Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Living on prayer and paper in Otsuka

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

Hoping to catch the earliest blush of autumnal colors, I seek out the Important Cultural Property of Gokokuji, a prominent temple located in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. A satellite map shows it embraced by a forest of trees. I suspect a cemetery might lurk below the leaf canopy, but in late October who would want to say “boo” to that?

The Yurakucho Line’s Gokokuji Station offers easiest access to the temple, but choosing to explore the surroundings first, I exit the Marunouchi Line’s Shin-Otsuka Station instead. I wander south down a precipitous slope, flanked by clothing shops for the silver set, humble residences and the backsides of rust-touched apartment buildings. When the October sun picks out a pedestrians-only alleyway, I thread it, emerging on another slightly larger road. From there, the thumping sound of machinery draws me like a zombie me toward it.

The din emanates from a small bindery, where Shizuo Kakizaki, 68, mans a vintage harikomi (paste-up) machine that applies glue to connect lining paper to the contents of booklets.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 15,” Kakizaki tells me, grinning, “I started work just before the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and now the next one is coming.”

Kakizaki trots me next door, and introduces me to Managing Director Miyasei Honjo and Takashi Miya, 46.

Miya kindly tours me through the facilities. Machines with rollers lick glue onto spines, others press and marry the pages and, finally, a scary Yoshino machine with massive blades slices hundreds of pages true at a go. Seeing my wide-eyed look, Miya coaxes me to perch on a wobbly board inches from the cutting action. Trying not to imagine which limb I’d lose with a misstep, I nod with appreciation at the power of automation. Thanking Miya and his staff, I flip the next page on my journey.

Down the road a bit, I find another bindery called Magaki Seihon, which is 70 years in the business. Eichi Magaki, 56, plans to continue the work of his 85-year-old father, Shigeru, but has some concerns.

“This area used to support many binderies,” he says, “but these days? The book business is shrinking. Parents don’t read to their kids,” he says, shaking his head, “and that’s where things start to go wrong.”

I linger a bit, watching Eichi and his wife assemble editions of “Tokaidochu Hizakurige” (“Shank’s Mare”), Jippensha Ikku’s serialized picaresque novel from the early 1800s. Meanwhile, Eichi’s father hefts one stack after another of uncut pages onto a machine that puffs air between the sheets so that they can be easily joggled into alignment. Then he slides them into a trimming machine. I marvel at his strength.

“Well, if you look closely,” Eichi says, “the machine also has tiny air pockets, and those float the paper stacks to make moving them easier.”

Nonetheless, Shigeru hoists each new load of eight-page signatures into the machine, then stacks them on palettes, moving with the agility of someone half his age. Clearly the book business makes for sturdy spines.

Leaving the Magaki family, I am about to veer right on Route 437 when I happen to glance into the dark confines of a small shop. There’s a scurrying in the shadows inside. Peering in, I find chickens in cages. Of course, some people in Tokyo still keep hens for their eggs; however, these Bantam beauties, it turns out, are more like talent agency models.

“I rent them out to schools,” Mutsuko Matsumoto tells me, explaining that students sketch or study them, and then return them.

Along with her feathered charges, Matsumoto also looks after concrete tanks of goldfish, killifish and loaches, but her favorite is a long-haired black rabbit with Rastafarian-like dreadlocks.

“I’m the third generation in the pet business here at Chouei Shoten,” Mutsuko says, stroking her rabbit, “located in the same place for 110 years. This used to be a proper pet shop, but the neighborhood homes and yards disappeared, replaced by apartment buildings. People these days come and go, and they don’t have space enough to care for a pet. It’s sad.”

The chickens cluck in the background, as if in agreement. When a customer drops in to purchase two loaches — as pets? — I thank Matsumoto and continue on my way, with her words sinking in. Something feels bereft indeed about a neighborhood without space for pets.

When I arrive at Gokokuji, however, the impressive 1697 Niomon Gate, with its two fierce Nio (beneficent protectors), steals my full attention. Beyond the gate, a pair of lotus-leaf-shaped vessels brim with water for hand washing. I trudge up a flight of steps to the temple’s next portal, the 1938 Furomon (ageless gate), musing that climbing such steps every day might just be the ticket to ageless legs, at least.

