We pulled into a dirt parking lot across a side street from the temple grounds. The temple building sits atop a hill that is covered in cedars, maples, and other trees. The entrance at the base of the hill has new-looking stone walls and lanterns, yet the long steps leading up the hill and a gate at the top are obviously hundreds of years old.
I immediately recognize the large wisteria crests engraved in the stones on either side of the entrance. It is the symbol of the Hongwanji temples of the Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land” Sect, which is widespread in Japan and Hawaii. The Moody Minstrel’s blog has pictures of the home temple of this sect in one of his recent posts about Kyoto.
I had not come across a Hongwanji temple in Ibaraki before, though I had read there were two historic ones (the other is in the north end of the prefecture in Hitachi). The name of this temple is Muryouju-ji and it was originally built in 806 by members of a different sect. 806 - wow. Almost 1,200 years ago. In Japan that is during the Heian era, and the first year of the Daido period. Those were early times for Japanese Buddhism, just two years after emperor Kammu had sent the priest Saicho to China to study and he had returned to found the Tendai sect in Japan.
I was excited to find this temple and eager to learn more about it. The temple building is not visible from the entrance so we started up the 100 or more steps - a bit of much needed exercise after our big feast at Dokidoki.
At the top of the first set of steps, there is a driveway that crosses, and a path leading down to Route 18. Several maple trees are there and the leaves were in their full autumn glory.
At the top of the steps is the main gate. It has a new looking cedar bark roof, but the wood planks of the gate and hinges look to be the originals. From here we see the temple on the opposite side of a courtyard. It too looks to have a new roof. In the courtyard are a large bell tower, an old stone storage building, a stone water basin, and a statue of Shinran Shonin (Saint Shinran), the 13th century monk upon whose teachings the Hongwanji temple is based.
In 1221 Shinran came to this temple, which was in disrepair at the time, and rebuilt it. He spent three years running the temple. Five years ago, it was once more renovated which accounts for the new looking roofs and new stone entrance. It also says something about the wealth of the members of this temple. Some things are going well around Hokota it appears.
A legend says that beads from Shinran’s onenju (Buddhist prayer beads), which were carved out of the wood of a bodhi tree, fell on the ground here and grew into a tree. There is in fact a bodhi tree there that is over 700 years old and may have been planted by Shinran. This is the type of tree that the historical Buddha is said to have sat under as he meditated.
The bell tower was built around 1725. I look forward to ringing in the New Year with this bell. It must have an awesome ring to it that can be heard far and wide in the valley below.
Though I did not see them this day, I have since read that inside the main building is an artwork, with accompanying text, which is shown once a year, and a carved wood statue of Amida Buddha whose 48 vows are central to Jodo Shinshu teachings.
I have also discovered that priests from this temple were involved in a political intrigue that occurred in the 1830’s during the Edo period. Some of the priests, including the head priest, were among people who allegedly wanted to sail to the distant Bonin Islands (now called Ogasawara Islands) located 1000 km south of Tokyo and possibly to Hawaii, and even the USA in order to make contact with Westerners and study their ways. At the time there were Dutch, British and Americans from Hawaii living in the Bonins. The Bonin Islands were thought by Japanese to be a kind of island paradise. Contact by Japanese citizens with Westerners was strictly forbidden back then. The charges turned out to be false, a charade to provide cover for political maneuverings behind the scenes. Interesting none the less.
We had not finished exploring the temple grounds when my digital camera batteries ran out of juice. The sun was getting low in the sky anyway and it was time to promise to return another day and head home. Besides, a certain dog would be waiting for her walk and dinner.
As we drove south along Kitaura, an orange sun was peeking around some fluffy cumulus clouds and was reflected on the smooth surface of the lake. "Red sky at night, sailors delight" the saying goes. It would be a fine day tomorrow.
It seemed a perfect ending to a perfect day that had started on a fluke, a whim, and unfolded on its own before us, one surprise after another. It had given us a beautiful autumn drive, a splendid meal, and an unexpected historical and spiritual journey back into ancient times as well. I can’t ask for more than that, and I suddenly felt a deep awe and gratitude for this day, this life.