The approach to the main hall with worn-out stone steps and lined with big cedar trees (cryptmeria) gives us evidence of antiquity. You can really relax here away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. One of the oldest temples in Kanagawa Prefecture, it dates from 1300 years back and was built by the great Priest Gyoki. He was born in Osaka with Korean background and took Buddhist vows at age 15, entering Asukadera in Nara, the oldest temple in Japan founded in 569. Though started as an official priest employed by the government, he was not satisfied with the Buddhism then prevailing in Japan. It was solely for the peace of the state and welfare of the court nobles, not for the commoners. He quit the job in 704 at age 36 to propagate Buddhism for salvation of the suffering people and to practice philanthropy, making a pilgrimage mostly in Osaka and Nara areas. Not only did he give a hand to the sick, the poor and many others in distress, he also contributed to social welfare building roads, bridges, irrigation reservoirs and other civil engineering, and helped construct a number of temples. Gradually, he earned fame as a Buddhist and philanthropist. Back at the time, Emperor Shomu (701-756) was reigning Japan and he had a plan to construct a great Buddha statue in Nara. The project was so huge that state fund alone was not enough to cover the total cost. The emperor asked Priest Gyoki to help raise fund. Accepting the emperor's request, Priest Gyoki immediately began fund-raising campaigns. Thanks to his fame and philanthropic activities, enough alms were collected soon afterward, and in 752 casting the Great Buddha statue we see today at Todaiji was completed. Unfortunately, he had passed away just before the consecrating ceremony for the statue took place. Without his self-sacrificing efforts, the colossal statue would not have probably been constructed. In praise of the priest's achievement, the emperor conferred on him the title of Dai-sojo, or the Great Priest, the highest rank given to priests. In addition, people called him 'Gyoki Bodhisattva'. The priest had two honorable titles: the official Dai-sojo and unofficial Gyoki Bodhisattva.
Priest Gyoki is also reported to have helped build Sugimoto-dera in Kamakura. However, his territory of campaigns and philanthropy was, as noted above, mainly in Osaka and Nara, where he founded 49 temples, and there is no solid evidence that shows he had ever traveled to eastern Japan. Neither Sugimoto-dera nor the Temple are included among the 49.
Tradition has it that once Priest Gyoki, on his way to visit Kumano Shrines in Wakayama Prefecture, came across a sick man suffering from Hansen's disease. He helped the sick man walk up to Kumano and let him take a bath at a nearby spa. His ulcerated skins were miraculously cured. Thanking Priest Gyoki, the man revealed that he was the master of the Eastern Paradise, or an avatar of Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru in Sanskrit), and gave the Priest a leaf of tree. The Priest tossed it up, which flew far away toward the east. The Temple was built, says the tradition, at the site the leaf fell upon.
Some historians assert that Priest Gyoki was so influential that chances were high he directed one way or another to build temples in eastern Japan. Todaiji was founded as the headquarters of the nationwide Kokubunj} temples. Kokubunj was literally state-controlled temples built in each prefecture under the edict of Emperor Shomu in 741, and Priest Gyoki is believed to have played a dominant role in directing the construction, whereby he also took part in founding such temples as Sugimoto-dera and the Temple.
It is recorded that in 1194 during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, visited the Temple to pray that his sick daughter O-hime (1179-1197) recover from the illness. Their prayer was not answered, since O-hime died young at age 18 in sorrow of losing her lover, who was murdered by her father. (refer to Kaizoji and Jorakuji for details). Yoritomo's wife Masako (1157-1225) also visited the Temple twice to offer a prayer for an easy delivery. Their visits to the Temple are recorded in the Azuma-Kagami the official documents of the Kamakura Shogunate (See Kamakura Terminology). This fact indicates the Temple was patronized by the Kamakura Shogunate.
Patronage by the government authorities well continued into the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). At the right-hand side of the Temple's courtyard, there are a pair of giant, 800-year-old cedars (cryptmeria Japanicae), which are called 'Banner-hanging cedar.' Records narrate that when Motouji Ashikaga (1340-1367), son of Muromachi Shogunate founder Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), was named Governor-General of Kamakura to control eastern Japan, he visited the Temple in 1349 and put up his banner on the trees to pray for his success in war.
Before the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, the Temple was a great religious complex named Hinatasan Ryosenji having as many as 12 bos (bo is a structure in which priests resided) at the peak of their power, and the area provided training priests with a good ground for practicing asceticism. They were called Yamabushi and engaged in austere exercises in the mountains to attain magical powers like those in Oyama Afuri Shrine. After the Restoration, all but the Temple were abolished following the government's instruction to separate Buddhism from Shinto. The Temple was called Hojobo, and was narrowly saved as it was the largest among the twelve bos, while other 11 were abolished.
