On the trail of treasures at Kyoto's Toji Temple

by Alon Adika

Special To The Japan Times

The man unfurled the scroll and hung it on the wall of the makeshift tent to reveal a majestic mountain soaring to the heights in bold black brush strokes. It was a scene showing nature in all its grandeur dwarfing a lone human figure halfway up the mountain.

I spent a few moments losing myself in the scene. It was just what I had been looking for. “How much is it?” I asked.

“¥7,000,” the man replied.

Some months earlier in New York City, a friend I was talking with about scroll paintings mentioned the flea market at Toji Temple in Kyoto. He said I really must go there next time I was in Japan — adding that it was huge and I ought to allow at least half a day to spend there

Later that year, the oppressive heat and humidity of late July did not deter me from achieving my goal of visiting the flea market and, if the Buddhist deities favored, buying myself a nice scroll painting.

Arriving in Kyoto by shinkansen from Tokyo is a most unremarkable experience; you suddenly find yourself in avant-garde Kyoto Station surrounded by the sprawl of the modern city — and wondering what is so special about it.

If you approach from the west, however, you are in for a delightful treat. Slightly before arriving, if you happen to turn your head and look out the window to the south, you are rewarded with a view of the great pagoda of Toji Temple soaring high above its surroundings and reminding you in spectacular fashion that you are about to detrain in the old Imperial capital.

When Heian Kyo (Kyoto), the “capital of peace and tranquility,” was established in 794, only two Buddhist temples were allowed inside the city limits. Those were Toji and Saiji, which flanked the great Rashomon Gate and were established for the protection of the nation and the new capital. Heian Kyo remained the Imperial capital for more than 1,000 years and, as many would argue, it is still Japan’s cultural heart.

At first sight, the flea market in the temple’s precincts appears like a sea of tents extending as far as the eye can see, with stalls selling everything from vintage kimonos, straw sandals, hair ornaments and bamboo charcoal to all manner of old junk that reminded me of the old adage that one man’s junk is another’s treasure. I was quietly optimistic about finding my own little treasure.

The historical figure most strongly associated with Toji Temple is Kukai (774-835), known posthumously as Kobo Daishi, who was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. As a young man he roamed the rugged mountains of Shikoku practicing Buddhist austerities. Later in life, he secured a place on a mission to China, where he became the eighth patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism. He is also well known as a calligrapher, poet, engineer and teacher.

In 823, Kobo Daishi became the head of Toji Temple and made it the capital’s center of Shingon Buddhism.

As I made my way through the market, I couldn’t help pausing from time to time to behold the dazzling array of items on sale. I stopped at a colorful stall selling dried fruit. There was yellow mango, green kiwi, orange papaya and more. The salesman motioned for me to try some. I opted for the bright-red sun-dried cherry tomatoes and, when I popped one into my mouth, my face lit up as I savored its sweet taste.

The flea market is affectionately known as “Kobo san,” in honorable reference to Kobo Daishi. After all, he is the main reason that it exists. Since his death occurred on the 21st day of the month, it has become a tradition to hold a memorial service for him on the 21st day of every month. Eventually, merchants appeared to cater to the many pilgrims who flocked to the temple at these times and before long this evolved into the flea market we see today.

I continued browsing the stalls and noticed a couple sitting behind a fold-up table displaying calligraphy brushes. Several people were watching a man trying one of the brushes. He dipped it into some water and paused for a moment before drawing graceful kanji characters on a piece of the special paper that’s used for calligraphy practice.

As I got closer, one of the vendors held out a brush for me to try. I attempted to write a few kanji, but the results were less than flattering. I was glad that as soon as the water would dry, my poorly written graphics would disappear.

The scent of incense wafting through the air reminded me that this was not simply a market day, but also a religious one, since thousands of pilgrims show up every month to attend memorial services for Kobo Daishi.

I followed my nose and found myself in a small courtyard with a statue of Kobo Daishi enveloped in smoke from incense sticks lit by pilgrims paying their respects to the great teacher. My ears also picked up the sound of Buddhist chanting. I turned my head and noticed a line of pilgrims waiting to enter one of the temple’s halls to offer prayers.

I next passed a stall selling various kinds of Korean kimchi: cabbage, stuffed cucumber and radish. Next, there was a stall selling kakigōri, shaved ice in flavors including green tea, pineapple, melon and cola. I felt my stomach growl; I wanted something to snack on. Then, as chance would have it, I noticed a stall selling taiyaki, the fish-shaped Japanese cakes filled with sweet red bean paste, and immediately got one right off the burner. It was great.

Toji Temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is literally a treasure trove of Japanese Buddhist art, culture and history. Many of the structures in its grounds are designated national treasures, including the famous five-story pagoda which burnt down no fewer than four times and was most recently rebuilt in 1644 under the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. The pagoda, standing nearly 55 meters, is the tallest in Japan and a symbol of Kyoto.

Equally impressive, many items in the temple’s possession are also national treasures or important cultural assets. Among them there are calligraphy in Kobo Daishi’s hand, scriptures and statutes brought by him from China, ink paintings attributed to the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, and much more.

While browsing the countless stalls, I chanced upon a few selling scroll paintings. Some of them had photo albums filled with pictures of the different scrolls for sale and you just had to choose. Others had the scrolls in bins and you had to unroll them and see what the paintings were like.

I spent almost an hour going through a bin of scrolls at one shop. I never managed to roll the scrolls back up properly and I noticed the vendor watching me. I saw a number of nice scrolls, but did not feel compelled to purchase any of them. So, I continued searching.

I finally found myself looking at the scroll with the mountain scene. I knew immediately it was the one I wanted. The salesman had just named his price of ¥7,000. I had heard somewhere that this kind of market is one of the few places in Japan where you can bargain for a better price. I looked at the man and asked if he could make it a little cheaper. He nodded and said, “¥5,000.” Most agreeably surprised, I smiled and told him to please wrap it up for