Staying Close to Home: Buddhist Temples in Our Neighborhood

A large iron komainu (lion-dog), one of a pair, guards the entrance to the Setagaya Kannon-ji temple. The ball under its foot indicates it is the male.

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.

The Ishibashi-Jizo

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.


10 thoughts on “Staying Close to Home: Buddhist Temples in Our Neighborhood

    1. Thank you! We were so surprised and happy to find these temples last week. I guess it sometimes a crisis to refocus and see what we have right under our noses. We are careful – although we go out, we don’t really mingle with others. We only will get on a train these days to go to the next station, and we stay away from busy areas.


  1. How fascinating! That pine tree is quite impressive and there seems to be a symbol for everything. You have an extensive knowledge of them, which make the explanations so interesting to read. I’ve personally always felt a little intimidated by the Japanese culture because of this myriad of symbols. I am learning so much from you, thank you!


    1. There is a LOT of symbolism here, and my knowledge of it is very small. But, there are things I have see over and over during the times we’ve been here and I’ve learned to recognize, even though it sometimes has taken me years to remember the name (like shimenawa – it has taken me YEARS to remember that word!). I came here for the first time when I was 18 years old, and fell in love with Japan – I’ve been trying to understand it every since.


  2. I just finished reading Susan Spann’s Trial on Mt Koya and loved seeing some of the Buddhas that played a part in the story!

    What is wabi sabi?

    Love how many hidden slices of beauty you are finding.


    1. I’ve got that book on my list! We were planning to get together with Susan during this trip, but that won’t happen now as we’re not riding the trains except for one station. I’m looking forward to reading her book about her climbing experiences in Japan – it will be out later this year (name of the book is “Climb”).

      Wabi sabi expresses one of Japan’s essential aesthetics: “the beauty of the imperfect, the impermanent, and the incomplete.” No thing in this world is permanent, and according to this aesthetic beauty can be found in aging, weathering, patina, and these qualities. Another example would be a broken dish mended with veins gold – it attains a new beauty in its imperfection (you can see example if you Google kintsugi.) The qualities and beauty of wabi-sabi can be found in the simple, the natural and the old, like the entrance at the temple, with its weathered wood and worn steps.


      1. You are the person who turned me onto Susan’s books! So sad that you can’t meet up with her this trip. I hope your paths cross another time

        I struggle with perfectionism and I LOVE the concept of wabi sabi! I’m thinking for the Japanese this concept also translates into their respect for elders

        I echo Niculina’s comment that you have so much knowledge and give great explanations. I feel privileged that you share so much.


      2. I struggle with perfectionism too (always have), and encountering Japanese aesthetics when I was 18 and then going forward has been life changing. I am much better these days at letting things go and embracing impermanence, or imperfection.

        Japan’s respect for their elders like elsewhere in Asia came up through Confucian and Buddhist tradition, which the Japanese then molded to fit their own society and situation. Like everywhere else though, things have changed and are changing here, sometimes too rapidly for some. There is a also a strong ethic of reciprocity here, so there is always a sense of owing something for those who have given you something or taken care of you.

        After all my time here, I actually feel like I’ve only ever touched the surface of Japan. I know things, but it’s all at surface level. The culture is so complex, and challenging to uncover, like peeling a giant onion – layer, after layer, after layer forever – one thing leads to another.


  3. What lovely local treasures! I am amazed how they care for old trees. We just chop them down. “Too dangerous!” say the authorities. “Someone will knock over the supporting pole and the tree will fall on them.” Pfft! say I. If they’re that stupid they deserve to have knock on the head.


    1. Plants are treasured here (for the most part) – I’m sure you were able to see many example of that while you were here. It is an art form, and when older plants survive it is through the care and devotion of these plants. We’ve seen a beautiful 450 year-old tree in Tokyo that survived the bombings of WWII through the care that was given to it.

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