After Amanohashidate, the next must-see place is Tango Peninsula, the main part of Kyoto by the Sea (northern Kyoto). On the east coast of the peninsula is Ine (伊根), a picturesque fishing village right on the water’s edge. The waterfront homes are unique for having built-in funaya “boat garages” (舟屋) to keep a boat next to the water.
The Ine waterfront has looked like this since the 1930s when they reclaimed some of the coastline, and fishermen rebuilt their homes right over the water. This village is designated as an Important Traditional Townscape Preservation District of Japan (重要伝統的建造物 群保存地区) and Japan’s first fishing village to be so designated. Ine has been used as a backdrop in Japanese movies like Tora-san movie No. 29 (1982) and Tsuribaka Nisshi movie No. 5.
Ine has 230 funaya boat houses on the waterfront stretching for about 5 km. Some of the funaya offer lodging where you can stay above the boat garage and have a view of the water. They get booked up quickly though. They let you go fishing by boat or from shore. (Lodging info here.)
You may think these homes are sitting ducks for high waves, typhoons, high tides, etc. But they are in a sheltered bay facing south, away from the Sea of Japan. Mountains shield the bay on three sides and a small island (Aoshima) on the bay’s entrance acts like a breakwater. Ine Bay is thereby largely untouched by the rough seas of the Sea of Japan and the water is very calm. Also, the ocean tide varies by only 50 cm at most. Ine’s location: https://goo.gl/maps/sXVERESwvMT2
A great way to see the Ine boat houses is by boat (called “sea taxi”). Small boats offer 30-min tours for only ¥1,000 per person. Our boat, seating 12 people, was the Kameshima Maru (亀島丸) operated by Toshikazu Yamada. He pointed out the boat houses and locations used in Japanese movies. Kameshima Maru boat cruises has no cruise schedule so you can just call and set a time for a cruise. There must be at least two people for a cruise to depart. Phone: 090-8579-1002 Website: http://kameshimamaru.server-shared.com/index.html
Kameshima Maru Ine boat cruise and Ine town tour Address: Kameshima 822, Ine-cho, Yosa-gun, Kyoto 〒626-0424 京都府与謝郡伊根町字亀島822番地
After the boat cruise, we had a guided walking tour of Ine village. Behind the funaya boat houses is this narrow coastal road and another row of homes across the road on the left at the foot of the hills. The homes along the left are the main homes where the fishermen’s family live. And their funaya boat houses are right across the road on the right.
Above is the boat house of Mr. and Mrs. Toshikazu Yamada (山田 敏和), a very friendly fishermen couple who runs Ine boat cruises and work as fishermen. This is what a funaya boat house looks like from the road. The boat house is not that big. It’s usually used as a second house for retired grandparents or for a young married couple who want some privacy. Or it can be used as a workplace, a guesthouse, or inn. First you see a normal car garage.
In the back of the car garage is the boat garage on the water’s edge. The small fishing boat is hoisted and secured by a power winch. Above the boat is just storage space (not another room). The family uses the boat to catch fish for themselves.
These boat garages were originally built to protect the boat from the elements. In the old days, boats were made of wood. They did not have a waterproof deck like modern boats do today. So the boat garage protected the boat from rain. The boat was also hoisted to dry in the garage. Since seawater tended to rot wood, drying the boat when not in use would make the boat last longer.
I asked about how it was during the recent typhoons in fall 2018. Mrs. Yamada said that the secured boat shook a lot, but there was no damage.
Mrs. Yamada also raises fish under their small dock. I asked what kind of fish, and she caught two to show us. They were Redspotted Grouper (アコウ、キジハタ), a luxury fish delicious as sashimi. They were feeding these fish until they get big enough for eating.
Further down along Ine Bay are a few more tourist spots.
Ine also had a sake brewery called Mukai Shuzo Sake Brewery (向井酒造株式会社) established in 1754. We didn’t tour the brewery. Just went to their gift shop and sampled their stuff. Their main sake brand is called Kyo-no-Haru (京の春). Nice big Japanese evergreen tree outside, 300 years old.
The brewery’s chief brewer is Mukai Kuniko (向井 久仁子) born in 1975 in Ine. She graduated from an agricultural college in Tokyo and took over from her dad. Her younger brother is the president of the company.
