Saturday, November 24, 2007

Komainu in the Yasui Konpira Shrine, Kyoto

We'll have a look at the komainu ("lion dogs") in the Yasui Konpira Shrine - but first some history.

There used to be a temple here (Rengeko-in) with as protection a shrine in its grounds that was a branch of the famous Konpira Shrine on Shikoku. The temple moved here in 1695 and at that time also the guardian shrine was set up. A development particular to the new shrine was that to Omononushi no kami, the original deity of the Konpira Shrine, two historical figures were added as gods: Minamoto Yorimasa and Emperor Sutoku, two people who had in fact been political enemies and whose drama had played out in this area.

[Yasui Konpira Shrine]

Emperor Sutoku (1119–64) was enthroned as a small child when the real power was in the hands of the so-called Retired Emperors, in this case his great-grandfather the former Emperor Shirakawa. He was forced to abdicate at an early time, as was not unusual, but then got involved in a scheme to have his own son succeed him. This failed, his half-brother became the new Emperor Go-Shirakawa. In 1156, Sutoku conspired to depose Go-Shirakawa in what historians call the "Hogen Disturbance," but he failed and was exiled to Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture), where he died.

Minamoto Yorimasa (1104-1180) was an aristocrat and military leader who stood on the side of Emperor Go-Shirakawa at that time, but here in the Yasui Konpira Shrine the deified souls of both enemies have been peacefully reunited, as the Japanese think should happen after death (or are they still kicking each other in the shrine's interior?).

In ancient Japan, angry and revengeful ghosts were greatly feared, and the dead Emperor Sutoku was thought to be able to cause havoc in the form of epidemics and sudden deaths. Therefore, to pacify his soul, a temple, Komyoin Kanshoji, was set up already in 1177 in this area where his residence had once been. His mausoleum also stands a few hundred meters to the north, at the back of the Gion Kaburenjo. This pious act must have helped, for we do not hear from him for quite a while, even when the temple was destroyed with the rest of Kyoto in the Onin Wars in the late 15th century. So when Rengekoin came newly to this site in the late 17th c., it took the precaution to honor the soul of the former Emperor - a continuation of a broken-off tradition - by deifying him in the Konpira Shrine. It is a long story, but history can be quite convoluted.

After the forced separation of Buddhism and Shinto in the early Meiji-period, the temple was destroyed and only the shrine survived. It is now famous for bringing lovers together (enmusubi) but also helping them separate again if so needed (engiri).

[The rock plastered with paper slips]

There is even a large rock in front of the main hall helping out with those wishes: write your name and that of the other person on a slip of Ofuda paper, crawl through the hole from back to front with the paper in your hand and then paste it on top of the others already plastered on the stone. Want to get rid of your partner? Do the same thing, only go through the rock from the front. Nothing could be easier - no wonder this used to be a popular shrine. And for those who cannot wait to consummate their new-found love, succor is nearby in the form of a street full of seedy love hotels, a monument to the efficacy of the deity of the Yasui Konpira Shrine.

[Love hotels near the shrine]

The present "cutting off" prayer in fact finds its origin in the story of Emperor Sutoku, who after coming to Shikoku visited the main Konpira Shrine, and prayed there for a kind of Buddhist liberation, a "cutting off" of all worldly desires. The shrine was popular among the women who worked in the nearby Gion entertainment district, who often came her to pray for the "cutting off" of relations with a good-for-nothing lover.

(The tunnel]

But now to the komainu. The Yasui Konpira Shrine has the honor to posses the oldest komainu in Kyoto, vintage 1767 - really not that old in years, and therefore a sign of the relative novelty of the custom of placing stone komainu in shrines.

[Kyoto's oldest komainu, dating from 1767]

There are three pairs of komainu in the shrine: the oldest ones stand near the north exit (where the love hotels are), in front of a small Tenmangu Shrine. The faces of these lion-dogs indeed have something uncouth, as if the sculptor is still trying to find the right style!

The other komainu of the shrine have been placed in front of the eastern gate (dating from 1857) and the southern gate (1844). These last ones are quite nice, especially the one with a small horn on its head.


