Ep. 077: A Temple on the Powder River

Kokawa-dera, Number Three of Japan's Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

Let's continue on down the pilgrim's path from Kimii-dera and visit Number 3 of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage in this episode of


Leaving Kimii-dera, my friend Gavin and I trained into Wakayama City and then east to Kokawa-dera, #3 on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.

It's a flat, pleasant walk from the station, and the temple stretches out along the titular Kokawa, or "Powder (or Dusty) River." (There was a town of that name there, too, but in 2005 it was merged with several others into Kinokawa City.)

It's big; unlike Kimii-dera, it's unconfined by topography, and there are large spaces between quite a few of the buildings.

The Chumon (Central Gate) at Kokawa-dera


The story is that a hunter, one Ootomo no Kujiko, was toodling around in the area in 770 when he found a "stream of light" running through the forest, and decided it would be a good place to build a hut. Next thing ya know, a kid shows up and asks if he can stick around; Kujiko agrees. So the kid offers to carve a statue of the Thousand-Armed Kannon in thanks, but he must not be disturbed. When Kujiko goes to check in on him a week later, the kid is gone--and the statue miraculously finished!

So Kujiko decides to put the statue in his hut. The moment he opened the doors and found the statue in place of the kid is considered the beginning of Kokawa-dera Temple. Kujiko stopped slaughtering animals, and it's said that his descendants are still maintaining the temple, after over twelve centuries!

Some say this child was Kannon him/herself. But most stories say this was Donan Taishi--about whom I know nothing besides this story.

But that's not all! Another legend says that a distraught mom had a sick daughter, and prayed for help. A kid--the same one?--showed up and directed the mom to the place where the temple now stands. The mom carried the little girl there, where she ate a lotus seed and voila! She was cured.

Ever since, the temple has been noted for curing sick children. I always look for the "seed"--sorry--in these stories. Whatever really happened, it clearly has to do with a sick child. Yet another story tells of a millionaire's daughter being cured, and that the millionaire's entire family became monks, though I suspect this may be the source of the mom-and-daughter story, and the "millionaire's family" sounds suspiciously like the "descendants of the hunter." But let's not get lost in the details.

Now, remember the warrior monks in Episode 075? The monks here were aligned with them, and this temple, too, like the castle in Wakayama, was burned to the ground (and that's just one of the seven times it happened!). Nothing here is older than the mid-eighteenth century.

Kokawa-dera Temple Highlights

As we continue to visit nearly 200 temples in Japan, the thorough "walkthrough" is likely to become a bit tedious. Instead, let me just hit a few highlights, things that stand out as especially fine at this temple.


The Hondo and its Rock Garden

The hondo from the left

One of the temple's most-often cited features is the "rock garden" in front of the main hall or hondo (which dates to 1720). And the rock garden is impressive. Usually appreciated for its beauty, it also has a more pragmatic function: it serves as a retaining wall for the earthen platform on which the huge hall sits.


The Chumon and its Occupants

One of the fiercesome denizens of the Chumon

The temple has two large gates, each with four bays (two on the front, two on the rear). The first gate or Daimon ("Big Gate") has figures in the front two bays only; the Chumon ("Central Gate") is occupied on both sides, four figures in all. These are kings or generals, and the three pairs are excellently executed.


The Donan-do

The Donan-do. Note the shrine-like bell-rope and coin box.

As mentioned, the "kid" in the first story I told you was believed to be Donan Taishi (the name simply means "Master Little Boy," but some consider him a form of Kannon). And there stands on the property--next to the priest's house, not far from the main gate--a beautiful, small hall built in 1679 and dedicated to him, painted white with red trim, a color scheme reminiscent of Shinto shrines. This is just one of the many subtemples and shrines we pass as we go through the property.


A Mound of Monuments

They have so many, and they won't even let me take home just one.

Many temples feature a mound made up of carved stones two or three feet high. Some appear to be grave markers; others may at some point have been on roadsides. My hunch is that these have been recovered from building sites, road widenings, excavations, and so on, are artistically and reverently arranged--sacred salvage. This one is next to a pond, to the left as one approaches the Chumon.


The Amida Buddha in the Jorokudo

The door of the Jorokudo is wide open so we can see the Buddha within.

A statue of the Amida (Amitabha) Buddha sits in the Jorokudo, or 1.8 Jo Hall. It took some digging to discover these facts:

  1. one jo is an ancient measure of about 3.03 meters (303 centimeters), or 10 shaku;

  2. a shaku is 30.3 centimeters (about a foot). (The "Shakuhachi" bamboo flute that I learned to play in Japan is 1.8 shaku; hachi means "eight");

  3. so one jo plus six (roku) shaku is 303 cm + (6 x 30.3 cm) = 484.8 cm, or nearly 16 feet.

And that is not the size of the hall, but the size of the Buddha! In fact, it's standard: the Jisho online Japanese/English dictionary gives as one definition of joroku, "statue of Buddha measuring one jo and six shaku."

How about that? This one dates to 1862. The hall, by the way, sits in front of a small graveyard.


A Kakebotoke or "Hanging Buddha"


Over the main door of the main hall hangs a beautiful, round wooden plaque depicting Kannon riding on a dragon rising up out of the waves (a common motif, referencing a story in which she saved the Dragon King's Third Son--at that moment in the form of a snake--from being tormented by little boys; or another time when she sent her disciple to buy him from a fisherman who had caught him as a fish and was selling him at a great price).

The shape and position of the plaque are reminiscent of the mirror hanging over the doors of Shinto shrines, and in fact harks back to the practice of integrated Shinto and Buddhism discussed in Episode 073.

Many such "Hanging Buddhas" (kotobotoke) were made of bronze or copper disks, hammered from the rear. But this one is a carved wood representation of the Senju Sengan Kannon, or Thousand-Armed Thousand-Eyed Avalokiteshvara (able to see who needs help, and to help them, in a myriad of ways).


Well, them's the highlights. This is a gorgeous, peaceful place, highly recommended as a respite from the hustle and the bustle.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Back to China's Putuoshan and the largest temple on that island, Puji Temple.