Closest train stations are Amanohashidate Station and Miyazu Station both on the Kyoto Tango Railway. From JR Kyoto and JR Osaka Stations, there are trains that go directly to Amanohashidate and Miyazu Stations.
From Amanohashidate Station or Miyazu Station, take a local bus (丹後海陸交通) bound for Ine Yubinkyoku-mae, Kama-nyu, or Kyoga-misaki ([経ヶ岬] [蒲入] [伊根郵便局前]). Get off at Ine Yubinkyoku-mae or nearby. Takes about an hour, bus fare is ¥400 from either station. Bus schedule in Japanese: http://www.tankai.jp/
On a map, Tango Peninsula (Tango Hanto 丹後半島) in northern Kyoto Prefecture looks like a short thumb sticking into the Sea of Japan. Some parts of the coast are quite dramatic or scenic as I found out when I once bicycled around it years ago. It took a day, and it’s much easier to enjoy the coastal scenery on a bicycle than from a bus. It’s a rural area so the cars are few.
Tango Peninsula is also famous for Tango chirimen silk crepe fabrics used in high-end kimono and obi sashes (丹後ちりめん). Mention “Tango” to the average Japanese, and they most likely will answer “chirimen?” Tango Peninsula is synonymous with chirimen silk fabrics made here since 300 years ago. In Oct. 2018, I revisited Tango Peninsula to visit chirimen factories. Tango Peninsula has the city of Kyotango and the towns of Ine and Yosano. Tango Peninsula location: https://goo.gl/maps/CNiXatqh1P92
When you tour the Tango area, you may hear about the big Kita-Tango Earthquake (北丹後地震) that struck the Tango area on March 7, 1927. About 70%–90% of buildings in Mineyama, Kyotango, and Yosano were destroyed by the quake or resulting fire. In Mineyama, 97% of buildings were destroyed and 22% of the population died. In Kyoto Prefecture, a total of 2,898 died and 7,806 injured.
*Note that “Tango” in this case is not pronounced like the tango dance. In Japanese, the “Tan” is pronounced more like “ton” or “tongue” in English.
Western Tango Peninsula is part of the San’in Kaigan Geopark (山陰海岸ジオパーク) that extends from the western half of Tango Peninsula (Kyotango) to Tottori Prefecture. San’in Kaigan Geopark is also a UNESCO Global Geopark. This part of Japan is geologically important because it has remnants of when Japan broke away from the Asian mainland. So Tango has something for geologists too. Notable natural formations include Byobu Iwa Rock which is a partition-like rock jutting out of the ocean and Tateiwa Rock.
Tateiwa Rock (“Standing Rock”) originally was a mass of magma that erupted and accumulated within the earthen strata below the surface. The magma didn’t break the surface. However, the surrounding strata was soft and eventually eroded to expose only this hard volcanic rock called “Tateiwa” (Standing Rock). It looks like slanted columns of rock fused together. Closest train station is Mineyama Station (Kyoto Tango Railway). Taxi available. Tateiwa location: https://goo.gl/maps/QDHmG1qArez
While cycling around Tango Peninsula years ago, I often heard the mechanical sounds of looms here and there. There are fewer of them now though.
The Tango region’s rainy and humid climate is ideal for chirimen production since silk does not work well in dry climates. So there are (or were) many chirimen factories (including mom-and-pop operations) here.
“Chirimen” (縮緬) literally means “shrunken or crimped fabric.” In the West, we call it “crepe fabric.” So it has a wrinkly or bumpy surface. We visited a few chirimen factories in Tango and talked to a few of the top people in the industry. We were very impressed by the fabric’s extremely high quality and their use around the world by major fashion brands.
Tamiya Raden (民谷螺鈿) had this stunning silk kimono on display for us. Raden means inlay (using shell, ivory, etc.). Typically, we think of lacquerware, but they do it on fabrics.
The above kimono took 2.5 years to make and is worth more than a Lamborghini or Rolls Royce.
Company president Tamiya Kyoji (民谷 共路) answered our many questions about this amazing kimono. His father Tamiya Katsuichiro (民谷勝一郎) took two years to develop and invent a method to inlay shell pieces in fabrics and showed their first example on a kimono obi sash in 1977.
The kimono was woven with pearly shell pieces from five species of oysters. Might be hard to see which parts of the kimono are the shell inlay, but the shiny parts are not the shell pieces. Very glittery.
