Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

June 12, 2012

Jizo among hydrangea's - Yatadera Temple, Nara

Yatadera stands high on a wooded hillside outside the town of Yamato Koriyama, the castle town and governmental center of Nara in the Edo-period (before that, Kofukuji Temple served as both religious and worldly authority in the area). Some of that bygone splendor can still be faintly seen in a beautiful park, Sotobori Ryokuchi, (the Outer Moat of the castle), while also the main shopping street of Koriyama sports a nice old-time atmosphere. One of the traditional town houses, the Hakamotokan is open to visitors. The Yanagisawa clan that ruled here for most of the Edo period seems to have been quite cultured - there were for example contacts with painter Ike no Taiga. Literally colorful is also the fact that in the 18th century Koriyama became a center of goldfish and ornamental carp farming, a position it still holds today. The castle grounds themselves are famous for their cherry blossoms.

Yatadera, Nara
[Jizo statue on the path to Yatadera]

Yatadera temple, offically known as Kongosenji, sits about half an hour (3.5 kilometres) outside Koriyama, on - how could it be otherwise - the Yata Hills. In fact, it stands just north of Ikaruga, the area famous for Horyuji and other ancient temples, on a path that links Ikaruga with Ryosenji in the north and passes several old temples.

In the hydrangea season there are special, direct buses available between Koriyama and the temple. The parking lot where the buses drop of their passengers, is still some way from the temple but the locals make the trek pleasant by setting up stalls selling snacks and products from their vegetable gardens. After that, a broad staircase leads among verdant trees up to the temple proper.

Yatadera, Nara
[Staircase leading to Yatadera]

Yatadera claims to have been founded in 679, after Emperor Tenmu (who is closely connected with Yakushiji temple, elsewhere in Nara) fled here during the Jinshin Disturbance and had prayers said for victory in battle on the mountain. Founding priest was Chitsu, a man who had studied in China and would become the second transmitter of the Hosso School of the Chinese priest Xuanzang in Japan.

Reputedly, the original Yatadera was a large temple, with seven halls and 48 residences for priests. An Eleven-headed Kannon and Kishoten served as its main statues. The temple afterwards fell in ruins and was founded anew in the period 810-823 by the holy priest Manmai and this time a Jizo became the main sculpture.

Jizo is a Bodhisattva entrusted with the task of saving us, helpless human beings, in the endlessly long period until the advent of the next Buddha, Miroku. In Japan, the cult of Jizo was as popular as that of Kannon, especially among the common people.

Yatadera, Nara
[Main Hall of Yatadera]

Jizo was already worshipped in the Nara period (8th c.), but the earliest extant image of him can be found in Koryuji temple in Kyoto, dating from the early 9th c. The "Yata Jizo" holds a gem in his left hand and displays the "mudra for bestowing fearlessness" with his right hand, in contrast to the usual Jizo statues which carry a monk's staff in the right hand. Unfortunately, the altar section of the temple is closed off and the Jizo resides in a closed cabinet, so it is not possible for visitors to see this important statue.

Luckily, there are many stone statues and reliefs of Jizo outside the temple, along the path, and among the hydrangea's. Interestingly, one of these stone Jizo's is also in the above mentioned "Yata style."

Yatadera, Nara
[Jizo statue on the path to Yatadera]

There is a beautiful story how Jizo became the main object of devotion in Yatadera. Priest Manmai had been invited to the Underworld to give the Boddhisattva Precepts to its Lord, King Enma. Out of gratitude, Enma took him on a tour through hell, proudly showing off his Kingdom of Fear. There Manmai saw innumerable human beings suffering in terrible fires, being cooked in boiling hot water, or pierced with stakes by hideously green devils. But Manmai also saw a priest going around, busy saving humans from the raging flames. That young priest was non other than the Jizo Bodhisattva in disguise.

The Jizo spoke to Manmai and asked him to sculpt an image of him after returning to his temple, so that those still living in the human world might be saved by looking upon him. Manmai returned and dutifully started to execute the Jizo's wish. But the carving of the Jizo statue proved unexpectedly difficult... until Manmai received help from four old sages, who also brought him a large paulownia tree. These four sages were in fact an apparition of the Kasuga deities, from the well-known shrine in Nara... and thanks to their help finally a beatifully Jizo statue was carved.

Jizo looks like a young, smart priest, and he has a friendly, soft smile, so it is no wonder that in the course of history countless generations of women fell in devotion before his feet.

Yatadera, Nara
[Hydrangea's of Yatadera]

Yatadera is known as "Hydrangea Temple," and not for nothing. There are about 10,000 hydrangea's (called "ajisai" in Japanese), in all 60 varieties. They line the path leading to the temple and stand clustered in a garden laid out on a slope to the left of the path. Hydrangea's are not native to Europe and were first described in the 18th c. by European travelers to China. Later, Von Siebold, the famous German doctor who worked on Deshima for the Dutch, would play a large role in introducing the flowers to Europe's gardens.

The hydrangea (also called hortensia) with its soft shades of blue and purple is beautiful in its reticence. It is always subdued, best seen on an overcast day, under the shade of large trees, or even in a light drizzle. Although the flower heads are large, there is nothing ostentatious about them. They are full of quiet, subtle beauty.

Yatadera, Nara
[Hydrangea's of Yatadera]

As the temple mentions on its website, in a survey by the Nikkei Newspaper in 2005, Yatadera was selected as the second best spot to see hydrangea's in western Japan (No 1 was Kobe's Shinrin Botanical Garden, No 3 was Mimurotoji Temple in Uji).

There are many small paths, up and down, leading through bushes and clusters with different kinds of flowers. Walking here is like being immersed in a green aquarium, floating as large goldfish among the colorful flowers and shady leaves.

Yatadera, Nara
[Jizo statues and hydrangea's in Yatadera]

And finally visitors meet Jizo again, squinting from among the leaves, his face just as soft and modest as the hydrangea's...
Yatadera (Kongosenji)
Address: 3549 Yatacho, Koriyama City, Yamato-gun, Nara Prefecture
Tel. 0743-53-1445
Access: 20 min by bus from Koriyama Station on the Kintetsu line. Frequent buses in June (hydrangea season), also from Horyuji station on the JR line. The Hydrangea Garden is open from June 1 to July 10.