In recent weeks I happened upon more information about the statue. It was built by the Higashi Hongwanji of Asakusa in Tokyo. Higashi means East and Hongwanji means "temple of the primal vow". Amida Buddha is a mythical being, in contrast to Shakyamuni, the historical figure. Amida made 48 vows before becoming enlightened and one of those, the 18th is considered most important in this sect and so is referred to as "the primal vow".
Having myself been associated with the (Nishi) Hongwanji in Hawaii for many years, I was quite familiar with the organization. The Nishi and Higashi branches, while separate entities, share the same roots and have virtually identical teachings. The statue IS a tourist trap of sorts, but its purpose is to spread the dharma and to house important artifacts related to Buddhist history. With this knowledge, I viewed the statue in a different light and decided I would like to see it after all.
Located near the town of Ushiku, in the south end of Ibaraki, the statue is not all that far from home. It took us just under two hours to get there, with a short lunch break on the way, which means the Moody Minstrel's BLUE RAV4 with its R2D2 navigation system and warp drive could probably make it in 30 minutes or so. (Just kidding Moody!).
It was a pleasant drive through Sawara City, the countryside and along rivers lined with yellow flowered cannola - nanohana in Japanese. Serveral times we found ourselves behind large trucks as there is a Cannon factory in the area that evidently requires a constant stream of whatever was in them.
I was in navigator mode with my maps in my lap. The maps have Japanese Kanji characters which I cannot read, but labels are not necessary as I apply my airplane pilot navigating experience and go by the relationships of roads, rivers, train tracks, and so on - no electronics required. Poor signage led us to go past more than one turn off, but I caught it quickly. We weren't looking for the fastest route, but rather the simplest, most pleasant one. I enjoy navigating and came up with creative alternate routes which proved useful later on.
As we got closer to the area, large signs with a picture of the statue pointed the way and I could relax. And then we saw it. Godzilla! No, I mean Amida Buddha, but as big as Godzilla ('Gojira' in Japanese), towering over the surrounding trees, buildings and power lines. Happily it was stationary and not roaming about crushing buses, breaking bridges and knocking down skyscrapers, which of course is not Amida's thing anyway, but the comparison may help the reader to grasp the size of it. It is big. Very big.
Just how big is it? Let's get this out of the way so I don't bore you with superlatives for the rest of the post. From the ground to the top is 120 meters - about 394 feet. From head to toe is 100 meters - 328 feet. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 40 meters from the feet to the top of the torch. The famous Buddha statue in Kamakura is 14.9 meters tall and would fit in the palm of this statue's hand. For my fellow Godzilla fans, this "monster" of a daibutsu is over twice as tall as Godzilla, who was a mere 50 meters (164 feet) in height.
It took them ten years to build this daibutsu (big buddha) which was completed in 1993. It has an internal steel framework and bronze "skin" about 6mm (1/4 inch) thick. There is an elevator inside that goes up to the chest level with observation windows 85 meters up. To see how it was built CLICK HERE..
The surrounding grounds feature flower gardens (best seen in May), a Jodo Shinshu style garden with koi pond (no fishing or kayaking allowed), and a children's zoo.
At the gate we stopped to ring the bell. K went first and gave the bell a nice solid hit with the wooden mallet. As the sound reverberated through the countryside, she read the sign which asks visitors to ring the bell "softly". Oops. I did the same. How do you ring such a big bell softly?
Half way from the gate to the statue is an incense burner - the largest in Japan of course. There is also another, larger bell. We each had a whack at that one too. Nice tone.
A small ramp along the path, which actually forms a bridge across a pebbled gap in the path. It is sectioned off with colored lines, and has foot steps next to it labeled "na" "mu" "a" "mi" "da" "butsu" to invite people to repeat "namu amida butsu" as they walk across the ramp. This is the recitation that all followers of Jodo-shu and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (as in the Hongwanji) repeat. It is an afirmation of entrusting oneself to Amida's compassion and I think this bridge is meant to represent crossing to the other shore of the Pure Land. I trusted that Amida's statue wouldn't fall on top of me and squash me like an ant with its 4000 tons of steel and bronze. (Like Godzilla would probably do.)
I was impressed with the interior of the statue. One removes one's shoes upon entering. The entire space is carpeted. You first enter a darkened room with a golden statue of Amida on a pedistal in the center. To one side is a display of smaller statues of different colors set on black cloth with a lighted ribbon weaving through them. This represents Amida as the buddha of "infinite light and life".
Walking up to the second floor, you go through displays about the history of the sect and the construction of this statue through pictures and models including a full scale model of one of the big toes. Of course I thumped the 5 foot high toe with my hand before K could read the sign that says "don't thump the toe" or something to that effect. Oops again. Other rooms on this level have tatami mats and tables with brushes, ink, and paper for copying sutras.
This is the floor where you catch the elevator, which has an operator to keep you from getting off at the wrong level. They do have arrangements for people with wheel chairs by the way. The elevator is dimly lit when you get in and has walls painted a sparkling metalic silver. As you go up, the lighting increases until it is normal upon your arrival at the observation floor. It's a cool effect.
The observation floor has three windows on the front and back, and two on each of the left and right sides. The visibility was not great this day, but on a clear day one can see Mt. Fuji to the west. Also on this floor are three gold statues. One each from India, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) which reportedly contain a small amount of ashes from the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Painting along the walls explain the life story of Shakyamunni Buddha.
Down a stairway there is a gift shop. It is also where one catches the elevator down, but not all the way down, for another stop is made to the third floor, which has walls covered with golden statues. Called the Lotus Sanctuary, the walls and ceiling are all in gold and it has tatami mat floors. For a hefty donation, you can have your name placed below a statue. One can also buy a tile on the grounds outside the statue where you can have your ashes placed.
Down a flight of stairs again, to a part of the second floor you don't see on the way up and you find a class room with three altars and and a chalk board. There are also displays of art and posters done by students.
Back outside, we were in time to watch the last ten or so minutes of a monkey show. Two monkeys on leashes were doing back flips, catching rings tossed to them, walking on stilts, riding a tricycle and occassionally urinating on the stage. It made me feel sad for the monkeys. They looked pathetic as they robotically obeyed commands and stared blankly at the audience.
We walked through the children's zoo. There were rabbits and squirels which you can feed. (yawn) They also had a pot belly pig, goats, peacocks, prarie dogs, a macaque and some wallabies. The children there seems to like it a lot. As we left the zoo area we saw a group of Europeans - I didn't quite place the language - wearing matching coats and ties and I noticed they had Rotary club emblems on their coats. Back through the gate, we stopped at one of the shops to buy sweet potato cakes for K's co-workers.
There is also an old winery in Ushiku, but it was getting late in the day already so we headed home. I had K take the scenic route - a road that parallels the Tonegawa (Tone river). It turned out to be a good choice, as there was little traffic, nice scenery, and only a few signals all the way back to Sawara where K's shortcut spared us the congestion of downtown and landed us back in Kashima City unscathed.
I kept a lookout behind us, but the Amida statue wasn't following, and likewise, Godzilla was nowhere to be seen.