Mr. Tamiya showed us a whole bunch of beautiful and innovative materials that they were working on. They also supply fabrics to world-famous luxury brands, but they can’t brag about it because of a non-disclosure agreement.
Above is a replica of an obi sash that was selected and worn by Empress Michiko. (The empress did not know who made the obi. She just liked the design.) http://tamiya-raden.jp/
Tayuh Textile Co., Ltd.
Tayuh Textile Co., Ltd. (Tayuh Kigyo 田勇機業株式会社) offers tours of their chirimen textile factory in the city of Kyotango.
Before the factory tour, Tayuh Kigyo’s third-generation company president Tamoi Hayato (田茂井 勇人) explained about their chirimen manufacturing process. He showed us this chirimen material having a woven design.
These looping punch cards called mon-gami (紋紙) program the Jacquard loom to weave the design on the fabric. The holes in the punch cards tell the loom which threads are to be raised or not during the weaving process. These punch cards can be made by computer now.
Above is 3,000 silk cocoons. That’s how much silk is needed to make the silk fabric for one kimono. One cocoon has 1200–1500 meters of silk thread. Since Japan produces very little silk, most are imported from China and Brazil. The Tango region consumes about one-third of Japan’s raw silk imports. We were told the quality of silk from China and Brazil is very good.
Tayuh Textile Co. makes almost everything, from the silk threads to the fabrics. We toured their impressive factory. Above are spools of silk being made into threads.
Above is a thread twister (hatchobori) to twist the horizontal silk threads (weft) 3,000 to 4,000 times. This is a key step and how chirimen gets its crimped surface. After being woven into the fabric, the highly twisted weft threads try to untwist, creating the crimping.
Tayuh Kigyo’s factory has 60 mechanized looms and 50 of them are Jacquard looms. Very noisy and very fast-moving. One employee monitors several looms. Mesmerizing to watch.
Within Tayuh Kigyo’s factory grounds, there’s also the Garden of Hosenju (蓬仙寿の庭) designed by Shigemori Mirei (1896–1975 重森三玲), a famous Japanese garden designer.
Tayuh Kigyo free factory tours (closed on Sat. and Sun.) Open: 8:30–18:00, Closed Sat. and Sun.
Visited a Tango chirimen wholesaler Yoshimura Shouten (株式会社 吉村商店 峰山支店). Founded in 1830 and based in Kyoto city, this is their branch shop in Mineyama, Kyotango. They are in this distinctive, traditional building rebuilt in 1930 after the big 1927 Kita-Tango earthquake.
They have a small office space on the right, meeting room on the left, a fireproof kura storehouse in the back, and lots of floor space for textile merchandise.
Above, Mineyama Branch Manager Yoshioka Hitoshi shows a PR poster of Bando Tamasaburo V posing with a Tango chirimen fabric in front of the shop’s fireproof kura storehouse. Tamasaburo V honored the store by posing here. He is one of the most famous and popular kabuki actors in Japan and Living National Treasure. He loves Tango chirimen fabrics, and kabuki costumes also use Tango chirimen.
Yoshimura Shouten also creates its own designs like this “Hollywood chirimen” prototype with the the likeness of Audrey Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe.
Above, a chirimen fabric inspector uses a light box to carefully check for any defects and flaws in the material. Any defects in the material will reduce its value and the fabric (or kimono) will be sold for less.
Although Yoshimura Shouten is mainly a wholesaler, they also sell fabrics to individuals. They offer tours of their shop, but reservations (in Japanese) are required.
Kotohira Jinja Shrine (nicknamed Konpira-san 金刀比羅神社) in Kyotango greatly benefited from the patronage of rich, local Tango chirimen makers and merchants. Its headquarters shrine is Kotohira-gu Shrine in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku.
It mainly worships Konpira (or Kompira), the god who protects sailors, fishermen, ocean transport, navy personnel, and other seafaring people. People also pray here for business prosperity, family safety, scholastic excellence, safe childbirth, recovery from illness, and more. The shrine was mosty destroyed by the 1927 Kita-Tango earthquake so most of the current buildings were rebuilt in the 1930s.
The shrine’s Reisai Festival (例祭) is held on the second Sunday in Oct. when five floats (yatai 屋台) are pulled along the streets near the shrine and a large mikoshi portable shrine is also carried around. It used to have 30 ornate festival floats, but they were sadly destroyed by the 1927 earthquake.