[Horned komainu]
Information about Yasui Konpira's komainu was gleaned from Kyoto Komainu Meguri by Onodera Yoshiaki, Nakanishiya Shuppan, 1999 (one of the foremost authorities on komainu in Japan).


Cats and gourds - Sannenzaka, Kyoto

These papier-mache cats are looking into the display window of a shop where manaki-neko sit, the cats that beckon good fortune and prosperity. I saw it on Sannenzaka near Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.



The shop is called Hyotanya, "Gourd Shop," and is in the first place known for its hyotan, gourd flasks, used in pre-vending machine days to carry sake or other drinks. It can also be used as a flower container in the tea ceremony. Making gourd flasks is an old craft, the contents of the gourd have to be removed with a narrow scoop, then it has to be dried for five years and finally polished to a shine - the shop has been in existence for many generations, but now it seems to have shifted its focus to cat images to please the young crowds milling past...




Information about Hyotanya has been gleaned from Old Kyoto, A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns by Dianne Durston (Kodansha 1986; revised and reprinted 2005)

Furukawacho Shotengai, Kyoto

The best shotengai in Kyoto is not Nishiki, which is too full of tourists, but rather a neighborhood shopping arcade as the Furukawacho Shotengai which runs from Sanjo (starting next to Higashiyama subway station) south to Kachodori, or rather to where it is stopped by the Shirakawa River. It runs parallel to the busy Higashi-oji Street.

[Furukawacho Shotengai seen from the south side]

The arcade is very narrow, especially at the entrance and therefore a bit dark, which gives it a certain mystery. The shops are invariably small, mostly greengrocers and fishmongers, with a shop selling tofu and a number of tiny restaurants mixed in. There was also a shop selling tea, so I could stock up on bancha! Apparently, the Wakasa Kaido used to run here, bringing travelers from the Japan Sea coast north of Kyoto. In 1666 it was restored and renamed Furukawacho-dori. The shops offering daily commodities came in the Meiji period and Furukawacho became so prosperous it was even called "East Nishiki."

[The narrow shopping street]

That prosperity does not show today - here too, the graying of Japan exacts its grim toll of closed shutters, although happily the street is still alive and it is not as bad as elsewhere. But when you see that most of the shop owners are well past retirement age and that there are no younger people, the future of the Furukawacho Shotengai does not seem very bright.


[The Shirakawa River at the south end of the Furukawacho Shotengai]

Perhaps today Shotengai in Kyoto need a few tourists to survive? Furukawacho is well situated, close to Shorenin, Chionin and the Heian Shrine. Do visit Furukawacho - there is an added bonus when you exit the street on the south side and stand in front of the beautiful Shirakawa River with a typical stone bridge...

Friday, November 23, 2007

The ceramic lion-dogs of Myokendo, Kyoto

Along the path leading through the Nishi Otani Cemetery stand several small temples, one of them called Myokendo. Myoken Bosatsu was regarded as the personification of the Pole Star and worship was believed to bring prosperity, good fortune and protection from danger. He originated as an Indian Buddhist deity and in China picked up Daoist elements.

[Entrance to the Myokendo]

As stars were important for ship navigators, Myoken was worshiped by sailors. He was also seen as the guardian of horses and so more generally as a deity assisting in safe journeys. As his name means “wondrous seeing,” he became on top of that a healer of eye disease. Myoken was strongly associated with the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, apparently because he once appeared to Nichiren, coming down from the sky and landing on the branch of a tree in right front of the saint. Sometimes Myoken is depicted standing on a turtle with his sword held over his head.

[Lion dog to the right with the mouth open]

There was no statue visible in the small Myoken Hall we visited, and we came for the komainu, the lion-dogs of the shrine. These are rare because they are made of ceramic, produced in Inbe famous for its Bizen ware. They date from 1855 and are just over 70 centimeters tall. Their expressions are very delicately molded.

[Lion dog to the left with the mouth closed]

Next to the temple stood a small hall with ema, votive plates hanging under the eaves. Most of the pictures had completely faded away, only those in the front were still visible. I like the one with the three-dimensional horse, especially as it reminds me of the origin of ema, which started after all literally as “pictures of horses.”

