Tokyo's Hidden Daibutsu: the Subtly Exquisite Buddha Statue of Jōren Temple
The Daibutsu (Great Buddha / 大仏) of Japan rank among the oldest, largest and most impressive in the world. Millions of the faithful, hopeful or just curious from around the globe flock to these gigantic images each year. There are beautiful Daibutsu in Aomori (青森) in northern Tohoku, and Fukuoka (福岡) on the island of Kyushu in the southwest. The ancient capital cities of Kamakura (鎌倉) and Nara (奈良) both boast ancient awe-inspiring Daibutsu that are known around the world, and serve as icons of Japanese culture itself.
But unbeknownst to most people there’s a very impressive Daibutsu right in Japan’s capital. While not exactly hidden, it takes a little effort and willingness to get off the beaten path: At the northern edge of Tokyo near the border with Saitama Prefecture sits quiet Itabashi Ward, and in the northwest part of that ward is Jōren Temple (Jōrenji, 乗蓮寺). Find Jōrenji and you'll see a subtly exquisite, matte-black Daibutsu. Depicted in the lotus position, his hands held in a gesture of peace, the Jōrenji Daibutsu is 13 meters high and weighs 30 tons; it’s the third-largest bronze statue of Siddhartha in Japan, but one of the least well known.
Images of Buddha abound in Japan, from ceramic, junk-shop nick-nacks coated with provincial backstreet dust to polished handcrafted works of art in posh urban boutiques. There are scrolls, paintings, prints: both woodblock and silkscreen, along with statues and carvings of all kinds and sizes of Buddha throughout the 6,000+ island archipelago.
Tokyo Daibutsu was erected on the grounds of Jōren Temple in 1977 as a spiritual bulwark against warfare and natural disaster.
The temple itself was built near the end of the 14th century, to further the teachings of the Jōdo Sect in the area, and in time gained a following of influential locals such as Itabashi Shinano Moriyasuke (板橋信濃守忠康), whose family had a long relationship with the House of Tokugawa.
Its location along the Nakasendo Road near a point where the road crossed the Ara River (Arakawa / 荒川) over the Ita Bridge (Itabashi, 板橋) on the city’s outskirts was an ideal location. The ancient mountain road had been growing in importance with the rise of Edo (江戸 - the old name of Tokyo) and the Tokugawa Shogunate, and would become one of five highways leading into Edo known as Gokaido (五街道) the official roads into the capital.
Itabashi was the location of the first of 69 stations along the road from Edo to Kyoto (or the last before Edo from Kyoto), and served as a popular resting place for travelers. Once, the eighth shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate himself, Tokugawa Yoshimune (徳川 吉宗), took shelter in the temple from a sudden rainstorm while out falconry hunting.
Because so many people traveled on this road, the temple became known from Tokyo to Kyoto, and beyond. In 1591 Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) granted the temple ownership of the land and tax exempt status.
In 1973 the temple was relocated when modern infrastructure demands led to a widening of National Route 17, and the construction of the Shuto Expressway. A new (current) site was found a few kilometers west of the original location on ground which was once part of Akatsuka Castle’s (赤塚城) outer citadel. The “castle” was probably more of a fort and had been built atop a fluvial terrace, along the northern edge of the Musashino Plateau, during a time of great upheaval before unification of Japan, known as the Sengoku Period (戦国時代).
Situated on the outskirts of Edo facing north, looking out over the Ara River and the Kanto Plain beyond, it would have been a key defensive position for whoever controlled it. Now there’s only a small stone marker in Akatsuka Jōshi Park (赤塚城址公園), a shady park next to Jōren Temple, that’s left to tell of the fort’s existence.
Aside from the Daibutsu, the temple grounds contain a number of smaller images of Buddha and other spiritual and interesting artifacts. At the temple’s gate at the front entrance visitors can see an eerie image of Enma Dai-Ō (閻魔大王), the ruler of hell. There’s also an even more eerie image of Datsue-ba (奪衣婆), the hellish hag who along with another buddhist demon named Keneō (懸衣翁) judge the sins of the newly deceased after they’ve crossed the Sanzu River (三途の川), the river which separates the worlds of the living and the dead.
There’s a monument to a regional famine in the 19th century and plenty of little white images of Jizō (地蔵) placed around the grounds. There’s a temple bell, images of the Seven Gods of Fortune (Shichifukujin / 七福神), the jovial monk Hotei (布袋) and a demon known simply as Gaman Oni (がまんの鬼), or the demon who can withstand anything!
Narimasu Station on the Tobu-Tojo Line is a little over a thousand meter walk while Shimo-akatsuka on the same line (most direct route) is about 1,500 meters away. Northeast of the temple is Shin-takashimadaira on the Mita line, also about 1,500 meters away. Taxis are easy to catch from Narimasu or Shimo-akatsuka stations but not Shin-takashimadaira.
Also, while in the area, check out the Itabashi Akatsuka Botanical Garden.