Kotohira Shrine has a unique affiliate shrine named “Kishima Shrine” (木島神社) which is the left half of the shrine above. (The right-half shrine is Sarutahiko Shrine [猿田彦神社] for the god of transportation and directions.)
Kishima Shrine is unique in Japan for two koma-neko cat guardians (狛猫). Shrines usually have koma-inu lion-dog guardians (to ward off evil spirits), but only this shrine in all of Japan has cat guardians instead.
Kishima Shrine has koma-neko cat guardians because silk farmers in the 19th century kept cats to protect their precious silkworms and cocoons from rats. Rats were a major problem for the silk industry since they ate the silk cocoons and worms. So cats saved the local silk industry.
The koma-neko cat guardian statues were donated in 1832 by silk merchants and wholesalers such as the Tonomura family (外村家一族、岩滝のちりめん問屋、山家屋の小室利七) who were textile merchants from Higashi-Omi (Gokasho), Shiga Prefecture.
Our final Tango chirimen stop was the Chirimen Kaido Road (ちりめん街道), a Tango chirimen manufacturing area and distribution center in the former castle town of Yosano. The chirimen was mainly shipped to the city (Kyoto). There was a railway to Kyoto city where the fabrics would be sold, dyed, or sewn into kimono.
Chirimen Kaido Road has an easy walking route to see traditional buildings still remaining.
One home on the Chirimen Kaido Road the public can enter is the Former Bito Family Merchant’s House (Kyu-Bitoke 旧尾藤家). The Bito family was a raw silk and chirimen wholesaler since the Edo Period. Very prominent and rich local family who also became active in local government and business during the Meiji Period. The house was originally a farmhouse built and expanded during 1863 to 1930. http://www.yosano.or.jp/chirimen-kaido/?page_id=162
This part of the house had a Japanese-style first floor, and a Western-style (Spanish) second floor. Built in 1928 and the most impressive part of the house.
The Japanese-style first floor used very expensive materials. These thin wood pillars are shochikubai (matsu pine, bamboo, and ume plum tree).
The 1st floor’s ceiling wood is very rare, made of yaku-sugi cedar wood (屋久杉). Yaku-sugi is hundreds of years old, native to Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, and now illegal to cut down.
Our guide, Aoki Jun’ichi, from Yosano Tourist Association, showed this exterior lattice design featuring the kanji character for “Tan” (from “Tango” 丹後) which is similar (by no coincidence in this case) to the kanji character for “yen” (円).
This home above housed a chirimen factory and these windows let in light and air, but kept out prying eyes from passersby in the old days (when people were shorter I guess). Chirimen makers had secrets to keep.
Our walking tour ended at the Yosano Town Hall’s Kaya Branch which used to be a train station on the Kaya Railway. Sure learned a lot about Tango chirimen. This Tango visit has forever changed my image and knowledge of it.
One thing we missed seeing was the Tango Chirimen History Museum (Tango Chirimen Rekishi-kan 丹後ちりめん歴史館) housed in a former textile factory. It is 10 min. by car from Chirimen Kaido. Free admission.
Shorenkan Yoshinoya (昭恋館よ志のや) is a hot spring ryokan on the Tango Peninsula (Kyotango) where we stayed for one night. Founded in 1928, it has 11 guest rooms. The ryokan has been patronized by Japanese celebrities since the 1970s. It costs ¥17,000 to ¥18,000 per person per night including dinner and breakfast. However, during crab season (Nov. to March), the price can go up to ¥30,000 or more. This ryokan is proud of its crab cuisine.
Shorenkan Yoshinoya ryokan is probably more famous for its food, especially crab while it’s in season (Nov. to March). But it wasn’t crab season when we were there in Oct. so we didn’t have any crab. But the food was still excellent.
Another highlight of Shorenkan Yoshinoya was the two hot spring baths delightfully designed by an American. Even the dressing room for the bath named “Shoren-no-Yu” (昭恋の湯) was impressive. (“Shoren” means “Love of the Showa Period.” And “Yu” means hot spring water.) As you can see, the design was very nice. These baths are not segregated so they set different bathing hours for men and women.
The Shoren-no-Yu (昭恋の湯) bath house was originally an abandoned building that was renovated into a bath with a high ceiling and garden. Most everything was designed by Alexander Wilds and his artist wife Yukiko Oka. Wilds is an American sculptor from New Orleans living in Japan since 1985. He currently teaches art at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture. (See his interview below.)
