Japan has its fair share of temples. In 2013, the Agency for Cultural Affairs had approximately 80,000 temples registered across the country and the same is true for shrines, with a similar number believed to be in operation. Many visitors to Japan will see the most famous examples: Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo, Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto or Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island. For tourists and for long-term residents of Japan alike, it’s possible to feel a certain amount of fatigue when it comes to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, especially when you see so many in your daily life. They often blend in among local neighbourhoods, looking incongruous among the metropolitan landscape. When you first come to Japan, you are constantly tempted to have a wander around each and every temple you come across. However, after the initial curiosity has worn off, many tourists won’t bat an eyelid when passing one in the street.
Amongst these 80,000 temples, there lurks a great number with hidden secrets and attractions. The best example of this is Tamagawa Daishi or the Gyokushin Mitsuin temple. Located about 10 minutes walking distance from the innocuous Futako-Tamagawa station on the Den-en-toshi line, this temple is relatively unknown but contains a big secret. Tucked away near the Tama river in the seemingly-endless Setagaya ward, Tamagawa Daishi is tricky to find, but worth the effort. Beneath the ordinary temple lies a 100-metre long tunnel system that has existed since 1934. Don’t be put off, a folklore states that the long tunnel represents the Buddha’s intestines, yet this is a true hidden delight in Tokyo.
From Futako-Tamagawa station, head North away from the Tama river and walk past the ‘Dogwood Plaza’ shopping mall. The temple is on a road off the left hand side of Tamagawa-Dori, very near to a Circle K convenience store. The exterior resembles like any other of the 80,000 temples across Japan but the inside is fantastically unique. The small garden surrounding the temple is definitely worth a look but when you’ve had enough, head up the steps to the main temple. Don’t forget to put 100 yen as a donation, take off your shoes and place them in the shoe rack with the others before stepping inside and onto the mat.
Once inside you’ll probably be approached by someone who works at the temple – they’ll give you a piece of paper that explains what to do if you want to go down into the tunnels. The steps that descend into the dark are on the left hand side directly after you enter – put on a pair of the slip-on shoes from the box and put another 100 yen into the box, then take your first cautious steps.
The instructions urge you to keep your right hand close and in-touch with the wall at all times. This is strongly recommended since a few paces after there is absolutely no light and it’s easy to get confused. There aren’t any steps after the initial few that you can see from the main room. The entire concourse is all ramped so don’t worry about stumbling. Take your time feeling your way along the wall – there are a few turns and before long you’ll struggle to conceptualise where exactly you are, but after a couple of minutes a faint light will emerge. What is buried in the candle-lit chamber beneath Tamagawa Daishi is hard to describe, and impossible to show as no photos are allowed within the tunnels.
Photo: Guilhem Vellut on Flickr
Take my word for it, however, it is a sight you won’t forget in a hurry. The entire exploration beneath the temple takes about 10-15 minutes (provided you don’t get lost) and though a little far out of the way from central Tokyo, it is a great find. Just be warned, that it might be difficult for those who are claustrophobic. When you’ve exited the tunnels, you can head back to the station for a lovely walk along the Tama river – enjoying as much light and space as possible, or head to the tropical oasis that is Todoroki Ravine Valley, just a few stops away. Regardless of what you do next, you will never look at a temple the same way again.