Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Graves and gods of Otsuka

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a bright fall morning when I return to Gokokuji Temple, an Important Cultural Property in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. Exiting Gokokuji Station, it only takes me a few minutes to find the two monks who promised to help me when I visited here earlier: 33-year-old Shinsei Miura and 23-year-old Kenkai Yamada. Today, they are dressed in formal monk’s robes and wearing broad smiles.

Standing at the temple’s Kannon-do (main hall), built in 1681, Miura points out Otowa-dori behind us, a long pin-straight road that stretches from the temple to Edogawabashi Station, roughly 3.5 kilometers away.

“During the Tokugawa shogunate, this area was planted with medicinal herbs,” Miura says, “and the road was created so that shoguns could travel here comfortably. Back then, this was the outer boundary of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Nothing was here — no villages, no houses — only rivers and pines.”

I mention hearing somewhere that during the Edo Period (1603-1868) temples were built at the city’s edges to rebuff evil spirits and to keep a lookout for any would-be uprisings. Miura nods in affirmation.

Their zori sandals crunching over the pathways, Miura and Yamada saunter off toward the famous graves in the temple’s cemetery. We first locate the tombstone of Shigenobu Okuma (1838-1922), former prime minister of Japan and founder of Waseda University.

“Waseda students run over here to tidy his grave regularly,” Miura remarks, laughing.

Next is Sanjo Sanetomi (1837-1891), an interim prime minister for two months during the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Worrying that we might weave through a century of leaders of whom I have little knowledge, I inquire about nonpolitical luminaries.

“Well, here we have Masutatsu Oyama,” Miura says, pointing out a chic black gravestone with a stylized pagoda. “Oyama was the founder of the Kyokushin style of full-contact karate,” Yamada tells me, and I vaguely recall that Oyama, who died in 1994 at age 70, was famous for wresting live bulls as part of his training. “Many karate students come to offer flowers and pose for pictures at his grave,” Yamada adds, clearly a fan himself.

As we walk on, a murder of crows caw overhead, roosting in the temple’s soaring, gnarled red pine trees.

“They hang out here in the morning,” Miura says, “then fly over to Shinjuku during the day, and back again at dusk.”

The purple-black birds add a bit of drama to the air as we pass by the grave of one of Japan’s first Western architects, Josiah Condor (1852-1920), then the grave of Seiji Noma (1878-1938), founder of Kodansha publishing company, and even the grave of one of Emperor Meiji’s concubines.

“She was not permitted burial in the Imperial graveyard to the east of Gokokuji,” Miura says in a quiet aside.

However, of all the monuments on Gokokuji’s approximately 82,000-square-meter property, one of the most elegant is a large stone above the grave of tea master Matsudaira Fumai (1751-1818).

“He favored the aesthetic of kirei-sabi,” Miura explains, referring to the tea ceremony style that bridged the austere simplicity of tea master Sen-no-Rikyu’s wabi-sabi (a difficult-to-translate idea that roughly means “rustic simplicity”) with the graceful refinement of Edo style.

Seeing my interest ignite, Miura and Yamada guide me to Gokokuji’s Gekkoden (“Moonlight Pavilion”), an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Though initially constructed during the early 1600s as a reception hall for a Shiga Prefecture temple, the building was bought and moved to the estate of Kunizo Hara in Shinagawa in the late 1800s and, finally, was procured and relocated to Gokokuji in 1928 by prominent temple patron Yoshio Takahashi.

The halls are filled with the fragrance of freshly-planed wood because, as with other rare examples of Muromachi Period (1336-1573) architecture, they have recently gone through a kaitai shuri (complete dismantling and repair) to reinforce old joints and add anti-earthquake features.

Visitors to Gekkoden can enjoy a traditional rock garden in the courtyard, but “from here, though,” Miura says, unlocking a corridor door, “you need special permission for access.”

We enter a hallway ending in another door painted with sparrows and bamboo in the style of the Kano School, one of Japan’s most influential schools of painting, which began in the 15th century.

Beyond this door, we enter the profound quiet of Gekkoden’s main room, remarkable for its high ceilings and beautiful craftsmanship as evidenced by details such as elegant kugikakushi (decorative nail covers). The room features an oshi-ita, a precursor to the tokonoma (alcove for a hanging scroll and ikebana), with a mural by Kano Eitoku (1543-90) depicting a classical Ming dynasty motif of gathered Chinese scholars.

