Tuesday, May 6, 2014

For the Love of Mom (Kosanji Temple, Setoda, Hiroshima)

Kosanji Temple & Miraishin no Oka, Setoda Town, Onomichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture

(BGM: "Amma Endru" by K. J. Yesudas)

Mother's Day is approaching! :-)
Usually I'd be depressed about it. The best I seem to do for my Mom every year is a free internet chat session. She deserves WAY more. Like, WAY!

But this year, I'm a daughter with a mission! 

Ever since she told me she's thinking about visiting me out here again, I've been on the lookout for extraordinary, unusual places to show her. You know, the kind of sights that would make a woman go "WOW!" Hubby hinted that he'd show me something completely new this Golden Week, and I was stoked at the prospect of a rip-roaring feature for her itinerary!

"So, where are we going today?" I asked the Hubby. Perhaps day camping at our local park? Or a picnic on the beach? Hiking in the mountains just down the road? We had many free options to choose from.

"Setoda," he said flatly.

Setoda?  My heart skipped a beat. The last time we traveled to Setoda, we didn't do more than beach comb and eat a package of convenience store soba noodles. There were some famous places I asked him to take us, but he showed zero interest in them. So I was surprised when Hubby said we'd be going there again for our Golden Week day trip.

A sweet motherly pilgrim jizo softens the hellish entrance to the "Cave of 1,000 Buddhas"
He told me he wanted to take me where I originally wanted to go! Hooray! I couldn't have been happier. After our first trip there, a co-worker had told me about Setoda's "path to Hell," lined with demons and "countless Buddhas." A fan of the macabre, the old goth in me was curious, but I didn't think my man would go for that kind of thing. Luckily, Setoda was also known for a temple so beautiful that it rivaled Nikko's Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture. We both had seen the real Toshogu while we lived in Kanto, so we were ready to be wowed, though slightly skeptical.

While waiting in our car at Sunami Port to board the blaring pink ferry to Setoda, we talked with a retired pensioner couple crossing the country in their makeshift minivan camper. Arms folded, the driver with a dapper comb-over beamed with pride as we complimented him on his craftsmanship. His ruddy-cheeked wife shared with us stories of how they'd traveled everywhere from Hokkaido to Kyushu in comfort, utilizing hot springs and coin laundries for their basic washing needs. I noticed my husband's eyes glittering like they do when he's hungry. Were we looking at our future? We were used to close quarters, so the idea wasn't that far-fetched.

Hmm. We could do that! :-)
When the ferryman signaled the "okay" to have us board, we wished the friendly couple good luck and drove up the ramp onto the flaming pink boat bound for Ikuchi Island (生口島). 

The Yassa Mossa ferry from Sunami, Mihara to Setoda Port.
The boat carried us easily over the peaceful, crystal blue Seto Inland Sea towards our destination. The water was calm and waveless as usual. Ferries and small fishing boats of different colors bound for other nearby islands sped past us, leaving us in their mild wake. A few elementary school boys waved at me from the green ferry on their way to Omishima Island.

Mother and child enjoying their cruise to Ikuchi Island.
After a quick 25 minutes of savoring the cool ocean breeze, it was time to squeeze back into our tightly-parked car as the ferry made its landfall. Only the first two seconds of Setoda looked industrial. We drove by a small shipyard and a tidy, well-pruned subdivision to find ourselves already on the main strip of the town. The mood around the temple was relaxed and casual. You could tell that this island ran on its own time. The parking lots directly beside the temple were already full, but a friendly parking assistant directed us towards a free open space beside an abandoned dilapidated hotel, only a 3-minute walk from the gaudy front gates of Kosanji Temple.

耕三寺 Kosanji Temple

The crazy-colorful gates to Kosanji Temple.
Upon first glance, we were blown away. The paint looked too vibrant and fresh for such a heralded temple that housed 15 nationally registered cultural properties! The detail surrounding us was so intense we had no way of focusing on a single point! Where the heck were we? Did we accidentally take the boat to China? No way did this look like a standard Japanese Pure Land Sect temple!

A strikingly elaborate Avalokitesvara (bodhisattva of compassion).
The buildings, though drop-dead gorgeous, lacked the telltale musty reek of oily, earthy antiquity that usually graced the crumbling clay walls of ancient places of worship. This whole complex screamed of modernity and kitsch, yet in my mind, that's what made it fun. We recognized elements all too similar to places we'd seen throughout our travels, but the colors and patterns were much more splendid here at Kosanji.

Wait a minute! The Phoenix Hall of Byodo-In is in Uji, Kyoto, not some remote island in Hiroshima!
Once through the main gate, Hubby and I each went in different directions to cover both sides of the complex. Over the past thirteen years, I've seen more shrines, temples and mausoleums than I could possibly count. Wandering aimlessly, eyes stunned in perpetual wonder, a deluge of memories of my favorite trips flooded back to me in a rush as I kept seeing familiar shapes and lines. It was overwhelming to say the least. But I enjoyed every second of it. I couldn't help but imagine all the effort, manpower and creative energy it took to bring these works of art from conception to reality!

