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

May 1, 2014

Gansenji and the stone Buddhas of the Tono Hills

Around Nara, there are several areas of gentle, green hills where priests of large temples as Todaiji and Kofukuji who wanted quiet for meditation could retire to. Muro is one such area, the district between the Kasuga Shrine and Yagyu another. But the largest one lies just over the present-day prefectural border inside Kyoto and is called "Minami-Yamashiro." It includes the Kasagi mountains and the gentle Tono area. Surrounded by streams and lush verdure, this region was the sacred hinterland of Nara. As a result, Minami-Yamashiro is dotted with early temples founded in the Nara (710-794) to the Heian (794-1185) periods. Deeply embedded in the rocks one also finds many reliefs of stone Buddhas, a testimonial to the religious austerities that took place in these silent hills.

[Gansenji, main hall and pond]

Tono is a quiet village surrounded by low hills, near the border of Kyoto and Nara prefectures. Joruriji with its Nine Amida hall is the most famous ancient temple here, but the one most clearly connected with the stone carvings is Gansenji, a beautiful small temple set in a narrow valley where in all seasons flowers bloom. As an added bonus, the temple has a great Amida statue.

Gansenji was purportedly founded in the Nara period, but little is certain about its early history - the temple's engi, the history of its origin written by the temple itself, is as usual rather unreliable, trying to plug the temple into the history of the nation by linking it with the imperial house and several famous priests. But there is no proof for this. The earliest reliable date is the inscription on Gansenji's main statue, a seated Amida Buddha, which is dated Tengyo 9 or 946.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Pagoda of Gansenji among the fresh green leaves of early spring]

That statue is 284.5 cm high, made from one piece of keyaki wood (Japanese zelkova), lacquered and gilded. It is an important cultural asset that conveys the prosperity of the Heian-period. It is also an early instance of the Amida cult, which would a century later find an even more perfect expression in the Byodoin temple in Uji.

The temple also has a set of Shitenno (Four Deva Kings), protectors of the altar, dating from the Kamakura period and a Heian-period Fugen Bosatsu in a beautiful cabinet. The stone reliefs one finds in the vicinity of Gansenji date all from the Kamakura-period, giving an idea of the period during which the temple flourished. The present temple buildings are more recent - the pagoda dates, for example, from 1442.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Fudo Myoo carving on a rock]

It is said that a carved rock at the entrance to the temple, which looks like a boat or a bath tub (or a coffin, if you want) is the origin of the temple name: Gansenji, Rock Boat Temple. But in Japanese mythology, gods are believed to come down from heaven in "rock boats" and these are usually just big rocks - and many such huge rocks can be found in the vicinity of the temple (big rocks were also believed to be places where gods dwelt in), so that seems a better explanation for the temple name.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Amida Triad, "the smiling Buddha"]

Most of the stone reliefs lie along the path that runs from Gansenji to Joruriji, a walk of just 40 minutes. This path is called Sekibutsu no Michi, or "Path of the Stone Buddhas." The first part of the path goes steeply down a sandy hill, but there is a handrail. Later the path passes over a ridge before descending to some rice paddies. The last part is over an ordinary road. 

Besides a humorous Fudo Myoo (difficult to see as the relief has been damaged by the dampness here), we find several Amida statues or Amida Triads, as well as the omni-present Jizo.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro