Friday, March 24, 2006

Shinsho-ji temple

From the streets, Narita looks like almost any other Japanese city: drab grey buildings, convoluted streets packed with traffic, the odd restaurant and shopping complex. But if you get to just the right place and look up to the top of the hill, you can see the brilliant spire of a pagoda piercing thorugh the otherwise mundane skyline.

Take a few turns up the narrow back roads leading to the top of the hill, and you reach one of the biggest and underrated temple complexes in Japan: Shinsho-ji at Narita-san. The temple grounds have a history that stretches back more than 1000 years, yet it is not so mired in that history that it can't re-invent itself from time to time. It is also unusual in that it houses both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

Purification spring

The journey starts from the bottom of a long, steep stone staircase. There, worshippers wash their hands at the purifying well, the water pouring out the head of a golden dragon.

The lantern at the gate to Shinhoji

Up the staircase, visitors are greeted by the gate that welcomes all visitors, adorned with the traditional red lantern.

The lion that guards the entrance to Shinshoji The lion that guards the entrance to Shinshoji

On either side of the gate are the lions that guard the entryway. These are part of the Shinto tradition, where the lion to the right has its mouth open, while the one to the right's mouth is closed.

The great hall of Shinhoji, Narita

The main hall of the temple is the place where the Buddhist ceremonies take place. You can often hear monks inside there chanting sutras in their monotone, along with the thundering sound of the giant drum and the clear ringing of the bell.

Drawing a fortune stick

In part of the temple, worshipers can also buy fortunes, called o-mikuji. They put 100 yen into a slot below the red drawers, then take the copper box containing wooden rods and shake it, then turn it over and try and coax a single rod out. They then read the number etched onto the rod and take a fortune paper from the same numbered drawer. If the fortune is good, they keep it. If not, they tie it to a series of strings placed outside the temple. These fortunes are later collected and burned.

Building containing all Buddhist scriptures

The temple grounds are also filled with a plethora of other buildings, each with a fascinating history. This is one of my favourites. According to the description, it was:

[o]riginally erected in 1722 and restored in 1809. This building houses the complete set of the Buddhist scriptures. They are all mounted on the shelves of the octagonal revolving casket. It is said that if you turn the casket one time, you will receive the same amount of Buddha's favour as if you read all the scriptures in the casket.



The former great hall at Naritasan

Up another staircase is one of the old main halls that was moved off to the side to make room for the new great hall that stands at the entryway today. Legend has it that the ropes they had at the time were not strong enough to move the hall. The solution the monks came up with was to ask the women in the area to cut their hair and have it woven into a rope. This rope was then used to move the temple.

Incense burner with coins

If you look carefully, you can see five-yen coins strung onto bobby pins and fastened to the old incense burner. According to tradition, a woman who is seeking her true love will find it if she puts five-yen coins on one of her hairpins and attaches it to that incense burner.

A building at Narita

There is also another interesting structure called the Gaku-do hall. According to the description:

This is the structure where votive tablets (votive pictures of horses and the like) are displayed. In 1861 the hall was built as the second Gaku-do hall in the precincts. . . . The fact that a full-scale method of construction was employed even for this tructure of minor importance indicates the profundity of people's devotion to Buddhism in those days.

Old globe

One of the more interesting objects inside the Gaku-do hall is a large bronze globe. Made in 1908, it is actually a fairly accurate rendition of the Earth. It even has major cities in North America and Europe noted.

The peace pagoda, Shinshoji temple, Narita

The pagoda for eternal peace is perhaps the newest structure on the temple grounds. It was built in 1984 in the hopes of promoting world peace. The monks collected peace pledges from world leaders, including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. These pledges were sealed in a time capsule, which was buried under the grounds of the pagoda.

The garden below the peace pagoda

Behind the pagoda is another long staircase that leads down to the temple's garden. The fountain and pool below the staircase, while not typically Japanese, is nevertheless a nice quiet place to sit and relax after walking around the temple grounds.

Small stone bridge

Behind the fountain are several walking trails. Basking in the serenity of the woods behind the temple, it's easy to forget that you're still in the middle of a crowded Japanese city.

The waterfall behind the peace pagoda

Off to one side is a waterfall. While not exactly big, it's still quite beautiful. It's cloaked in shadows from the trees, though when the sun is in just the right position beams of sunlight break through from between the trees and cast light on the waterfall. Sitting there listening to the rushing water relaxes the soul as the stress of city life slowly washes away.

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