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

October 4, 2013

Graves in Kyoto's shopping arcades (Seiganji)

Kyoto, the old capital, is full of graves. When you walk through Shinkyogoku, the popular shopping street between Shijo and Sanjo that is almost a Harajuku look-alike, you are in the midst of a huge graveyard. Nobody notices, young people are on shopping sprees as if there were no other things in the world.

I learned the truth by looking over walls, and by staying in the business hotels on Kawaramachi Street, where you look down on the many small temples from your room. Then you get a very different view of the area: an endless graveyard with a snake of oblivious youth and abandon slithering through it...

Grave of Izumi Shikibu, Kyoto
[Tomb of Izumi Shikibu in Seishin-in Temple]

One of the most famous graves here is that of Izumi Shikibu, a woman court poet and diarist who lived around the year 1000. Izumi Shikibu lived a life of love and passion that earned her the nickname "The Floating Lady." So she must still feel at home here, in Kyoto's entertainment center and perhaps she likes the sounds of youth passing by. But nobody stops for her anymore and her grave is stone cold.

The major temple in this area is Seiganji, now standing somewhat forlorn in Shinkyogoku, Kyoto's busy shopping street. But the gate and doors of the main hall are always wide open and from the street passersby can greet the large Amida Buddha seated in the hall.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[The welcoming entrance of Seiganji]

Although the graves remain, Seiganji has lost most of its land. It used to be a huge temple that even claims to have been founded in the late 7th c. Under the influence of Honen it turned to Pure Land Buddhism, as testified by its Amida statue. It only came to this location in last quarter of the 16th c., due to the redesign of Kyoto by Hideyoshi. One of Hideyoshi's concubines sponsored the temple, which then had many halls and even a pagoda. The area around Seiganji became a “town in front of the temple gate" where boisterous temple markets were held and that is how it spent the Edo-period.

The infamous Temmei fire 1788 claimed most of the temple buildings, including its original main statue, and modernisation did the rest. In the early Meiji-period, Kyoto Governor Makimura Masanao wanted to revitalize the city which had lost the Emperor, and he did this by creating a modern entertainment district with cinemas and theaters. That was Shinkyogoku and Seiganji gradually was dwarfed into oblivion.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[Wishes written on fans]

It is interesting to note that Seiganji did already have a link with entertainment. The most famous abbot of Seiganji was Anrakuan Sakuden (1554 – 1642), the man credited as being the earliest Rakugo comic story teller. His stories have been preserved in the aptly named compilation Sobering Laughter - apparently he started using comic stories while preaching, in order to keep his audience from falling asleep.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[The Fan Grave]

Thanks to the artistic impulse of Sakuden, the temple became popular with performers and artists who wanted to advance in their profession. The Fan Grave was built as a monument to the remembrance of Sakuden - the fan is the only implement used by Rakugo storytellers - and instead of the usual wooden votive planks, at Seiganji people write their wish on fans. And that is a form of elegance that very well fits the area...