds during the first few days of the new year, on the other hand this rush of visitors hasn’t started yet.
A short outline of more than a thousand years of history of the Narita-san:
Everything began when the great Buddhist teacher and founder of the Japanese Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai (空海 / くうかい) (Kōbō Daishi / 弘法大師 / こうぼうだいし), made a wooden statue of Fudōmyōō (不動明王 / ふどうみょうおう) (probably better knows as “Acala”, the protector of Buddha’s teachings) all by himself in 810. The statue remains the centre piece of the temple, even in our days.
The next significant event in history is related to a rebbellion that started in 939 led by Taira no Masakado (平将門 / たいらのまさかど). Taira no Masakado deemed himself to be the rightful emperor of Japan. Naturally, the “official” emperor, Suzaku (朱雀天皇 / すざくてんのう), was everything but amused about it. In order to put an end to this, emperor Suzaku ordered to take the statue of Fudōmyōō into battle against the rebels. In the end, 940 Taira no Masakado was beaten and he was executed in Kyōto. The legend knows that Taira no Masakado’s head mysteriously flew from Kyōto to what we call Tōkyō today (of course, there was no Tōkyō in those days, just a small fishing village called Shibazaki) – not far from the Imperial Palace’s Ōtemon in Ōtemachi in Tōkyō you’ll find memorial (a “kubizuka” or “scull grave”) where Taira no Masakado can still be worshipped (which also demonstrates that you don’t need to be a historical “good guy” to make your way into Japanese fame and adoration – or, as in this particular case, to give the people a reason to do everything to calm your evil spirit).
On that occasion the statue of Fudōmyōō is said to have opened its mouth and started to speak, expressing its wish to remain in Narita. That’s why the year 940 is regarded as the official day of foundation of the temple. This victorious fight against the rebels is also the reason for the name of the tempel: “Shinshō-ji” means, in a rather literal translation: “Temple of the new victory”.
In the early 18th century the Narita-san again gained a lot of attention due to its close relation with kabuki. That time’s Danjūrō Ichikawa (市川團十郎 / いちかわだんじゅうろう), an extraordinarily popular kabuki actor, also portrayed “Fudōmyōō” on stage. And also in our days kabuki and Fudōmyōō are as closely inter-connected as the 12th Danjūro with the Narita-san.
Let’s have a look at the major buildings on the vast temple precinct.
First the buildings on the lowest level of the area:
Outer Gate / Main Gate (Sōmon / 総門 / そうもん)
This excessively gorgeous gate, made of the wood of the Japanese zelkova (keyaki) was built only in 2008 (or 2007 respectively – the various information sources of the temple aren’t too specific about it). With an impressive height of 15 metres it also demonstrates that the Narita-san is obviously not impoverished.
Administration Building (Kōrinkaku / 光輪閣 / こうりんかく)
The massive building consists of four floors above ground and two below and was built in 1975. It houses not only the temple administration, but also a guest house. On its forth floor it features a banquet hall of not less than 480 tatami mats in size.
From this level, there is a rather steep staircase to…
Niō Gate (Niōmon / 仁王門 / におうもん)
The Niō Gate was erect in 1830 (according to English sources – 1831 according to Japanese sources) and is a registered Important National Cultural Property.
Via another staircase one reaches the central and most spacious area of the temple.
Around this central square you’ll find – among others – the following buildings (don’t worry, if stairs are one of the barriers that would stop you from visiting the Narita-san – there is an elevator at the north side of the administration building):
Great Main Hall (Dai Hondō / 大本堂 / だいほんどう)
This impressively large hall that was built only in 1968 (don’t get confused with information the temple itself imparts – some language-version mentions the year 1986) houses the aforementioned Fudōmyōō (不動明王 / ふどうみょうおう) that is being worshipped here (and if you have read the short summary of the temple’s history above, you also know why).
Three Storied Pagoda (Sanjū no tō / 三重塔 / さんじゅうのとう)
After this pagoda had been erected in 1712, it has seen comprehensive restorations in 1801, 1812 and 1858. Even though only 25 metres tall, it is a particularly splendid example for such a structure as built in the mid Edo era.
And thanks to the fact that the building has seen thorough restoration works again from 1981 to 1983, you can enjoy the colours in all their glory. These last restoration works were carried out based in accordance with specifications obtained from archives of 1803.
