Even after staying in the same place for three months last year we had no idea there were so many temples within walking distance from our apartment. However, last year we didn’t have to worry about a global pandemic, and we were free to travel all over Tokyo and elsewhere, so places of interest right under our noses were overlooked. Because of the pandemic this year, and the changes it has brought about, during the last few weeks we have had to change our thinking and make new plans, and for the most part, stay in our own neighborhood. This past week we set out to investigate three Buddhist temples in the area, all new to us and all within a short walk of our apartment. We also returned to a fourth, one we had visited last year.
The first temple on our list was Saishō-ji (also know as Kyogakuin and Meao Fudo), located about a half-mile from our apartment. Surrounded by houses, the temple was not readily visible from the street but we eventually found the entrance, hidden behind a Family Mart convenience store. The overall effect of the temple was one of peaceful simplicity, with well-tended grounds and simple, faded structures. The trees surrounding the courtyard, however, were extremely impressive and HUGE, and we could imagine that they would be quite lovely when they are full of blossoms or leafed out. We’ve been unable to find any information about the temple other than the location and name, so we have no idea how old it is.
The day after we set out again, this time to visit two temples located even closer to our apartment. Our first stop was at Shōren-ji, located less than 10 minutes away on foot. The temple was quite small, and it looked fairly new. Shōren-ji had a large walled area behind it which we later figured out contains a cemetery. Once again, we were not able to determine the temple’s age.
From Shōren-ji, we walked next to the small Ishibashi-Jizo shrine, just a few minutes away. The small shrine was well-tended, and there were fresh flowers on display. Jizo is considered the guardian of children, and statues of Jizo are often seen wearing red bibs or red hats. The bib or hat has been put on Jizo to signify protection for children who have died before their parents, and to keep them safe in the next world.
Finally, we walked over to Saichō-ji, an impressive temple from the Edo period (1603-1868). The temple was originally owned by the Hachisuka family. The family received the Tokushima Domain as a new landholding, and until the end of the Edo period, the Hachisuka were the lords of Tokushima, located near Tokyo. The large entrance gate to the temple grounds, Nakayashiki-mon, was installed by them, with the size and design imposed by the imperial government. The temple grounds hold not only the main temple but also a meeting hall and several other smaller buildings as well as many statues. We were impressed by the number of old trees that were still being carefully tended, some of them most likely over a hundred years old. We were also fascinated by a new tree that had sprouted out of a huge, old stump, and that had been carefully wrapped in straw to protect it from the elements of winter.
Our last visit of the week was to the Setagaya Kannon-ji temple, which we had visited last year, located about a mile from our apartment. The temple was constructed in 1951 following World War II, with buildings move to its present location from other places in Japan. In 1955 Special Attack Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy) statues were moved to the temple. The statues are in remembrance of Special Attack Squadron forces (known as kamikaze) and are dedicated to the 4,615 young men who killed themselves for Japan during WWII. Initially, these Kannon statues were placed in the main temple but were moved to their own building in 1956. The temple grounds contain several memorials to the kamikaze. Some appear to be group memorials, while a few seemed to be for individuals. The whole temple area has a haunting feel to it. It’s very well-maintained but the overall sensation was one of great sadness and loss.
Having to stay close to home and explore our own neighborhood has brought us rewards and insights we never imagined. We’re inspired now to learn more about our neighborhood, to try some new things, to take a new route, and to dig a little deeper into what this part of Tokyo has to offer.