Enku And His Pledge To Carve - An Untold Story

‘’His dedication to spreading his faith and creating icons for the people to use in their homes was truly staggering’’

The 17th century man called Enku was no ordinary Japanese Buddhist monk. He was dedicated to carving sublime sculptures and comforting the families of those who had lost loved ones. A memorial to his life is held in the city that he was born. That happens to be Seki in Gifu Prefecture. A stroll through the museum dedicated to his work reveals why he matters, and how one man was able to touch the lives of so many.


Much of his life is shrouded in mystery, however. According to legend, he pledged to carve 120,000 figures. Today, there are over five thousand works attributed to him, but nobody knows how many were actually made. They are scattered throughout Japan. Yet, most are located in Gifu Prefecture. It is clear that the man was an eccentric that put his study of spirituality into practice. The scope of his work is nothing less than remarkable.

Enku sculpture in Seki
Enku sculpture in Seki

Enku’s sculptures were particularly different to those made at that time. According to the tour guide, the figures were made from one large block of wood. They are simple, rather dark and uncolored. This is in contrast to the work made by his peers. Like most innovators, he lived a life which defied the mainstream. He was able to travel by creating figures in exchange for food and a place to stay. Enku traversed the islands of Japan from north to south and carved sculptures for the families of farmers who had died.

Terry Kerns is an Australian artist who now lives in Japan. "I found many things interesting about Enku: the progression of his style from representation to abstraction; the speed at which he worked and the sheer volume of work that he produced throughout his life. His dedication to spreading his faith and creating icons for people to use in their homes was truly staggering. The modern-day evangelists are found sorely wanting when compared to his efforts", he said.

Enku Museum, Seki
Enku Museum, Seki

Enku was indeed a pioneer and innovator of sculpture in a period of its relative stagnation, and his legacy lives on. He may have died in 1695; however, he has not been forgotten. His museum is humble and beautiful and located away from the busier parts of the city. Mr Kerns says "the work was spaced well, allowing for easy viewing of the pieces and the staff were very helpful. I thought it was very peaceful and enjoyable".

In addition to the helpful staff that was well versed on the history of the sculptor, there are also addition sights to view. For example, there is a temple filled with replicas and some of his original work held just a short drive away from the museum. There are a multitude of carvings which include Deities and beings from ancient Japanese folktales in addition to the recognizable image of the Buddha. It is very welcoming and due to the rurality of the building, unlike some other cultural attractions, maintains a quiet atmosphere.

Enku’s grave was built a few minutes’ walk away from the museum. It is a modest memorial housed between the graves of other monks. This attraction is not to be missed for those individuals interested in the cultural history of Japan, and in particular Buddhism and sculpture. Seki can be easily navigated around and visited from either Gifu or Nagoya City. You will feel glad you visited by the end of the day. I guarantee it.

Website (in Japanese)http://www.city.seki.lg.jp/0000001466.html

Address : 185 Ikejiri, Seki, Gifu Prefecture 501-3264

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