Since the ryokan celebrates the Showa Period (implied by the name “Shorenkan”), Alexander aimed to make the bath have a Showa/Taisho Period feel. It was a tough job because they had to strip this abandoned house and haul everything in and out manually. No accessible road so they had to roll the wooden barrel tub to the building by hand (so the tub couldn’t be rectangular).
The ryokan’s other bath was named “Vidro-no-Yu” (ビードロの湯), also designed and built by Alexander Wilds and his artist wife Yukiko Oka. The glass windows were a design highlight (hard to see here because of the steam and dark night). The glass door opens to a balcony with a bath.
It was great that we could try these two different baths during our overnight stay. The hot spring water supposed to lower your blood pressure and relax you.
Directions Nearest station is Amino Station (Kyoto Tango Railway). The ryokan can pick you up at the station for a free ride (20 min.). Inform the ryokan by the day before you arrive. Check-in after 2 pm, check out by 11 am. Location: https://goo.gl/maps/hAHehEVDsft
Alexander Wilds Interview
I got in touch with Alexander Wilds by email in Nov. 2018 and he was gracious enough to answer my questions about Shorenkan Yoshinoya’s baths.
For Shoren-no-Yu, did you design everything? If not, which parts did you design? I designed and built almost all, including the garden. I did not make the shelves for holding clothes in the changing room. Those were made by my friend Mr. Sashimi of Shimane Prefecture. There is also a stained glass window or two by my mother. A lot of the “design” is invisible—the plumbing, working out water delivery and recycling.
What was your design concept behind Shoren-no-Yu? Well, that is difficult to answer. I was given a nearly impossible task—take an abandoned house with no access to road or crane (everything had to be carried from the street up the mountain by hand) and convert it into a world-class onsen (hot spring bath) with three months working time, start to finish. So I stripped the old building down to the bones, and used the parts left over to make the onsen. It is essentially made from scrap wood and materials. The form is what was already there, plus whatever I could make with whatever I had. The Hotel, as the name implies, is a celebration of Showa Period design, so I was aiming to make a beautiful bath in a Taisho/Showa period feeling with modern flair.
What are the main design or architectural features of Shoren-no-Yu? I am not sure what to say—what you see is what you get. The layout was dictated by the foundations already there. The high ceiling is what remains from demolishing the second floor, the shower area is where the old staircase was, etc.
Where did you get your design ideas for Shoren-no-Yu or what inspired the design of Shoren-no-Yu? Is it reminiscent of the early Showa Period? A blend of Japanese and Western elements? I am a sculptor by trade and training, meaning, it is all about problem solving—one has an objective (make a beautiful onsen), and whatever materials are at hand (an abandoned derelict house), and a few tools. So the design concept is take the pile of scrap and build what you can, and make it as beautiful as possible. The “design” is the art of the art—creative problem solving, with a good sense of proportion, sensitivity for texture, color, etc. For example, I had to fill in a huge space where the garden is; I had a mountain of roofing tiles to get rid of; the garden is built of roofing tiles. That sort of thing. By the way, the reason that the bath itself is a round wooden tub is so that it could be rolled up the mountain.
The wood pillars and beams were also designed by you? Yes. The beams were all straight. I cut them into curves with a small bandsaw and then glued/bolted them back together to make arches (like I said, I am a sculptor).
Did you also create the ceramic tiles? The artwork as well? I had the tiles in my pile leftover from another project—they are Mexican.
What was your design concept behind Vidro-no-Yu? (Does Vidro mean “glass” in Portuguese?) Vidro-no-Yu’s name comes from the widows. We did not name anything—that came from the owners. Those are all by my wife, Yukiko Oka. That bath is a 50/50 design by us. The old bath was dingy and dirty, so we renovated it. They wanted a rooftop bath, and it could only go in one place, and there was a limited amount of water, so I made the baths smaller to have enough water for the outdoor bath. Again, it was take what you got, and make what you can. I am quite proud of that work, by the way. Starting a design from scratch is child’s play—converting old baths into works of beauty takes much more creativity. The name comes in respect for my wife, Yukiko Oka, and her designs. She is the artistic genius in the house. She has great taste and imagination, and I have good problem-solving skills. We make a great team that that sort of work.
How did Yoshinoya find you or how did they decide to have you design the baths? I was living in Omori-Ginzan (Shimane Prefecture) where I had built an art gallery from old houses. Mr. Matsuba Daikichi (Gungendo) introduced me to Mr. Fukuyama who asked me to build an onsen in similar taste and style.
When did this design project start and end? Shoren is 2003, Vidro is 2005. Both began in June when the hotel closes for the season, and opened November 1 for the beginning of crab seson.
What is your artistic/design/architectural background? I am just a sculptor (Google my name and see my work, also for Yukiko Oka). I have been in Japan since 1985 studying art and design. I do not consciously mix Japan and the West, old and new. I do not copy, nor do I insist on originality. I just make whatever I make as best I can using whatever I have—no method, no guru.
What other rooms or interiors have you designed in Japan that the public can see? All other architecture is in Shimane, mostly in Iwami-Ginzan. There are two buildings (I do not know current names) and the Abe House which belongs to Gungendo and guests can stay there (for a fee).
You teach in Yamanashi Prefecture? I currently live in Yamanashi, but I will retire in March and return to western Japan (Hagi, Yamaguchi) where I hope to return to art and architecture. I will hang out my shingle and open for business April 1, 2019.
Any final remarks? I have made art all my life, and have loved Japanese art and design since I was a little boy. I am neither rich nor famous, but I am the luckiest man alive—I get to spend my life doing what I love, making beautiful things.
On the northern and less crowded part of the JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo is Sugamo Station. Sugamo is famous for the Jizo-Dori shopping street near the train station. Dubbed the “Grandma’s Harajuku,” Jizo-Dori is supposedly where the elderly do their fashion shopping. Although shops do cater to the older generation, it is also lined with about 200 restaurants, confection shops, and other businesses for local residents. It still feels more like a local neighborhood than a touristy one.
About 800 meters long, Sugamo Jizo-Dori street (巣鴨地蔵通) was named after the large Jizo bodhisattva statue at Shinshoji Temple (眞性寺) at Jizo-Dori’s entrance. Cast in 1714, this Jizo was one of the “Six Jizo of Edo” placed on the main gateway roads from Edo (Tokyo) during the 18th century as a protector of travelers against illness. Sugamo was along the old Nakasendo Road to Kyoto. In 1891, another Jizo was added to Jizo-Dori when the famous Koganji Temple moved here.
Jizo is popularly known as the protector of children (especially deceased children who died before their parents), travelers, and firefighters. He is also the saviour of souls suffering in the underworld or hell. Commonly found in Japan on roadsides and graves, Jizo statues are usually depicted as a small Buddhist monk with a shaved head, halo, and staff. There are actually many kinds of Jizo with different powers, and a unique one is at Koganji Temple, nicknamed “Togenuki Jizo.”
Koganji Temple (高岩寺) is a short walk from the entrance of Jizo-Dori street and Sugamo’s main attraction. Although it’s not a huge nor architecturally significant Buddhist temple, it’s very popular and famous as a healing temple backed by intriguing Jizo stories of health miracles.
Koganji is a Soto Zen Buddhist temple with its own congregation, but most worshippers are outsiders. Jizo-Dori and Koganji see 8 million visitors annually. Over 100,000 come on the temple’s Ennichi festival days (縁日) held monthly on the 4th, 14th, and 24th when they have food and souvenir stalls along Jizo-Dori street. The Ennichi festival aims to have people attain a closer connection with Jizo. It originated when the temple decided to allow souvenir stalls along the path to the temple to attract visitors since Sugamo was still a backwater when Koganji moved here in 1891. These souvenir stalls morphed into the many shops and eateries now on Jizo-dori street.
The temple has nine priests including the head/resident priest and four live-in college trainees who are studying to take over their own temples back home. The main temple hall (Hondo) is open from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm (or until 8:00 pm on festival days).
One thing you need to know is that the temple is strictly non-smoking. In fact, the entire Jizo-Dori street prohibits smoking, thanks to the tireless efforts of Koganji’s head and resident priest, Rev. Akinori Kuruma. When I first requested an interview, the first thing he told me before anything else was, “Smoking is not allowed at Koganji. Are you okay with that?” I don’t smoke so it wasn’t a problem. More about him later.
Koganji Temple is most interesting for its legends, stories, and beliefs about promoting good health and prolonging human life. It’s what everyone wants, so no wonder it’s such a popular temple. Originally established in Kanda in 1596 as a Soto Zen Buddhist temple, Koganji was consumed by the Great Meireki Fire in 1657 and moved to present-day Ueno where it started to worship Jizo. Due to urban redevelopment, it was later forced to relocate to its present location in Sugamo in 1891. The temple was destroyed during the war in 1945 and the current Hondo main hall was rebuilt in 1958.
Koganji Temple’s principal object of worship is Togenuki Jizo. “Togenuki” literally means “thorn extraction,” an attention-grabbing name for a one-of-a-kind Jizo. Surprisingly, Koganji’s Togenuki Jizo is not a statue. And it’s not the stone statue you see people washing right outside the temple hall.
Koganji’s thorn-extraction Jizo legend (or truth) starts in May 1713 in Koishikawa, Edo (Tokyo) with the Jizo believer wife of a samurai named Tatsuki (or Tatsuke) Matashiro (田付又四郎). After giving birth to a boy, she fell ill and was near death. Doctors couldn’t do anything. On her deathbed, she confessed that a vengeful spirit had cursed her family so the women in her family would not live beyond age 25. Even her older sister had died at 25.
Husband Matashiro kept praying for her until one night a black-robed monk appeared in his dream. The monk told him to imprint a Jizo image on 10,000 small pieces of paper to be floated on the river. When he awoke from the dream, he found a small wooden stamp at his pillow which he used to imprint the Jizo image on the paper. This paper talisman was called “omikage” (御影). While praying, he floated the 10,000 imprinted pieces of paper from Ryogoku Bridge over Sumida River.
Next morning, his wife told him that she saw the God of Death being booted out by a black-robed monk with his staff. The wife gradually got better and recovered completely by November the same year. She never got sick again. It was essential to sincerely believe in the healing powers of Jizo, otherwise there would be no miracles. Both the wife and husband were devout Jizo believers.
Later, Matashiro talked about his wife’s miraculous recovery at an acquaintance’s house where a Buddhist priest named Saijun (西順) was there. Saijun asked for a Jizo-imprinted omikage paper talisman, and Matashiro gave him two. This priest happened to be a regular visitor to the Edo residence of the famous Mori samurai clan from Choshu (Yamaguchi Prefecture).
One day in 1715, a housemaid working at the Mori clan’s Edo residence accidentally swallowed a broken needle she had put in her mouth while sewing. The needle caused her much pain in her throat and stomach. The doctor could do nothing. Priest Saijun then came and told her to swallow the small, Jizo-imprinted paper talisman with a cup of water. The housemaid did so and soon threw up and out came the little paper talisman with the needle stuck in it. This where the name “Togenuki” comes from since it literally means, “thorn extraction.” This story was actually written by Matashiro himself in 1728 and the temple has a written record of it. So it could well be a true story. This Jizo is also called the “Life-Prolonging Jizo.”
The temple soon started offering these tiny omikage paper talismans imprinted with a Jizo image. Koganji’s miracle stories spread throughout Japan, and small woodblocks were made to imprint the Jizo image on small paper pieces. The ritual of floating 10,000 Jizo paper talismans on waterways spread.
And so Koganji Temple’s main object of worship is just a tiny imprint of Togenuki Jizo’s likeness on a piece of paper smaller than a postage stamp. It is housed in a small chamber at the top of the temple’s main altar. A “hidden Buddha” not shown to the public. The good news is that the temple offers Jizo paper talismans imprinted with the same Togenuki Jizo image. Inside the main worship hall, ask for “omikage.” Open the small envelope and find five Jizo paper talismans. (Not to be shown online or publicly.) You can stick it on your body where you have pain or even swallow it. Remember, you need to believe in Jizo for it to work…
Koganji’s more visible object of worship is the Arai Kannon (Washable Kannon 洗い観音) standing outside on left side of the Hondo worship hall. People might mistake this as the Togenuki Jizo since it is usually crowded with people and it is an outdoor stone statue like a Jizo. But if you look carefully at the head, it is not shaven. It is a female-like (unisex actually) Kannon statue. You may see a line of people waiting to wash and wipe the Arai Kannon with water and a towel. They are washing the part of the Kannon’s body where they want to heal their own bodies.
This popular Arai Kannon originated in 1657 when Koganji Temple member Yaneya Kiheiji (屋根屋喜平次) donated the statue to the temple in memory of his wife who died in the Great Meireki Fire that year. Worshippers eventually started to believe that the part of the statue they washed would heal that part on their own body. They used a hand brush and water to wash the Kannon statue. Over the centuries, the statue became worn and it was finally replaced with a new Kannon statue donated in November 1992 by the late temple patron and Buddhist merchandise seller Nakahori Yoshie (中堀義江) and sculpted by Yatsuyanagi Naoki (八柳尚樹). To reduce wear, worshippers now use a towel (sold for ¥100 on site) instead of a brush to wash the Arai Kannon statue. The original Arai Kannon statue is kept in a small chamber right behind the current statue. The face is totally worn out.
The next health story is more modern and recent, centering on Rev. Akinori Kuruma (来馬 明規), Koganji’s 29th-generation head and resident priest. A licensed medical doctor specializing in cardiology, Rev. Kuruma graduated from the renown Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and once did research at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, so his English is quite good. He originally had no intention to take over the temple from his priest father, but as fate had it, he left the medical profession and became a Buddhist priest in 2005 after his father died.
“I wanted to somehow incorporate my medical background in my new occupation,” he says. He promptly started a no-smoking movement and pushed for the installation of AEDs (automated external defibrillator) along Jizo-Dori street. Smoking was banned at Koganji, but it took a while to convince the merchants of Jizo-Dori to ban smoking.
The restaurants feared that they would see fewer customers if they went smoke-free. However, as Jizo-Dori slowly went smoke-free, they noticed that more mothers with young children started visiting. That convinced shop owners to go smoke-free and even the tobacco shop was shuttered and cigarette vending machines removed. Rev. Kuruma has done such an admirable job.
But outside Jizo-Dori, it’s still an uphill battle against smoking. Rev. Kuruma openly protested against Toshima Ward (where Koganji is located) having an ineffective outdoor smoking area on the east side of Ikebukuro Station in June 2013 even though Toshima Ward had been designated as a World Health Organization-certified Safe Community in Nov. 2012. Also, many priests in his own sect and other Buddhist sects in Japan and around the world smoke as well, much to his disdain. Rev. Kuruma continues to be an anti-smoking activist and lectures all over Japan as a medical doctor and priest about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.
Rev. Kuruma was also an early adopter of AEDs in 2005 when they were still rare and not many people knew about it. It was in 2005 when Japan allowed non-medical personnel to also use AEDs. That’s when it started to spread and AEDs were soon installed at Koganji and Jizo-Dori. Jizo-Dori became an AED model case for other shopping neighborhoods that followed suit.
In 2007, Koganji started AED/CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) classes at its social hall. Rev. Kuruma is a certified AED/CPR instructor and hundreds of local merchants and residents have taken Konganji’s AED/CPR classes. Word has spread and he also conducts AED/CPR classes for other organizations including Buddhist temples. The temple’s AED has even once saved a life or two on Jizo-Dori street.
Since 1959, the temple also has a free counseling center manned by lawyers, social workers, priests, psychologists, and other professional counselors to help with people’s problems. Many people find a solution just by talking to someone about their problems. Rev. Kuruma believes that Buddhist temples must integrate with the local community and help people while they are still alive. (Buddhist temples are typically viewed as a place for the deceased only.)
By religiously and medically advocating good health and prolonged life, Rev. Kuruma has really taken Koganji’s mission up to a new level. The temple has become a bastion for good health and longer life. A rare Buddhist temple indeed.
Koganji Temple’s Major Events
Ennichi Festival Days: On the 4th, 14th, and 24th of every month. (Major festivals [Taisai] on Jan. 24, May 24, and Sept. 24.)
Early Morning Prayers every morning at 6:30 a.m.–6:45 a.m. in the temple.
New Year’s services (30-min.) on Jan. 1st (6:00 a.m.) and 2nd–3rd (6:30 a.m.).
Setsubun Bean-Throwing Festival on Feb. 3rd at 4:00 p.m.
*Special thanks to Rev. Akinori Kuruma for his kind cooperation for this article.
*This article is an expanded version of my article published in via magazine, the onboard magazine of the Airport Limousine bus in the Tokyo area and lobby magazine at all branches of Mizuho Bank in Japan.