Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Temple No.22 Eifuku-ji and No.14 Imamiya-Bō

Temple No.22 Eifuku-ji is a simple temple but set in one of the most rural locations, close to the river amongst plots of farming land and crops. Like most places in the world, in Japan it is also becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from farming and many people move to the cities for office jobs (according to Enbutsu), however, unlike in Australia, but as in Europe, agriculture and small family-run businesses are somewhat subsidised, I have heard. Popular farming nowadays includes fruit, mushrooms, evidently shallots, cabbages, cut flowers - relatively saleable commodities. Coming from Australia, the fertility of the soil, the plentiful water supply, compliant climate and versatility of farmers turning many different crops out of their small fields year-round and multi-tasking in other lines of trade or service, rather than running monocultures, all seems comparatively successful and I am frequently heartened by the longevity of small businesses surviving against large supermarket chains and the liveliness of local growers markets and local produce in grocery shops. We have seen the almost complete obliteration of this in Australian cities, while growers' markets or organic food shops are exorbitantly priced and goods still travel large distances, add to the CO2, etc. rather than submit to seasonal and local trends. Such is a cost of globalisation and limitless consumer expectations. Anyway, back to Temple No.22 Eifuku-ji, itself situated beside the cabbage beds, a luscious bamboo grove with its interesting reflective hue, located by the trail of red vertical banners flailing in the breeze down a long driveway off the main road and grey stone pillar inscribed with calligraphy, welcoming visitors through a large thatched country gate. It is more popularly known as Dōji-dō (or Warabe-dō). In either side of the gate (behind slatted wooden bars, two guardians, rather than the usual muscle-bound and menacing monster-like creatures, these are two goggle-eyed rustic boys, watching over the fields, appropriate because the popular name of the temple means literally, 'childrens' hall'.

According to legend, (from Enbutsu's Chichibu: Japan's Hidden Treasure) the temple was founded in the Ninth Century, deep in the mountains as a place to retreat and pray for the soul of a deceased young prince. In the Tenth Century, Small pox raged in the area and afflicted many children. The temple was then moved so that the Kannon could combat the epidemic. Miraculously, the outbreak ceased and victims recovered unusually well. It was moved twice more before settling in the current position and the existing building was constructed in 1701, a gift from an Edo man to his wife, the front doors are carved with panels of the gods of thunder and wind (a motif shared with the Kannon in Asakusa, popular in Edo). Old men and women of the neighbourhood take turns minding the temple and offering tea to visitors with country hospitality. Next to the bamboo grove stands an intriguing arrangement of stones and a giant wisteria tree supports a lattice that must be enveloped by blossoms in spring. Momentarily, the quietude of the country was interrupted by the buzz of powered paracraft flying overhead (I'm not sure what they are properly called) - something like Little Nellie from James Bond. Crossing the suspension bridge on my return I noticed a curious statue/memorial with the mountains of Chichibu atop.

The following day, for the sake of completeness, I visited Temple No.14 Imamiya-Bō in the centre of Chichibu suburbia, only to discover that I have actually visited it before with Kundan, not realising it was one of the Shikoku temples. It is a very modest, unattended temple tucked behind houses. It is the dividend of the Meiji governments attempt to form a schism between Shinto an Buddhism in which Imamiya-Bō and Imamiya-Jinja (Shinto shrine) were plied apart and the temple was deprived of its former status and large estate. Perhaps more interesting is the associated Jinja that bears witness to a powerful tree, a giant keyaki (zelkova), supposedly five hundred years old and it looks like it recently stepped out of Tolkien! the shimenawa sacred rope tied around its trunk signified that the tree itself is considered sacred and revered. Worship of prominent natural objects, such as this tree, an enormous rock, a mountain or a waterfall were important parts of Japan's ancient animistic religious traditions still inherent in contemporary Shinto. As I returned through the dusky backstreets, I chanced on another shrine with fascinating statues and carvings, including the first elephant I have encountered in Japan, and past a cool twilight Temple No.13.