Much of Gokokuji is off-limits to casual visitors, so I’ve arranged to meet two temple monks, Shinsei Miura, 33, and Kenkai Yamada, 23, to tour some of the temple’s lesser-known areas. On the way to Gokokuji’s impressive main hall, the 1681 Kannon-do, we pass a copper sculpture of Buddha, about 3 meters high.

“We purchased this from Tsukuba Omido Temple, a sibling temple to Gokokuji, when the Meiji Emperor decided to eradicate Buddhism in favor of Shintoism in the 1860s,” Miura says. “Many of the statures and figures you find here were rescued from destruction during that time. Gokokuji was probably spared because members of the Imperial family are interred nearby.”

With this tidbit of history, I realize that the little forest I’d hoped to stroll is, in fact, off-limits to visitors without permission from the Imperial Household. Instead, I shed my shoes and enter the Kannon-do (main hall). A survivor of earthquakes, fires and bombings, the building emanates a fragrance of smoky old wood, and echoes with centuries of worship. The main altar’s Kannon figure, or goddess of mercy, is a wooden six-armed Nyoirin Kanzeon Bosatsu decorated with 5,800 gems. I peer into the darkness, but cannot see her.

“She’s hidden behind a mirror,” Miura tells me. “We only show her on the 18th of each month. Miura then reveals that the temple’s true object of worship, a 2-centimeter-tall Kannon figurine of natural amber, is never shown to outsiders.

Exploring the 825-square-meter temple constructed with massive zelkova pillars, I pass a standing figure of Fudo Myoo (a Buddhist deity, whose name translates as “immovable wisdom king”) and then discover in the temple’s rear depths, the Sanjusanshin — the 33 manifestations Kannon is believed to assume to help humans. Each of the ancient statues, close to human-size, is remarkably detailed. Some are fantastical figures, such as the birdlike Garuda or Bato Kannon with his horse head hat, and others are haloed and saintly below fine layers of dust. Inside each, I learn, coils a slightly spooky secret.

The most human-like of the 33 figures was, according to Muira, modeled on the actual facial features of Otama-no-kata (1628-1705), concubine to Tokugawa Iemitsu and mother of Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, the fifth shogun of Edo (present-day Tokyo). When Iemitsu died, Otama cut off all her hair, entered the priesthood and took the name Keishoin.

“Locks of her hair,” Miura confides, “were placed inside each of the 33 figures. It was for her that Tsunayoshi ordered Gokokuji to be built.”

This detail spooks me a bit, and adds an otherworldly air to the figures.

While admiring more treasures — a depiction of a skeletal priest transitioning between human existence and enlightenment, and the palanquin that Keishoin once used for transportation — I notice running along the back ceiling a long tube of cardboard. Thinking it some sort jury-rigged electrical duct, I’m about to ignore it, but Miura stops me. “Inside that tube is the largest hanging scroll in all of Japan, about 15-by-30 meters in size. It used to be hung from the temple roof,” he says, “but no one has unfurled it in more than 10 years.”

It begins to dawn on me that stories within stories remain furled at Gokokuji. Understanding that Miura and Yamada need to attend prayers soon, I speed past the Kannon-do’s additional highlights, including a replica oil painting of Kannon surfing a dragon, several oversized ema (small wooden plaques to write prayers or wishes upon), and elegant ceiling paintings of karyobinga (Buddhist angels with human heads, birds’ bodies and heavenly voices) meant to serenade Kannon 24/7.

Once outside the hall again, I set a date to return and explore more of the temple. Miura and Yamada readily agree, then excuse themselves quietly to their services.

It takes a while to adjust to their absence. I watch the sun linger on the copper-plated hip-and-gable roof of Gokokuji and soak in the season’s first colored maple leaves. Through the late afternoon quiet, I hear the laughter of a group of children dancing around a tall, unusually muscular man. Walking over, I discover pro wrestler Osamu Nishimura volunteering his coaching skills to a somewhat rambunctious pod of youngsters. He sets them to doing squats, and then wheel-barrowing up and down the 44 steps of the temple. Their cheeks glow with the effort, and I allow myself to imagine that Keishoin would be pleased to see her temple grounds used to strengthen the next generation.

Part one of a two-part series on Tokyo’s Otsuka neighborhood.