Ep. 091: Uji's Mimuroto-ji and Byodo-in

A modest temple and a national icon

Sometimes a pretty little temple leaves the visitor with pretty little to say. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, let's pay a quick visit to Mimuroto-ji in Uji--and one of its much more famous neighbors--in this episode of--

TEMPLE TALES!

Today's trip takes us to the tea-growing city of Uji, located in Kyoto Prefecture between the two ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto proper. It is the setting for the final chapters of Lady Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century The Tale of Genji, and thus attracts gaggles of literature buffs. Indeed, the final chapters of what is held by some to be the world's first novel are referred to as the "Uji Chapters."

Uji is also the location of Mampuku-ji, which we visited in Episode 055; and of the uber-famous Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in, which we'll look into in a moment.

I visited Mimuroto-ji in November, at the end of the "Red Leaves" season.

The Legend

The name Mimuroto-ji means something like "The Three-Room Temple." In the first year of his reign, Emperor Konin (reigned 770-781) noticed a mysterious golden light (there it is again!) shining in his palace in Nara, and sent a court noble to investigate. Sixteen miles away, in a tributary of the Uji River, in the basin of a waterfall, the noble found a twice-life-sized statue of Kannon (Avalokiteshvara). He dove in to get it, but the closer he got, the smaller it got--making it easier to bring up, one supposes. The emperor built Mimuroto-ji Temple to enshrine the statue.

The gate to Mimuroto-ji is just a gate.

The next emperor, Kanmu (reigned 781-806) had an enlarged copy of the statue carved--presumably the size of the one the noble had originally seen--and placed the original, smaller statue inside it. (We've seen this phenomenon before--in Episode 075, for instance--where, to shield a smaller statue from profane eyes, it's placed inside a larger one for public consumption.)

In any case, the temple (along with the statues, though at least one source says the smaller statue survived) was burned down in the Sengoku Period (1467-1615) and rebuilding wasn't complete until the Hondo (main hall) was replaced in the 19th century.


The Temple Today

When I visited in late 1998, Mimuroto-ji was essentially just a handful of halls:

plus a couple of other very small halls (such as the 1487 Juhachi Shrine Hall, the oldest building in the temple); and some practical structures.

The Juhachi ("Eighteen") shrine is the temple's oldest building.

Some Strange Statues

Given the modest offerings of the temple, it seems they've hit on a clever ploy to gin up some tourism in addition to the crowds attracted by the flowers and red leaves. One such is the placement of "lucky" statues in the yard.

The only one I saw on my visit was a cow, with the following story: A peasant named Tomiemon and his wife had saved money to buy a bull, but the one they bought was too weak to do farm work. Being kind-hearted, they kept him on as a kind of pet, taking him with them on their visits to Mimuroto-ji. On one such visit, a monk hung an amulet of Kannon on the cow's horn (for strength?) and it coughed up a yellow ball, known as a "bull's jewel" (this was likely a bezoar, which features in several similar stories in China, where it is valued in traditional medicine). The bull became strong and healthy.

A modern statue of Tomiemon's bull

Another man, Gonbe, hearing of the bull's recovery, proposed that Tomiemon's bull fight his own. A reluctant Tomiemon dreamed that his bull would prevail, so he accepted the challenge. Tomiemon's bull did win, making Tomiemon a rich man. He placed a statue of his bull at the temple, with the bezoar inside, where people could reach in through the statue's mouth and roll it around for good luck. The one we see today is a replica, but people still reach in to touch the stone ball inside.

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Today there are two other statues on the grounds that I didn't see, as they were installed after my visit. The first is a three-foot-tall statue of a rabbit holding a two-foot ball. Inside is an oval shaped rock; people reach through the holes in the ball to stand it up as they make a wish. If they can make it stay upright, their wish will be granted. (It sounds like a play on the cow thing.)

The rabbit, by the way, may allude to another legend. A prince with the unwieldy name of Wakiiratsuko was traveling from the Uji River up to the temple and got lost. A "divine rabbit" appeared to lead him in the right direction, occasionally looking over its shoulder to be sure he was following, so the critter is known today as the mikaeri usagi or "looking-back rabbit." (Remember the horse, who guided Emperor Kazan--legendary founder of the Saigoku circuit--when he got lost on his way to Sefuku-ji? See Episode 079 if you've forgotten.)

These statues hadn't been placed when I was there: the "looking-back rabbit" on the left, and Ugajin on the right, both from Wikimedia.

Interesting in its own right is a "recent work" (according to the temple's Japanese Wiki page) that represents a snake with a cheerful-looking man's head. This is Ugajin, the (Shinto) deity of this piece of land, who would have to have been appeased before the temple was built here. Rub the jolly old man's head, and you'll get health and longevity; rub his tail, and you'll get wealth. But don't do both! The gods always punish such overreach.

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The grounds are littered with other monuments as well, including one engraved with a poem by the itinerant monk-cum-haiku-poet Matsuo Basho. Another is dedicated to Ukifune, a somewhat-tragic princess from the very end of the Tale of Genji. A naive girl, she is caught in a love triangle and, unable to choose, throws herself into the nearby Uji River as a means of resolution. However, she survives, and becomes a Buddhist nun.

Part of the rock garden

The gardens here are extensive, and some are said to date to the temple's rebuilding in the early 19th century. But alas, on my late-November visit, nothing was in bloom. But I did see plenty of red leaves, and the rock garden is beautiful in any season.


Byodo-in

Just a half-hour's walk downhill from the temple, down by the Uji River, is one of the most-seen temples in the country.

The Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in

The Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in is truly beautiful, and dripping with history. But neither of these fully explain its familiarity to anyone who has visited Japan. Built in 998 as the rural villa of a government minister, after his death it was converted into a temple, in 1052. Through the vicissitudes of the years, it has lost some buildings and gained others, with the most recent major renovations occurring in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Phoenix Hall, dedicated in 1053, is the only original building to have survived. It is also the key to the temple's familiarity: since 1951, it has appeared on the obverse of Japan's 10 yen coin. (For that reason, a friend of mine used to call the temple Ju'en-ji: Ten Yen Temple!)

The obverse side of Japan's ten-yen coin (Wikipedia)

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And that's just 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: When is a temple not a temple? When it's a lecture hall, like Shanghai's Yuanming Jiangtang. Come take a look!