Where there are shrines, temples and other places of worship in Asia, invariably there are markets. Japan is no different. Commerce flows in through the temple gates and then back out — a cordial division of profits ensuing, generally to everyone’s satisfaction.
It would be easy enough to sneak through the back streets of Dazaifu, entering its main drawcard, the Tenman-gu shrine, by a side gate, thereby avoiding the avenue of souvenir shops, with its three granite torii gates, and hawkers bellowing about the unassailable quality of their wind chimes and key rings — but that would be to miss the fun of this temple market.
Dazaifu was once an important military and civil base of the Yamato government and an administrative center in the later Nara Period (710-784). The power and prestige, which governorship of this strategic and affluent town carried with it in the late Heian Period (794-1185) vanished, as Dazaifu increasingly began to be used as a convenient location to send troublesome religious or political figures. The poet, statesman and calligrapher Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903) spent two years as governor at Dazaifu, in employed exile, before dying — apparently, of grief.
After a series of ominous incidents following Sugawara’s funeral, during which the ox carrying his catafalque collapsed and died, and an imperial official was struck down by a bolt of lightning in the grounds of the imperial palace, it was decided to placate his vengeful spirit by constructing a shrine in his honor and by deifying his spirit. It seems to have worked, as the incidents promptly stopped.
The grounds of the present shrine, built in 1590, are home to a large number of plum trees, again to honor Michizane, whose personal symbols they were. Besides tourists, a steady flow of students visit this shrine to pay homage to Sugawara (deified here as Tenjin, the patron saint of learning), and to pray for success in their exams.
Spring, the traditional time for entrance exams, sees an inordinate number flock to the shrine, writing their wishes on small, votive wooden boards called ema. The Buddhist clergy keenly reminds students that their chances of passing exams are significantly improved by supplicating the gods — by the purchase of some trinket, for example.
The students are joined at this time of year by crowds of visitors intent on enjoying Dazaifu’s cherry blossoms. Its best known Tokyo branch is the Yushima Tenjin shrine, where similar scenes take place in the spring. But this is a good time to stay away.
To enter the shrine, visitors must first cross Taiko-bashi, a humped bridge that spans a carp-and-turtle pond. A dazzling orange-and-ruby-colored gate leads to the main compound where Tenman-gu’s worship hall, magisterial in gold and lacquer under a freshly thatched roof, greets you. Even amid the architectural and spiritual beauty of these national monuments and the treasures they contain, the earthbound is never far away. Partially hidden behind trees in a shallow valley beside the main complex is an amusement park of questionable taste, complete with a big wheel and roller-coaster, no doubt licensed in some way to the shrine.
Dazaifu offers a lot more than just a simple pilgrimage to Tenman-gu, though. The Kanzeonji temple is a 15-minute walk from here. Its treasure house contains a number of highly prized statues, some of the figures masked, including an unusual horse-headed Kannon. A short walk farther on are the remains of the tofuro, or city tower, a lookout post used during the Yamato Period (ca. 300-710) when rebellious tribes threatened the realm.
Return to the pedestrian approach road to Tenman-gu shrine. Turn right and, tucked into a small lane, you will come across a stark Zen garden fronting the grounds of Komyo Zenji temple. Remove your shoes to enter its wooden corridors where Buddhist art and other treasures are displayed. Look closely and surprise yourself at the sight of a small camphor statue, and an earth-colored Korean bowl or teacup, objects that have been sitting for centuries in the shadows, largely unattended. A relaxed mood prevails here, an absence of commerce, a place with apparently no one in charge. I remove my shoes, step onto the smooth wooden flooring of a corridor that provides a slightly elevated view of the rock, gravel and moss garden below. Some women’s voices laughing in a distant room are fleetingly audible; the sound of a rake taken up by a gardener dressed like a tea-picker in smock and bonnet, then as quickly put aside. Here is a place where things stir, but never quite threaten the composed setting.