[Ema hall with the 3D horse picture]

The Secret Garden of Kiyomizu - Jojuin, Kyoto

Kiyomizu was as crowded as we expected, completely jammed with people, but the lane leading to Jojuin was quiet and Jojuin itself almost deserted... How was that possible? Was it the location just off the beaten path, the crowds marching obliviously past following each other's backs, or was it because photography was not permitted in Jojuin, not even of its garden? Or rather, was the reason that Jojuin had no autumn colors: the small pond garden stands against the backdrop of a hill planted with evergreens, there are no maples here, therefore nor snapping cameras, only serenity.


[The left lion, with the mouth open]

First we inspected the lion-dogs of the Kiyomizu Temple, standing in front of the vermilion Niomon Gate. These are not really “komainu,” but rather Chinese lions, shishi. The imposing, almost royal statues are 170 centimeters tall and date from 1924. They are beautiful pieces of stonework, but where does this different typology come from?

[The right lion also has its mouth open]

In fact, the lions of Kiyomizu are copies of the oldest stone lion-guardians in Japan, those standing at the inside of the Nandaimon, the Great South Gate of Todaiji Temple in Nara. In front of this gate the famous, huge wooden guardians cut by Unkei and Kaikei rise up, and few people perhaps notice in the passing the stone lions placed immediately inside the gate. These date from 1196 and were carved by the Chinese sculptor Chen Heqing – one of the craftsmen invited to come to Japan from China to rebuild Todaiji which had been destroyed by the war between the Taira and the Heike.


[Close-up of the right lion - © Ad Blankestijn]

Now the style and everything else falls in place – lions of this type can also be seen at ancient Chinese imperial graves, such as the Six-Dynasty period graves dotting the surroundings of modern Nanjing. When I studied at Nanjing University, I often made cycling trips to such graves, of which only the stone statues stood forlorn in the rural countryside.


[Small stone statues]

We turn left at the Niomon Gate, walk through a quiet lane past the temple office buildings. To our right is a plot where small stone statues have been gathered. In the past these stood at road sides, but as modern traffic does not tolerate such obstacles, most of them have been destroyed – only some have been saved by bringing them to temples.

Further left stands Jojuin, the quarters in the past of Kiyomizu’s head priests, built in shoin-style. The garden I have come for lies at the north-facing veranda and consists of a pond, two islands, a planted hill to the right, and “borrowed scenery” (shakkei) right in front. The real garden is relatively small, behind the hedge at the edge of the pond is a deep valley, but the forest on the other side that embraces this garden, has been incorporated in the design. It makes the garden look like a safe haven, a secret space far from the crowds and the dust of the world.


[Entrance of Jojuin]

The garden dates from the early 17th century and has been ascribed to Kobori Enshu, but there is no proof for this. On the large island stands a stone lantern called Kagero, and to the right of that a strangely shaped stone has been placed. As it reminds one of an eboshi, the hat courtiers wore in the Heian period, it has been named "Eboshi-iwa." The hand-washing basin standing to the left before the veranda similarly evokes the long sleeves of a kimono and is called "Furisode chozubachi." The “borrowed scenery” effect has been ingeniously strengthened by placing another stone lantern in a clearing on the distant hillside, outside the garden, but creating the illusion that it forms part of it. With Entsuji, the garden of Jojuin is therefore an classic example of the shakkei technique of merging distant vistas into a small garden and so enlarging its apparent size.


