It's rare to find historical sites in Japan that haven't been reconstructed several times, much less ones that were built in 1160. Nestled away in a quiet suburban area of Fukushima's Iwaki City is Shiramizu Amida Temple, a simple wooden hall surrounded by carefully designed gardens and ponds. Beautiful in every season, the temple really shines in late autumn.
Between November 7-15, the temple ground's already stunning fall foliage becomes even more so during its yearly light up event. Open year round, the temple is usually closed at night. But for this one week, the temple grounds are spectacularly lit by an award-winning lighting team from Tokyo. Vibrant reds and yellows pop against the dark backdrop of Iwaki's night sky. The temple and gardens seem to float, reflecting in the still black waters, a perfect mirror looking almost like another world. The normally quiet district bustles with tourists, photographers, and food stands. Taking in the view with a hot cup of amazake or a steamed nikuman bun in the cold night is one of my favorite experiences I've had here in Japan.
Built by Princess Toku, the widow of Oushu Fujiwara clan feudal lord Iwaki Norimichi, Shiramizu Amida-do was finished near the end of the Heian Period, the height of classical Japan's imperial court culture. To put that in perspective, this time in the Heian Period saw Japan's first novels, such as The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. It's when the kana system of Japanese writing brought literacy to the common people. The Heian Period saw the rise of the samurai military class, and Japan hadn't even really come up with a system of currency yet. This is all to say that Shiramizau Amida-do has been around for a very long time, and the fact that anyone can visit it and walk around without fighting surging crowds of tourists is really incredible.
The temple is the oldest standing structure in Iwaki, and one of the oldest in Japan. It was designated a national treasure in 1952. In fact, it's the only building in Fukushima to be designated a national treasure, putting it in the company of Iwate's Golden Hall, Kyoto's Byōdō-in Phoenix Hall, and Nara's Tōdai-ji Great Buddha Hall.
Entering the grounds and crossing the ponds, you pass over two traditional bridges, painted in classic orange and black. During less cold months, you can watch families of ducks swimming around and toss them food. On arriving in the inner grounds, one of the first sights you notice is a massive yellow ginkgo tree, planted when the temple's construction was completed. Standing at the base of it without a modern building in sight, smelling incense while listening to a priest reading sutras, it's easy to transport yourself back hundreds of years when the temple offered quiet refuge for local royalty.
Inside the temple are enshrined five Buddhist statues. The primary figure is Amitābha (or, in Japanese Amida, hence the name). On either side of the central alter are reconstructed mandala similar to those that once decorated the ceiling. There's smaller wooden statues of Kannon Bosatsu, Seishi Bosatsu, Jikoku Tenno, and Tamon Tenno. During the nightly light up event, the temple's resident priests give readings and talks about Buddhist concepts inside the small, single room.
On any day you visit, light up or not, the highlight of the temple is its gardens. Built in the style of Pure Land Buddhism, which seeks to create heaven on earth through the use of natural features and seasonal beauty, visitors are free to enjoy them even when the temple itself is closed. In the summer, hundreds of lotus flowers bloom in the pond, which led one writer to compare the scenery to the mythical Xanadu. In spring, cherry blossoms dot the landscape with fluttering petals. Whatever the season, you can walk around the gardens, feeding ducks and koi while families play in the park nearby. Princess Toku designed the temple as a bastion of serenity and peace. Even today, 855 years later, the calm atmosphere and abundant nature make it a wonderful place to visit at any time.
Shiramizu Amida Temple is located at:
219 Hirohata, Shiramizu-machi, Uchigo, Iwaki City
Easily accessible by car or by taking a bus from Uchigo Station on the JR Joban line. Open from 8:30 – 4:00 April to October, and 8:30 – 3:30 November to March, closed on the 4th Wednesday of the month, and during bad weather and holidays. Admission to the inner temple grounds is 400 yen.
You can find information in English here: http://www.city.iwaki.fukushima.jp/gaikokugo/english/3846/4552/4990/004520.html
All photos by Martin Roberts.