Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shibamata and the Taishakuten Temple -- a very local Tokyo experience

What does Tokyo look like beyond its skyscrapers?  On this last trip, I decided to venture out from the tourist trail -- I would go and see what the other side of Tokyo looked like.

 I asked my Japanese friends to recommend a place and they suggested I visit Shibamata,  50 minutes out of Shinjuku.  They assured me that it would be exactly what I was looking for.
To get to Shibamata,  I took the JR Yamanote train to Nippori and transferred to the Keisei Line headed for Takasago.

Exiting Takasago,  I transferred to the Keisei Kanamachi line that goes to Shibamata.

  On this Saturday morning, I practically had the train all to myself.

The Keisei Kanamachi line has just three stops.  I had barely warmed my seat when it was 
time to get off.

The Shibamata station looked like it had been trapped in a time warp.  It was just 50 minutes from Shinjuku station but I felt 50 years removed from the present.
Aside from its Buddhist temple, Shibamata is famous for playing a major role in the longest running film series in Japan.  Called "Otoko wa Tsurai Yo" or "It's tough being a Man", this film which debuted in 1970 and had 48 serials until the 1990s,  was all about the life and times of "Tora san",  a characterisation of the Japanese everyman.
In the film, Tora san hails from Shibamata and while he has adventures all around Japan, he always finds his way back home.
A bronze statue stands right by the station and shows the traveling Tora san, wearing a suit and slippers and carrying a suitcase. He looks as if he is about to catch a train for somewhere but still looks back at his hometown.

A quaint, pedestrian only street lined with shops and restaurants is the main road to the temple.
Dripping with  atmosphere and nostalgia, this shopping street evokes a time that is long past -- I have not watched the film series but this must have been what Shibamata looked like in the 70's, during Tora san's time.  I love these vintage style Japanese shopping streets, more than any of the high rise gleaming department stores and architecturally cutting edge malls.

They say that sometimes you can see characters dressed up as Tora san, walking along.  
For now, I am happy enough to see his photo in this sweet shop that played a prominent role in the film series.

Tora san was played by the late actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, who because of his iconic portrayal was never able to play any other character.  It's a good thing he starred in 48 Tora san films -- he must have enjoyed a successful career.

I get caught up by each and every store that I pass by -- even the items for sale seem to belong to another era. Colourful candies in glass jars remind me of the sweets I used to enjoy as a child "lima cinco sa sari sari store" (5 candies for 5 centavos from the corner store).

Of course there are the ubiquitous packs of senbei or rice crackers, in all shapes and flavours.   
Some of them are even stamped with the likeness of Tora san -- thus making them the perfect omiyage from Shibamata.

Even the little curios and knick knacks are of the vintage variety.  They bring to mind simple 
and easy times.

After much dawdling and loitering, and yes shopping -- I finally come to the end of the street and see the  temple gate right in front of me.  The green tiles on the roof make a striking contrast with the dark patina of the unpainted wooden gate.

I pass through Nitenmon, the main gate.  It stands tall and graceful and is beautifully carved with very detailed and intricate decorations.

This is the main hall of the temple, the Taishakudo.  
Shibamata Taishakuten is the popular name of this temple,  but it is also known formally as 
Daikyo-ji.  Established in the 1600's, it did not do well through natural disasters like earthquakes and fires.  Thus the main buildings have been rebuilt and are only about one hundred years old.  
This massive pine tree with its branches spread out stands guard in front of the Taishakudo or main temple.  
Called the Zuiryu no matsu or Lucky Dragon, this tree is spread so wide that it actually needs wooden beams to support the weight of its branches.

The treasure of Taishakuten is kept in the inner temple of the Taishakudo.  There is a fee that includes entrance to both the inner temple and the garden.

The inner temple has incredible wooden panels featuring very elaborate carvings of scenes from
the Lotus Sutra.  My photo does not do it justice at all -- each little figure, each part of the scenery is so detailed, so lifelike that you just cannot help but stand mesmerised  in front of each one.  

It's very helpful that there is an English description of what is depicted in each panel.  This is something that is not usual in most Japanese temples and shrines.

The panels cover this huge "gallery" in the middle of the building.  As I walked around these amazing works of temple art,  I was reminded of the stained glass windows inside old Catholic churches all over Europe.  Like these wooden panels, the stained glass windows depicted stories from the Bible and were used to both inform and educate the faithful.

Aside from the carved wooden panels in the inner temple, Taishakuten  has a lovely little garden in its backyard that is definitely worth seeing.
A covered wooden pathway takes you all around the garden.    I felt as if I was walking down an extremely long red carpet -- albeit devoid of crowds and paparazzi.

A central pond, carefully placed rocks and greenery -- Taishakuten features the essential elements of the traditional Japanese garden.  
There are few visitors on this spring day so I truly relished the silence and the serenity.

The temple bell outside Taishakudo was rung 12 times to signal the noon hour.  
Time to take my leave of this charming and delightful temple discovery.  

But first, a sip from Taishakuten's "divine" waters.  This spring  flows naturally and has been part of the temple since the 17th century.

What a well spent Saturday morning!
It was a fascinating glimpse into a side of Tokyo that I had not yet seen.
While there are more well known and popular destinations in this megalopolis that tourists flock to, this was a distinctly local and native experience that I very much enjoyed.

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