[The autumn forest opposite the gate, outside Jojuin]

Jojuin has been named “The Garden of the Moon” for the beautiful image of the moon reflected on the surface of the pond. Today, the calm surface mirrors the rocks and the stone lantern, the hedges, and the green hills that lie like an embrace around this secluded spot. Photography is forbidden inside Jojuin, so you'll have to do with the photos I took outside.
Address: 294 1-chome Kiyomizu Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Tel. 075-551-1234
Access: 20 min on foot from the Gojozaka or Kiyomizumichi bus stop (bus 206 from Kyoto St)
Note: Information about Kiyomizu's stone shishi statues was gleaned from Kyoto Komainu Meguri by Onodera Yoshiaki, Nakanishiya Shuppan, 1999 (one of the foremost authorities on komainu in Japan).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tokyo Trips: Autumn in Itabashi

When you travel to Itabashi via the Mita line and see the endless ranges of giant flats on the horizon, you might mistake them for mountains. When the truth dawns upon you, you may start to feel faint at heart and doubt whether you made a good decision to come here. Don't worry: a walk of about 15 minutes from Nishi-Takashimadaira Station will bring you to the Itabashi Art Museum, standing at a quiet pond, Tameike, safe from the onslaught of the danchi.


[Great Buddha of Jorenji]

The Itabashi Art Museum is the oldest of the many art museums set up by Tokyo's wards and cities (vintage 1979). The museum only organizes special exhibitions and has no works on permanent display, so it is not a place to drop by unprepared. Check the schedule at the website, and only come when there is something of interest, because this museum will be the center of your visit to Itabashi. The museum focuses on Edo art and organizes several interesting exhibitions a year on this subject. A few years ago, for example, I saw a fascinating display of Akita Ranga, the paintings with Western ("Dutch") perspective and chiascuro made in Edo-period Akita.

On the opposite side of the pond where rustic anglers may be active, stands the Itabashi Historical Museum, which has some archeological artifacts and folklore items on display. Best is the minka standing at the back of the museum, making this a nice play to drop in for a few minutes as well.

But there is more in this area. A 5 min. walk from the museums lies the Akatsuka Botanical garden, occupying part of the grounds of the long defunct Akatsuka castle. There are more than 600 different plants and trees, as well as a garden with medicinal herbs mentioned in the Manyoshu. We visited in early winter when everything was bare, and only the fallen leaves rustled under our feet, but it was nice to walk through this park that still keeps an image of the wildness of ancient Musashino.

Our last destination was Jorenji temple. Jorenji's founding goes back many centuries, and originally it stood along the Nakasendo highway - until it had to move in 1973 to make way for an expressway. Now it stands in a corner of the old Akatsuka Castle as well, and contrary to what you might expect of a modern temple it has beautiful grounds and buildings and is a pleasure to visit.

Mentioning the Nakasendo, reminds me of the fact that in the Edo-period Itabashi was "Itabashi-juku," a post town on the highway that ran through the mountains of Central Japan to Kyoto. The post town consisted of four parts; one of these, Naka-juku, had an actuall plank bridge that gave the name "Itabashi" to the whole area. There is little post town atmosphere left in present-day Itabashi, which is a bedtown with noisy roads leading into Tokyo, but the area with the museums and botanical garden, called Akatsuka, still retains a whiff of the old flavor.

Jorenji boast several monuments and statues in its garden (such as a good modern Hotei), but it is now above all famous for its Daibutsu, its Big Buddha. Only cast in 1977, to pacify the spirits of the soldiers who died ages ago in the battles around Akatsuka Castle (did they scare the priest?), it is 22 metres high and weighs 22 tons. An Amida Buddha like its big brother in Kamakura, it cannot hold a candle to that older statue when it comes to artistic merit, but it nevertheless impresses by its peaceful countenance. A good conclusion of an autumn afternoon in Itabashi.
Itabashi Art Museum
5-34-27 Akatsuka, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3979-3251
CL Mon, Dec 28-Jan 4
15 min walk from Nishi-Takashimadaira St on the Mita line

Itabashi Historical Museum
Tel: 03-5998-0081
CL Mon, Dec 28-Jan 4

In late winter/early spring, the Tameike pond and park are the site of the Ume (plum) festival.

Akatsuka Botanical Garden
(Manyo Yakuyo Garden)
Tel: 03-3975-9127
CL New year
16 min walk from Shimo-Akatsuka St on the Tobu Tojo Line

Jorenji Temple
5-28-3 Akatsuka, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo
30 min walk from Shimo-Akatsuka St on the Tobu Tojo Line

The temple, botanical garden and historical museum are free. Entrance to the art museum is usually 600 yen, but may depend on the exhibition.