Ni-o is a pair of Kongo-Rikishi, or Vajra-pani in Skt., standing half-naked in terrifying postures at the temple gates as guardian deities. They flay away devils with their muscles like Hercules. The right-hand Ni-o has mouth open, saying 'ah', while the other's tightly closed saying 'ng'. The two letters 'ah' and 'ng' are the first and the last in Sanskrit alphabet, coincide with the Japanese syllables referred to as 50 sounds, which also start with 'ah' sound and ends with 'ng'. The pair of the giant statues are 3.5 meters tall and was fashioned in 1833 by members of the Goto family, whose ancestors were local sculptors of Buddha statues during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Today, the family runs a Kamakura-bori, or wood-caving shop in Kamakura. (See Kamakura-bori of Kamakura Terminology.)
An ICA, it was cast in 1340 by a members of the Mononobes, the famous bell-caster in the Kamakura Period. Notable is the inscription appearing on the surface of the bell, which roughly reads; "The bell was first donated to the temple in 952 by Emperor Murakami (926-967), but was recast in 1153 by imperial order. With times, it broke down and had to cast anew in 1340, and at the same time, the Temple enshrined 12 statues of Juni Shinsho." (See below). The bell is 138 centimeters high, 79.5 centimeters in diameter and is appraised by connoisseurs as a typical bell cast in the Nanboku Period (1336-1392).
The 12.6-meter-wide hall with thatched and hipped roof was rebuilt in 1660 and was designated as an ICA in 1968. In the hall, however, there was no main object of worship or any Buddha statue enshrined probably because the Temple needs to protect the valuable statues from fire and other calamities. Once fire occurs, the wooden structure with thatched roof burns furiously and destroys those assets before you can say knife.
Installed in the hall, instead, are a pair of Shishigashira, or wood-carved lion's head, which were made in the late Kamakura Period and had been used in rituals for rain until the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868).
Another object placed in the hall is a large drum dedicated in 1194 by Yoritomo Minamoto. It measures 1.38 meters in diameter, 1.3 meters wide and 4.5 meters in girth. Legend holds that the drum was used when Yoritomo Minamoto went on a hunting trip to the foot of Mt. Fuji (a woodblock print at MFA). Legend further states that the sound of the drum is so roaring that fishermen at the coast made complaints against the Temple saying the roar of the drum drove away fish and they were unable to catch them. (Incidentally, the Temple is located 16 kilo-meters away from the nearest coast!) Both Shishigashira and drum are enrolled on the list of ICAs designated by Kanagawa Prefecture.
Nearly three and a half centuries have passed since the major repair of the hall was made. Recent investigation into the building structure found that it is in need of renovation, and the Temple is planning to rebuild the hall. As it is an ICA designated by national government, the Temple may be given small sums of subsidy but far from the amount it needs. The Japanese governments, both national and local, are too poor to support cultural assets. For your reference, Japan's 2010 national budget totaled 81 trillion yen, of which tax revenue is only 37 trillion yen and the rest is borrowing. The total public debt is approaching 200 percent of GDP, the highest among the OECD members, and even higher than that of Greece. S&P lowered Japan's long-term sovereign credit rating to AA- from AA in January 2011. Moody's followed suit in February changing Japan's Aa2 rating from stable to negative. As such, the Temple is now asking for donations from the public.
As listed below, the Temple has lots of valuable assets and deserves to be as valuable as famous temple in Kyoto and Nara. With its location, too inconvenient to visit, few people know the Temple.
When I visited here on a weekday morning of November 2010 (the picture of the hall was taken at the time), there were only a few people inside the temple grounds, who were apparently hikers and stopped over here on the way up to Oyama Afuri Jinja. (There is a good hiking trail connecting the Temple up to Oyama Afuri Shrine. An hour and a half trekking.)
Were the Temple in Kyoto or Nara, it would draw as many visitors as famous temples down there do. After all, location is everything for today's temples or shrines to be rich no matter how many they hold important cultural properties.
Located at the left-hand side of the main hall is the fire-proof, 12.6-meter-square Treasure House, in which all of the masterpieces of sculptures including the main object of worship are preserved to protect them from all kinds of calamities. The House is made of reinforced concrete and built in 1971 with subsidies from the National and Prefectural Governments. It houses as many as 25 ICAs, and is called a mine of Buddha statues in Kanagawa. Included among the sculptures are:
The Temple has no official website. Isehara Kanko's guide (in Japanese) may be informative.
(Updated January 2011)