My research could not bring 100% certainty as to what kind of religious sculpture is enshrined in this pagoda, because the various sources lacked the necessary congruency. While the information plate at the pagoda mentioned the Gochi Nyorai / five Tathagatas (五智如来 / ごちにょらい), the temple’s website only names one of those five Buddhas, Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来 / だいにちにょらい) – as usual, the inside of the pagoda was not on display during my visit.
Also this pagoda is among the five Important National Cultural Properties of the temple.
Right next to the pagoda you find the Bell Tower (Shōrō / 鐘楼 / しょうろう) and the Sutra Storage (Issai Kyōdō / 一切経堂 / いっさいきょうどう)
The Sutra Storage was built in 1722 by the Saint Shōhan who was also in charge of considerable reforms to the temple. About 2,000 volumes of Buddhist scriptures are housed in this storage. “Shitennō (four dieties) and “Jūni Shinshō” (twelve dieties), both guardians of Buddhism, are carved with rich coloring on the doors of the revolving book case, which is supported by eight demons.
Eight wooden windows around the hall are decorated with rich sculptures, the subjects of which are drawn from old Chinese tales.
Prince Shōtoku Hall (Shōtoku Taishi Dō / 聖徳太子堂 / しょうとくたいしどう
Even though some Wikipedia entries claim that the Pince Shōtoku Hall is the latest addition to the temple’s buildings (erected in 2009), I assume that the information given by the Narita-san is more reliable: Built in 1992, restored in 2007.
Buddha’s Temple (Shakadō / 釈迦堂 / しゃかどう)
The Shakadō was built in 1858 and is a registered Important National Cultural Property. Originally, its function was as the main hall of the temple. However, before the present Great Main Hall was built, this structure was moved to its present location in 1964.
And another staircase higher…
(you can also spare yourself these stairs, if you like, as there is also an elevator at your disposl) you’ll reach some further gems of traditional Japanese sacred architecture:
Votive Plate Hall (Gakudō / 額堂 / がくどう)
This hall for votive plates was built in 1861 as a second building of this kind on the temple’s grounds. It was refurbished in 1986 – originally the building had wooden siding walls in the back, but now it presents itself as an entirely open hall.
The fact that a full-scale method of construction was employed even for this structure of minor importance, indicates the profundity of people’s devotion to Buddhis in those days (and also may explain why the new rulers of Japan of the Meiji era had a rather suspicious eye on Buddhism and the power it represented).
The older Gakudō next to the three storied pagoda was lost in a fire in 1965. The only remains of it is a stone statue of the seventh Danjūrō Ichikawa (七代目市川團十郎 / しちだいめいちかわだんじゅうろう), a noted member of the great kabuki dynasty (1791 to 1859).
Also the Gakudō is among the five Important National Kultural Porperties of the Narita-san.
Old Main Hall (Kōmyōdō / 光明堂 / こうみょうどう)
The rather gorgeous Kōmyōdō was built in 1701 and is not only regarded as a typical representative of a temple building of the middle of the Edo period, but also a registered Important National Cultural Property. It also is the oldest of its kind on the temple’s grounds. It served as main hall of the Narita-san until the Shakadō was built.
Seiryū Gongen Hall (Seiryū Gongendō / 清滝権現堂 / せいりゅうごんげんどう)
Myōken Shrine (Myōkengū / 妙見宮 / みょうけんぐう)
Originally built in 1732, these two buildings serve as guardians of the Narita-san as they house the spirits of two worshipped protective dieties, Seiryū Gongen and Myōken.
Iō Hall (Iōden / 醫王殿 / いおうでん)
This is the newest among the gems on the Narita-san’s precinct. It was built in 2017 in preparation of the 1,080-year-anniversary of the Narita-san. Wood of the Japanese cypress (hinoki) was used for this building – a place for prayers for long life and health..
And last but not least – as already shown on the photo above – right next to the Iōden…
Great Peace Pagoda (Heiwa no Daitō / 平和の大塔 / へいわのだいとう)
This pagoda that was built in 1984 in the style of a treasure hall symbolises the teachings of the Shingon school of Buddhism. With its five stories it towers 58 meters tall. And with a width of 35 metres it is the largest pagoda in Japan.
It was built to celebrate the 1,150th death anniversary of the great founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai.
How to get there:
Take either the trains of Japan Rail (JR) to the station Narita (成田駅 / なりたえき) or of the Keisei Railways (京成鉄道 / けいせいてつどう) to the station Keisei Narita (京成成田駅 / けいせいなりたえき). Both stations are about 100 metres apart from each other, and about one kilometre south of the temple’s grounds.
Opening Hours / Admission Fees:
The Narita-san is open all year through.
Admisstion is free.