Nikko's Yomeimon Gate? Nope! Kosanji Temple in Setoda!
I relished every waft of fragrant sandalwood incense, every deep, penetrating sustain of the temple gong as I plodded reverently down the smooth tiled path. Swallows dipped and dove overhead as my gaze got lost in the sea of colors and designs surrounding me. Every inch of space was covered in painstaking detail: a writhing, twirling dragon here, a triumphant phoenix there, and countless renditions of angels, saints and bodhisattvas on every pillar and wall. A closer look revealed that they were all replicas! The paint was fairly recent but had been scratched on purpose for an aging effect. Not historically significant by any means, but awe-inspiring, nonetheless. But exactly what kind of Buddhist priest would spend so much money making replicas? This was no ordinary priest from the Pure Land Sect!

Ceiling dragon reminiscent of Kyoto's Kennin-ji.
A quick glance at the Kosanji website gave me all the answers I so desperately craved. Kosanji Temple was built by Osaka steel tycoon-turned monk Kanemoto Kozo. After the passing of his dear mother, he traded his business suit for a monk's robes, purchased a temple from Kyoto's Nishi Honganji and spent his fortunes building in her honor this dazzling collection of remarkably accurate replicas of Japan's most famous holy landmarks and artifacts, sometimes adding his own personal "improvements" and embellishments to the design. (The temple complex was built up around her summer residence known as Choseikaku). He started construction in 1935 and it took three decades to complete. His mother was laid to rest in the 5-story pagoda that towers over the temple.

Nara? Tokyo? Nope! Still Hiroshima!
Dumbfounded by this otherworldly display of love for a mother, I found myself thinking about how much my own Mom would love to see this, and how I wished I could create for her something just as magnificent.

We arrived on the island just before 2pm and only had a few more hours before the grounds closed, so sadly, we had to cut a few buildings from the day's itinerary. Reuniting in front of the pagoda, Hubby and I collected our thoughts with a drink in the wisteria courtyard and set out again following the signs up the hill to the legendary Miraishin no Oka (Hill of Hope), a fantasy land of shimmering white marble.

Wisteria adds a needed splash of living, natural color to a building near the Phoenix Hall.
 The trail wound up and around a jizo-studded hill to end abruptly at an uninspired gray concrete building housing an elevator and a flight of stairs. We opted for the elevator that opened up into...ITALY?!!

未来心の丘 Miraishin no Oka, Hill of Hope

Kosanji, the only Japanese temple with its own Italian restaurant. It even serves wine, a Buddhist no-no! (Gasp!)
Fragrant jasmine perfumes the base of the Hill of Hope.
Could this place get any more random? I found it utterly futile trying to analyze it all. Instead, I opted for the Buddhist technique of simply observing without judgment and found it much easier to enjoy the alien surroundings that way.

The front view of Cafe Cuore, serving pizza and other fine Italian fare.

Monolithic sculptures in solid marble by artist Kuetani Kazuto atop Miraishin no Oka.
Just as I'd hoped, Hubby's eyes sparkled with artistic inspiration, once again. His face broke into a wide, relaxed smile as he sank down into one of the many gently rounded marble chairs and took in the view, savoring his canned coffee with perfect contentment. The stone was soft to the touch, almost velvety. I felt instantly at home, as if I were back skiing on the pristine white snowfields of Fairbanks, Alaska. Fashionable tourists posed like models on a catwalk, taking pictures of each other among the glittering stone slabs. We enjoyed taking a few snapshots for and with them. The magic of the place had changed us all into children, again.

View of the Seto Inland Sea from the Tower of Light.
Miraishin no Oka, completed in 2000, is the masterpiece of world-famous Hiroshima sculptor Kuetani Kazuo, whose work graces the Vatican in Italy where he now resides. It took over 5,000 square meters of marble, cut and shipped from Carrara, Italy to cover this entire hill. Though non-religious in nature, this sculpture garden with its marble pizzaria can only be accessed by paying the 1200-yen entry fee at the temple gate. (Is the food sanctified? Sorry. Just had to ask).

Friends taking in the view together under the famous "Tower of Light."
The ambiance was plenty relaxing, but no matter how much I tried to shut out the questions, I couldn't for the life of me stop wondering what would drive a famous artist to cover an entire temple mountaintop in pure marble, with almost no greenery save for the few olive trees and jasmine shrubs at the base. Though the website states that Kuetani took into consideration the lay of the land and sea, attempting to "balance" his art with the surrounding environment, the overall effect is anything but! (It looks more like Superman's Fortress of Solitude if you ask moi).  Most of the sculptures are vertical and, dare I say, a wee bit phallic. Did Kuetani feel the need to contrast all that feminine energy down below with masculine power from up above? Did he feel moved by the story of Kanemoto Kozo's mother and try to harness the power of the sun to help direct her departed soul to Paradise? Or did he think that Setoda lacked enough decent tourist attractions?

