Ep. 081: The Temple of the Kudzu Well

Osaka's Fujii-dera, Number 5 of the Saigoku circuit

Fujii-dera, a temple named for a family with Korean roots (and remember, Buddhism came to Japan via Korea)--which family in turn was named for the arrowroot or kudzu vine--is found in a rather unlikely place: it's at the end of a shopping street in a suburb of Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, after Tokyo and Yokohama. Learn more about it in this episode of

TEMPLE TALES!

There's not much to the temple these days…

The Kokubun-ji System

Fujii-dera was built by imperial order in 725, and was originally quite massive. Pleasant as it is, it's now just a shadow of its former self. Its size was due to its role as a kokubun-ji, part of a system of temples commissioned to pray for the nation and the imperial house and, not coincidentally, to aid in the unification of Japan. There were two such temples in every province, one for monks, and another for nuns (called properly kokubunni-ji).

I have been to numerous kokubun-ji temples--some in ruins--including all four of those for the four provinces of Shikoku (see Episode 039) as well as Todai-ji, home of the Great Buddha of Nara, which was the headquarters for the entire system. Incidentally, koku means "country," and bun means "division"; a kokubun was a division of the country.


Gyoki Bosatsu

Fujii-dera's gate

Though initiated and sponsored by Emperor Shomu, the actual founding of Fujii-dera is credited to a monk named Gyoki, who was a native of Sakai, a mere seven miles or so away.

Gyoki had become a monk at Asuka-dera (see Episode 067) around 682, when he was just 15 years old. (Other sources say he was ordained at Yakushi-ji; as we saw with Kukai in Episode 079, this can be a two-step process, so perhaps both can claim credit.) He and his thousands of followers are credited with having built 49 "chapels"--essentially places where people could gather to hear the dharma (the Buddha's teachings), but which also served as hospitals. His sangha also built numerous public works for the benefit of the people: bridges, roads, aqueducts, canals, ponds, and so on.

So great was his influence that for a time his work was proscribed by the government, partially for happening outside of the "official" state-controlled system. But ultimately his good works won out, and he was elevated with great honors. After his death an imperial edict declared him a bosatsu--a Bodhisattva.


Sugawara no Michizane

One of the temple's foremost patrons in the Heian Period was Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), another fascinating and complex character, widely known today as Tenjin, the Shinto God of Learning.

During a successful career as a government scholar (and head of a private school founded by his father), Michizane was assigned to govern Sanuki Province (now Kagawa Prefecture), the northernmost division of the island of Shikoku. When he returned to the capital after his four-year stint, his star ascended even further. But after his patron, Emperor Uda, abdicated, Michizane's rivals arranged for his demotion, and he was sent away again, this time to faraway Dazaifu in northern Kyushu.

Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shrine

He died there, and that's when the trouble began. Plague and drought gripped the land, and several of the new emperor's sons died one after the other. The Great Audience Hall of the Imperial Palace was repeatedly struck by lightning, and the capital suffered storms and floods for weeks on end. It was believed that all this was due to Michizane's anger, and a shrine named Kitano Tenman-gu was built in Kyoto to appease his spirit. His titles were restored posthumously, and 70 years later he was deified. It has been my pleasure and privilege to visit the beautiful Tenman-gu built in Dazaifu over the grave of Sugawara no Michizane.


Fujii-Dera Today

If you feel like I've been dwelling in the past, well, that's because I have. In fact, there's not that much to see at Fujii-dera today, a phenomenon which will become more common as we go along. Nevertheless, every temple has some interesting connection, even if it's just to the personalities that shaped it.

Fujii-dera's 1776 hondo

The temple today, as I mentioned, ain't what it used to be. The current iteration, such as it is, was built in 1602 after the devastation wrought by a 1510 earthquake. The temple gates are from that reconstruction, but the hondo wasn't built until 1776. Most of the rest is more modern.

A wisteria nursery at the temple

Nowhere in my pictures (or anywhere else) can I find a shot of the well--said to have been hand-dug by Kobo Daishi (Kukai)--for which the temple is named. What I did shoot, though, is one of the temple's greatest modern draws. The place is well-known for the wisteria vines that bloom every year in April and May. I suspect these were planted because the temple's name has a character for the arrowroot or kudzu plant. Although it's rare these days, the character can be pronounced "fuji"; a more common plant, with a different character but pronounced the same way is--you guessed it--the wisteria.

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And that's about that. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Let's head into the mountains outside of Ningbo, China, to visit the peaceful Tiantong Temple, where the great Japanese monk Dogen Zenji studied and whence he brought home what became Soto, the largest sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan.