Ep. 087: The Other Hase Kannon

The southern counterpart to the Great Kannon of Kamakura... plus an extra...

The Great Hase Kannon at Kamakura (very similar to the one in Nara) (Wikipedia)

Do you remember visiting the Great Kannon at Kamakura's Hase-dera in Episode 048? Well, let's visit the scene of the rest of the story, in the original Hase-dera Temple, the one down south, in this episode of


Some "History"

Recapping what we said in Episode 048, there was once a monk named Tokudo Shonin, who (as we learned even further back, in Episode 044) founded the Saigoku Pilgrimage after falling ill and visiting hell. Emma-O, King of Hell, asked him to provide the people a means of attaining holiness, as the infernal realms were getting overcrowded!

Yet another great gateway

But Tokudo (Shonin just means "holy man" or "saint") was also abbot of Hase-dera in Nara, and it happened like this: In 721 he had obtained an enormous camphor tree and ordered two statues of the Eleven-Headed Kannon to be carved from it. One was cast into the sea; that is the Kannon at Kamakura. But the other he kept for his own temple, the one we'll visit today.

Lafcadio Hearn told the story far better than I can in Chapter Four of his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: First Series. I encourage you to read it there (or read the long-ish excerpt in my Episode 048), but essentially, Tokudo had seen "a wonderful radiance," an unexpected light (as so often happened in the region; but imagine the effect on someone from a culture without electricity!) and, following this, discovered a fallen tree with a heavenly scent. Praying, he inadvertently invoked a magical old couple, who offered to carve the tree. They carved "two marvellous statues of Kannon made perfect before him," identified themselves as Shinto gods, and--transfigured--"ascended to heaven and vanished from the sight of Tokudo Shonin."

The corridor with its 399 steps; note the "pilgrim's stickers"

The emperor sent offerings and built a temple. Gyogi (or Gyoki) Bosatsu (see Episode 081 for more about him) blessed the images and the temple, and ordered one of the statues to stay, while the other was cast into the sea, with these words: "Go thou whithersoever it is best, to save all the living." And "best" was apparently Kamakura. As mentioned, you can read about that one's further career at "New" Hase-dera in 048.

Back to Nara

And that brings us back to the original, in Nara.

Historically speaking, the temple was built by a monk named Domyo Shonin in 686 (before the story of Tokudo and the camphor tree), and enshrined a bronze plaque still in the temple's possession today. The whole thing was expanded in Tokudo's day, when the (first) Kannon statue was added. The temple has been burned down and rebuilt as many as ten times since then.

A view over the temple's scattered rooftops

It was particularly popular with nobles during the Heian period (794-1185), "particularly" because its location made it a nice stop-over for pilgrims on the route between Kyoto (the capital, then called Heian), and Ise, site of what is still one of Japan's most important Shinto shrines.

In its heyday Hase-dera was mentioned in such popular works as Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book. Both were written by ladies connected with the Imperial court, and are today considered classics of Japanese literature, revealing the manners and morals of Japan's aristocracy.

Jizo protects the children; Kannon hovers over him. Drawings of two daishis ("great masters": Kogyo on the left, Kobo on the right) are on either side, evidence of the temple's Shingon heritage.

In 1588, the temple became a center of Shingon (esoteric) Buddhist activity, and remains so today.

The Temple Today

The pagoda (a year older than me!) peaks above the treetops.

The Main Hall (one of the largest in Nara Prefecture) is a National Treasure of Japan, and was built in 1650. It houses a 31-foot statue of the Eleven Faced Kannon which some sources say is the one carved at the behest of Tokudo. This is unlikely, though, as more reliable sources say this one was carved in 1538 (so yup, still old). The hall's platform juts out dramatically over the valley below.

Wooden hall up on the mountainside dedicated to the complete Buddhist canon (issaikyo; 一切経堂 )

A covered wooden staircase and corridor (over 650 feet long, and said to be made up of 399 steps!) runs from the niomon (Two-Kings Gate) to the hondo (Main Hall). It dates to 1039, supposedly built by a Shinto priest from Nara in thanksgiving to Kannon for curing his son from illness. The corridor was reconstructed in 1894, and is especially noted for the pilgrims' stickers stuck to its surfaces. A peony garden lies on either side of the pathway, adding color in spring; and maple trees do similar service in the autumn.

Another evocative graveyard

The gate-to-hondo pathway makes for a nice, cohesive experience. After that, though, the temple's 30-plus buildings lie rather scattershot over the hillsides. There's a bell tower whose ancient bell was moved to a museum and replaced with a replica in 1984; and a nice five-story pagoda erected in 1954. (This latter can be seen peeping out over the trees from various places on the mountainside.)

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Memorial pagoda of Tokudo Shonin at Hokki-in

Between Hase-dera and the train station, just a six-minute walk from the temple's gate, lies teeny-tiny Hokki-in, where it's said that Tokudo Shonin lived out his days. His memorial pagoda stands on the grounds; it's said he was Hokki Bosatsu, the "Bodhisattva who Aroused (or Woke Up) the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings)." Hence the name of the small compound. It is counted today as a bangai, a supernumerary temple essential to the pilgrimage, but not counted in the 33. We'll see two more of these before we're through.


So yeah. 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: I hit the big-time: Smashing Shanghai, and one of the most precious little temples I saw in all of China, the "Incense Pavilion."