京のキー Tales from Rokuharamitsu-ji

Tales from Rokuharamitsu-ji

Some weeks ago I wrote about Rokuharamitsu-ji when researching the history of Kyoto. These are two of the tales Etsuyo told me whilst we walked between temples. One she overheard the monk telling to visitors in Rokuharamitsu-ji, the other she remembered after visiting a sweet shop close by the temple.

The statues of Taira no Kiyomori and Kuya may have made Rokuharamitsu-ji famous throughout the country, but it is the statue of jizo clinging to a band of hair that provides one of the most intriguing tales of the temple. The statue is unique and before the tiny altar many have left packets of their own hair in silent thanks. In the reign of Emperor Murakami (946-967) there lived at Gojo -in Kyoto- a man who had once been in the service of a noble at Court, but had now fallen on hard times. The man became a monk and, at their wit's end, his wife and children prayed to Rokuhara Jizo. The wife died but, with the aid of an old monk, her daughter was able to give her a proper funeral at Toribeno. In fact the old monk was an incarnation of Rokuhara Jizo. In gratitude the girl offered her hair, her most precious possession, and Rokuhara Jizo wrapped it around his hand, which is why he was known as 'Jizo holding the hair' (Katsura-jizo).

The second tale, called Yureikosodate-ame, involves a candy store. It is a story from Momoyama times (though its theme is an ancient one) and is famous throughout Japan. There was once a shop owner who sold delicious candy close to Chinko-ji Temple. One woman would return daily to his Monzen shop to buy his candy. After weeks went past he thought it a little odd that the lady (named 'Emura-san') returned every single day. His curiosity was piqued by the oddness of the situation, so he decided to follow her. Indeed there was something strange about the woman for she was very pale, even in the humid summer weather.

She led him up the roads that ran towards the Eastern hills, to a parcel of land filled with graves. Shocked, the shop owner hid behind a tombstone in the small cemetery at Kodai-ji and watched as she made her way to a tiny plot. Whereupon she disappeared. The shop-keeper ran to the spot and heard the faint cries of a baby. So the woman was a ghost after all, and had paid with the money tossed into her casket to aid her in the after-life. With his hands he uncovered the grave, only to discover a newborn babe. Beside the child was the candy bought from his shop. The remains of the child's dead mother lay by the way, keeping the child warm while in the tomb. The shopowner scooped up the child and prayed for the soul of the woman, swearing he would look after her baby. She never visited his shop again. The same candy that the ghost purchased is still very popular, and very delicious. As for the child, it was said that he grew up to be a famous monk.

The photos: Etsuyo rings a special bell (the Mukaegane) that is used to welcome spirits back to this world during the August Festival of the Dead (Obon), the garden of Chinko-ji temple that features a well used by Ono-no-Takamura to travel between our world and the spirit world (top picture also), and Etsuyo looks at the hall featuring a statue of the King of Hell (Enma). Chinko-ji is said to rest close to the Rokudo-mairi (the 'Six Roads Pilgrimage'). The Rokudo is a legendary road linking the world of the living to the world of the dead. If one were to stand at this junction whilst banging a gong, the voice and sound would carry to the ancestral spirit world and thus guide friends and family back to our own.

Chinko-ji is also known as Rokudo-san (the 'Six Realms of the Dead'), due to the temple's closeness to the once great Toribeno cemetery that stretched from Kiyomizudera to Nishi-Otani, and down from the Eastern hills to the Kamogawa River. Bodies of the poor and those without family were often abandoned here to the elements as funeral costs could not be met. A pilgrimage to Toribeno was considered a symbolic journey through the six realms of the dead. The Rokudo-no-Tsuji -the public square- before the actual temple is said to stand at the beginning of these six avenues that lead through the several levels of hell. Poor people would often pray here for the souls of their deceased loved ones, loved ones they could not afford to bury with any pomp or dignity.

The second line of photos: Enma (the King of Hell), Ono-no-Takamura (a poet, whose fame as a writer led many to believe he was a messenger of Enma), and students standing before Rokuharamitsu-ji, which is just a little South of Chinko-ji. The Buddha Yakushi, an important Buddha as he is able to rescue the suffering from hell, and Ono-no-Takamura's well (both at Chinko-ji) are not open to the public.

Rokuharamitsu-ji was founded by the priest Kuya in 963. Kuya so affected the lives of the common people that he is fondly remembered even today. According to some, he was the son of Emperor Daigo, though his heritage was never fully recorded. He traveled through the provinces, preaching, promoting public works and caring for the sick. Kuya chanted whilst he beat on his wooden eating bowl, dancing his way from town to town, preaching the word of Amida. He wore only a thin deerskin, wore a bell about his neck to let the villagers know he was approaching and carried an antler staff. On returning to Kyoto in 938 he made his home amongst the Eastern hills, begging for food in the marketplaces. Thus he came to be called the 'Saint of the Marketplace', caring for the sick as best he could. Many of the wells he helped construct in small villages about the country are still named Amida wells in honour to him. After a short term at Enryaku-ji in 948, he returned to Kyoto during the plague of 951. To quell the anger of the gods, he hauled an eleven-faced kannon through the streets in an attempt to end the plague by continuous prayer and by bringing faith to the people that needed it most.

Some time after the pestilence had subsided Kuya built Saiko-ji on land given to him by the Taira, acting as head priest of his foundling shrine. Kuya's famed kannon was placed inside the main hall. Peace did not last long. The Taira and Genji clans battled for control of the city, and the land about Saiko-ji -because it was where many of the Taira kept mansions- became the focus of the Genji's attack. In a decisive victory, the Genji claimed the capital and the Taira fled, burning their houses as they went. Over four thousand homes were lost in Eastern Kyoto to the flames, but the temple miraculously survived. A few hundred years later and Kuya's temple was in dire need of renovation. When the new shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, built Hoko-ji in the 1590s he also generously rebuilt Rokuharamitsu-ji. And it has survived to this day.

Nowadays the building is most visited for the wonderful array of statues from the Kamakura Period. That of Kuya, Taira-no-Kiyomori, and the sculptors Tankei and Unkei are perhaps the best known statues in the city.

The final three photos: an ox statue in the small garden before the treasury of Rokuharamitsu-ji, looking forward across the small parcel of land that the temple now rests in, and the main hall of Rokuharamitsu-ji, with its eleven-faced kannon.

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