If you check the map, Fukuoka is nearer to Busan in South Korea than it is to Tokyo. Because of
this Dazaifu, a small town in Fukuoka Prefecture was designated as the administrative centre of South Japan, handling trade, diplomatic and even military relationships with not just Korea and China but with other countries as well.
Today, Dazaifu is no longer a political centre but has become a cultural and historical destination -- it boasts of centuries old temples, the Kyushu National Museum and an important Tenmangu shrine.
It's easy to get to Dazaifu -- take the Nishitetsu Tenjin Omuta Line and get off at Futsukaichi
At Futsukaichi, cross the tracks and head towards the special Dazaifu Train. From here,
we got off at Nishitetsu Gojo station, one stop before the end of the line.
It was a pleasant although warm walk through the outskirts of Dazaifu. This is Jay with our Trip Insight's tour guide for the afternoon, Nory Okamoto san. I had asked Trip Insight to customise a walking tour for us, with emphasis on seeing as many temples as possible.
It was just over a kilometre from Gojo station to this sign along the road pointing us in to
our first stop, Kaidan-in.
Kaidan-in stands at the end of this empty country lane. Small vegetable gardens, bunches of hydrangeas in bloom on either side of the road, hillsides in the distance -- all of these painted a
very bucolic scene. Perhaps it looked like this, hundreds of years ago?
As is typical with Zen temples, there is dry landscape garden or karesansui at the front of the Main Hall. It is not as elaborate as others I have seen but is very much in keeping with the temple's simple and serene air. A beautiful wooden bell tower stands off to one side. It's a lovely and peaceful place.
very important role in the history of Buddhism in Japan. Today it continues to be a working
temple -- there were priests in the office in the back so I was able to get another temple seal
for my go shuin cho.
We walked on to our next temple -- which was literally just a few steps away. Kanzeon-ji used to be one of the most important temples on Kyushu because it was founded by Emperor Tenji. I guess you can say it is an Imperial temple.
There is no karesansui but there is a Main Hall with Important Cultural Properties -- wooden statues of a compassionate looking Amida Nyorai and a Kannon Buddha. You can look at these treasures through the door but you cannot go inside.
Wooded, slightly overgrown paths ideal for a meditative stroll are behind the temple buildings.
Aside from its other Important Cultural Properties (most of which can be seen in the temple's modern museum building within the grounds) Kanzeon-ji has a most significant National Treasure.
Do not miss seeing this, the oldest bell in Japan. Dating back to the 7th century, Okamoto san
told us this bell is still rung during important occasions.
We climbed up the short (but steep) stone steps to get a closer look at the bell which is protected by a wire fence all around. It's not as big as the bell in Nara or the bell in Chion-in but it is definitely the oldest of them all.
We left Kanzeon-ji and headed towards the Tenmangu Shrine. Dazaifu is very much a walking city --
the shrine was a twenty minute walk away from the temples.
Before we got to the shrine, we had to pass this nostalgic looking shopping street where shops and cafes lined the way.
Some of the buildings along the street like the one shown above date back hundreds of years and were used as inns by samurai and their masters who visited the shrine. Now, these buildings have been transformed into shops selling all sorts of souvenirs and local delicacies -- very tempting but I
kept my head down and walked on.
This is the map of the Tenmangu compound. The National Museum of Kyushu (the blue building
on the top of the map) is also accessed hrough the shrine. Okamoto san pointed out the small
temple on the right, Komyozen-ji, which he said was very much worth a quick detour.
Closing time at Komyozen-ji was 4:30 -- we barely made it! The monk made it clear that they
would close soon so we had just fifteen minutes to try and see everything.
Komyozen-ji is a Zen temple well known for its two dry landscape gardens -- one in front and
a bigger one in the rear, behind the Hondo or the Main Hall.
I was not prepared for how gorgeous the garden would be. The entire back yard was filled with
trees and gravel, rocks, moss and shrubbery. If you moved your position ever so slightly, another view and perspective would appear. It was hard to take it all in, in just a few minutes.
Unfortunately the monk had told us that photos were strictly not allowed.
The above photo is from the website of japan-guide.com -- it almost does justice to the
exquisiteness of the garden itself.
This must be one of the most impressive and elegant dry landscape gardens I have seen in Japan.
Can you close your eyes and imagine how this would look in different seasons? In autumn
when the maple leaves change colour perhaps? I would like to come back during that time.
We stayed enjoying the garden for as long as we could. When we finally stepped outside, the monk was waiting for us, his last three visitors. In my halting Nihongo, I tried to convey how
his garden moved me so much. I also learned that the monk himself maintains and tends to these gardens ... subarashii desu yo!
At the front of the Main Hall is Komyozen-ji's other famous dry stone garden where waves and
eddies of sand swirl around the stones.
This time, I asked permission to take a photo and this time the monk said yes. A gift from the monk and Buddha himself.
After all the meanderings around the three Zen temples, I was now ready for Dazaifu's main attraction, the Tenmangu Shrine.
Before entering the shrine, we needed to purify ourselves at the temizuya. This one is unique
because it is made from just one giant piece of rock.
The Tenmangu shrines, which you can find all over Japan, are not Shinto shrines.
Tenmangu shrines are dedicated to the memory and spirit of Sugawara Michizane, a most
respected scholar and politician who lived during the 9th century.
Of all the Tenmangu shrines, the Kyoto Kitano Tenmangu shrine and the Dazaifu Tenmangu
shrine are the most revered and important. Kyoto was where Michizane san worked and lived
and Dazaifu, where he was exiled after his fall from power, was where he eventually passed away.
Like Kyoto, the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine is famous for its thousands of plum trees which are planted behind the Main Hall. We were too late to see them in bloom (plum blossom season is January) but we did get to see hydrangeas blooming underneath this "husband and wife" tree -- which Okamoto san said is two trees that share just one root.
This unique monument in the shrine grounds is dedicated to the spirit of the ordinary kitchen knife. There is a box beside this rock where chefs and cooks leave their knives, to give thanks to the spirit of this most valuable kitchen tool.
The train that would take us back to Fukuoka would be leaving in twenty minutes. Okamoto san
had one last treat for us -- June is iris season and the pool garden at Dazaifu Tenmangu is the
most popular place to view different varieties and colours of irises. There was a viewing deck all around the pool so that you could walk and see the flowers from all vantage points.
Jay said the irises reminded him of Monet's garden in Giverny. I thought it was a very typical Japanese garden setting-- with the borrowed scenery of the cedar trees and the hills behind the pond.
The afternoon light was fading when Okamoto san and I posed for one last photo. The train
station was just a ten minute stroll away, not counting any stops for shopping along the way.
The 18:17 train was waiting to take us back to Futsukaichi where we would transfer to the
Nishintetsu express back to Fukuoka.
This temple and shrine enthusiast was replete. Dazaifu was a most worthwhile side trip from Fukuoka. And now, time for my reward after a full day's walk ... bottoms up! Kanpai!