Then Miura and Yamada take me around the veranda of Gekkoden. There, to my surprise, and largely hidden from the public eye, are several stunning teahouses. There are, in fact, nine teahouses on Gokokuji’s grounds, designed by grandmaster of tsukiya (teahouse-inspired) architecture Ogi Rodo (1863-1941) at the request of temple benefactor Yoshio Takahashi.

“Well, you have sado (the way of tea), and butsudo (the way of Buddha) and they both have a do, or way, to follow,” Miura says, the corners of his mouth turning up. “Surely those roads have some connection?”

Several times a year, the tea rooms teem with masters and students from all the major tea schools, Miura informs me as we enter one of the elegantly proportioned teahouses. Opening a small purpose-built cabinet, Miura introduces me to a wooden statue of patron Takahashi.

“Though it’s almost unheard of for temples to have tearooms on the premises,” Miura says, “this man left us a cultural asset, I think.”

However, no cultural asset is complete without knowledgeable appreciation, I muse. As my two patient monks have shared theirs with me generously, I bow with gratitude for their time, and head off east on Mejiro-dori.

Burrowing down a narrow backstreet, I spy a towering red pine that appears to have wandered off from its relatives on Gokokuji’s grounds.

“Beautiful pine, right?” pipes up apartment maintenance worker Yasuo Matsuzawa, 65, following my gaze. “Those pines probably predate the temple. You’ll see them here and there throughout the neighborhood.”

I’m on the lookout for venerable trees when I come across a tall stand of cut bamboo poles. Knocking on the door to a small shop beside them, I meet 81-year-old Shigeji Namiki, a third-generation purveyor of bamboo elements used in Japanese gardens. Though suffering from a strained back, Namiki chats with me.

“It’s not heavy lifting that will ruin your back,” he warns, “but the sudden light thing you pick up incorrectly.”

Surely it’s partly the pain speaking, but Namiki, whose wife is gone and daughters married off, is not optimistic about his trade.

“People don’t have gardens much anymore, do they?” he says. Seeing my worry, he rallies. “But if you do need a bamboo fence, mine will last you a good long time, seven or eight years at least. My bamboo is cut and cured during the winter months, which makes it lasts longer.”

This single insight makes me keenly aware, once again, of the natural know-how our generation risks losing.

I let Namiki get back to rest, and wander uphill toward a major Otsuka intersection. Along the way, as the weather turns bitterly cold, shuttered businesses and rusty signs reveal the hardship that grips the area.

At the intersection, I pop into Fukudaya. This small shop, I learn, has been in business for more than a century, offering specialty ohagi (rice dumplings coated in sweet red bean paste) and other sweets nearly every day of the year. In the fleeting fall season, they offer flimsy plastic packets of kurigohan (chestnut rice). I buy one, and revel in the textures: tenacious sticky rice and a crumbling sweetness in each half-moon of steamed chestnut. The combination? Heavenly.

Now energized, I cross the street to explore a large temple, its trees ablaze with yellow and orange leaves. The priest’s wife, Michiko Yamaguchi, 56, tells me that Hondenji has been around for many centuries but experienced a fairly astonishing identity crisis 401 years ago. Initially a Zen Buddhist temple, everything changed when the then-head priest heard for seven consecutive nights a mysterious voice chanting a sutra: “Nam myoho renge kyo.” The sound was coming from a patch of ground near the temple. The priest ordered the ground to be dug up and a nearly life-size ebony statue of monk Nichiren was unearthed. Needless to say, the temple shifted allegiances, and today follows the Mahayana branch of Buddhist teachings.

Yamaguchi kindly invites me to view a painting of the moment of excavation and even allows me to go behind the altar to photograph the raven-black sculpture of Nichiren, a compelling figure with an intense stare. Yamaguchi and I chat and laugh, then head outside to where the day dims. Bidding her farewell, I have to admire the warmth with which Otsuka’s temples have received me, and their grounding influence in the area.

The final installment of a two-part series on Tokyo’s Otsuka neighborhood.