Resigned to the fact that I may never know the answers to such questions, I followed Hubby back down towards the temple before the sun reflecting off of all that marble had a chance to burn my unprotected skin. As I started making my way towards the main gate, Hubby noticed a small pagoda to his left.

"It says there's a sort of hell valley over there." He'd found it! It was here all along!

"Are you interested?" I asked him.

"Nope," he answered curtly.

"Well, I am," I said. "I'll be right back. Meet me at the wisteria."

I knew he'd feel strange if he passed up this opportunity for weirdness, and grinned as he positioned himself ahead of me like the great Protector he is, leading me into the cave.

千仏洞地獄峡, Senbutsudou, Cave of a Thousand Buddhas/Hell Valley

Completed in 1969 and taking nine whole years to construct, this artificial ferroconcrete cave plunges 15 meters down and stretches out 350 meters underneath the upper Kosanji temple complex. The rough, porous stone lining the walls and ceiling of the cave is actual igneous rock brought in from Mt. Fuji and recently active Mt. Asama volcanoes. Right away there's a feeling of mystery as the temperature suddenly drops and the sound of running water echoes throughout the descending tunnel.

Flung by a demon into a lake of fire; not quite the way I'd wanna go...
I expected life-size statues of horrible creatures doing horrible things to poor helpless people. But I was relieved to find the displays of "hell" a digestible collection of some twenty-odd brightly painted reliefs that dotted only the first fifty paces of the walls. The farther down into the tunnel we walked, the less gruesome the images became, some looking about as scary as African safari feeding scenes (not that shocking by today's standards).

 A few more corner turns and the tunnel opened up into a series of stone lanterns and stairs. The sound of running water grew undeniably louder as we approached the first of three tiny concrete bridges. Following the waterfall up with our eyes, lo and behold, hundreds of bodhisattvas sat tucked into each available crevice of the cave, spiraling all the way up to the ceiling. The effect was dizzying!

 The cave spiraled up and down again, opening to two more grottoes of stone, water and light, each more splendid than the last. It was here at the final grotto where I lost my footing and clutched a chunk of lava rock, scraping up my ring finger into a bloody pulp. Hell had given me a warning to take with me back to the land of the living. (The obvious message: imported lava rock is quite jagged, so try not to touch it!) Unfortunately, no merciful bodhisattva appeared to magically heal my bleeding finger. I guess they don't work that way.

The walls bite, so be careful! 
The cave opened up into a room with a roundabout display of folded painted screens depicting the saving power of Buddha. And with a final ascent up station-like concrete stairs, we were out again into the world of warm spring air, green trees, fragrant temple incense- and a towering statue of Kannon, the androgynous bodhisattva of mercy. (It's funny, but I was more startled at the sight of this statue than by any of the demonic visions inside the cave. Oops!)

Just in case you forgot, here's a really huge statue to remind you.
Weary of the conflicting but somehow globally consistent mix of worldly extravagance and religious symbolism, we knew it was time to get the hell out of this rich man's vision of paradise. The desperation in the design made us long for the aging, natural woods and quietness of classic Zen Buddhist temples like Buttsuji in Mihara. Hubby and I both smiled at the irony: nature had spoiled us by her simplicity, not the materialistic trappings of man.

Taking one last look around this incredible collection of replicas, I couldn't help but wonder if the founder of Kosanji was a happy man. All this lavishness and expense; were all his efforts a labor of love, sorrow or guilt? Too bad his mother never got the chance to see this astounding memorial built in her honor while she was alive. But what a treasure for posterity! My own mother taught me that money can't buy love and she's absolutely right.

But it can certainly buy a good day trip! I think we found a winner!

(Happy Mother's Day, Mom!) :-) 

Kosanji Temple Information: 

Open Hours: 9:00am to 4:30pm.
Holidays: (Open 365 days a year).
Transportation Access:
(By Car): From Sunami Port in Mihara City, you can drive your car onto the ferry bound for Setoda Port, a 25-minute trip down the Seto Inland Sea. (Automobile and passenger fees apply). Otherwise you can access Setoda Town by the Shimanami Kaido from either Onomichi City in Hiroshima (via Innoshima Island) or Imabari in Shikoku (toll road fees may apply). 
(On Foot): It's a 15-minute walk from Setoda Ferry Terminal to Kosanji Temple.
Parking: Free parking available in designated spots around the temple complex. 
Address: 553-2 Setoda, Setoda-cho, Onomichi-shi, Hiroshima Ken, 722-2411
Admission Fee: 1,200 yen for adults: includes access to Miraishin no Oka, Senbutsudo Cave, Choseikaku (Kanemoto's mother's summer home not featured in this blog), the Kosanji Museum (across the highway from the temple) and all buildings and structures within the Kosanji complex unless otherwise indicated.
Available Facilities: Public restrooms, drink machines, Italian cafe, temple museum, art gallery, Buddhist paraphernalia available for giving alms.
Insider's Tip: Don't touch the cave walls. Seriously.

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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