MATSUSHIMA, MIYAGI PREF. – Entsuin, also known as the rose temple for its unique Western-style rose garden, has long been a tourist fixture in the bay town of Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.
But in the seven years Haruka Amano has been serving as a priest at Entsuin, she has never seen the number of visitors fall so drastically, a phenomenon that could threaten the historic temple’s future.
Built in 1646 next to Zuiganji, the Tohoku region’s most prominent Zen Buddhist temple, Entsuin houses the mausoleum of Date Mitsumune, the grandson of Tohoku warlord Date Masamune, and belongs to the Rinzai school of Zen.
While the temple luckily suffered only minor damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast, the number of visitors admiring the temple’s well-tended gardens and mausoleum has plummeted in the following months.
“Look around, all you see now are a few elderly tourists here and there. All the children who used to visit us during summer break are gone,” Amano said.
Prior to March 11, around 1,000 visitors would enter the gates of Entsuin during an average day and nearly 2,000 when the temple hosted special events. Around 40,000 people in total would visit the temple during the peak summer season, Amano said.
“But now there are days when we only receive a few dozen visitors,” she said, citing radiation fears as a major factor contributing to the decline in tourists.
Amano said at least the temple received some visitors when nearby Sendai hosted the Tohoku Rokkon festival on July 16 and 17, which drew more than 360,000 visitors from across the nation willing to participate in the festival’s effort to revitalize the region.
But all reservations to visit Entsuin were canceled once the beef radiation fiasco broke out in late July, when beef from thousands of cattle that were fed hay tainted with radioactive cesium was distributed to the market.
“We run our temple relying on admission fees. I’m not sure how we’ll get past this winter if this situation continues,” she said.
As a female priest in a mainly male occupation, Amano went through 18 months of rigorous training in a Zen monastery before she could begin working in the temple, where her father presides as the head priest.
A graduate of Hanazono University, a school in Kyoto belonging to the Rinzai school, Amano said she was the first female priest in the Tohoku region who hailed from the Zen sect.
The training was so hard and the vegetarian diet so scant, Amano said she suffered twice from beriberi, an ailment caused from lack of vitamin B1. She laughed when she recalled how she had to wear diapers when undergoing a weeklong intensive session of sleepless meditation in the cold of December.
“It was tough. We weren’t allowed to use the bathroom during meditation,” she said.
After finishing training, Amano came back to her hometown of Matsushima to help her father operate Entsuin. In recent years, she has been in charge of setting up illuminations to light up the temple’s garden at night, as well as hosting workshops where she would teach visitors how to make Buddhist rosaries.
But Amano worries that if the current critical lack of tourists continues, not only Entsuin but local businesses in Matsushima will suffer.
“Visiting us is the best way to show Matsushima your support. It’s been five months since the disaster struck, but I’m afraid the initial efforts to support and rebuild Tohoku are gradually wearing off,” Amano said.
“Come to Tohoku, visit the disaster sites, and buy a can of juice, or anything, because this all helps in restoring what has been lost,” she said. “What we are most of afraid of is being forgotten.”