Japan: Shibamata Taishakuten - A carved Buddhist h(e)aven in Tokyo

What?
A traditional Japanese Buddhist temple with some world-class carvings and a peaceful garden.

Why visit?
Although Tokyo is unmistakably Japanese, it shows a very specific side of Japan: A 21st century-in-your-face-neon-and-concrete face.

Shibamata used to be a small country village that has long since been engulfed by the metropolis. But at its heart is an active Buddhist temple that has some of the best carvings outside the National Museum and a peaceful garden to boot.

Where?
On the outskirts of the capital, about 45min from Downtown Tokyo. Map.


WE LOVE TOKYO, don't get us wrong. But it must rank up there as one of the ugliest cities in the world. A (very civilized) urban jungle of modernist architecture and fly-over highways.

To a large extent you can thank (or blame!) the Americans for that: extensive firebombing in World War II ensured most old wooden buildings burned down like a Christmas bonfire.

Pockets of old Edo (as the capital was called until 1868) can still be found though. Not just in the imposing Imperial Palace downtown, but especially in some of the smaller villages that have long since been gobbled up by the ever expanding 21st century metropolis. Like Shibamata.

Shibamata is an old temple town that is centered on a a Buddhist temple founded in the 17th century. The temple, known as Shibamata Taishakuten (柴又帝釈天) is still a functioning place of worship, and attracts a steady stream of Japanese visitors/pilgrims/tourists.
The entrance to the town...
...leading to the temple gate.
















But what makes Shibamata Taishakuten unique is its glorious set of carvings executed on the outer walls of the temple. A veritable prayer wall that takes you through the Buddha's teachings as told in the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is considered one of the most important and influential buddhist texts, relaying the teachings of Mr Buddha himself.
You can't touch this!
The carvings are a 3D wooden diorama, a riot of flying saints, luscious greenery, and the Buddha calmly sipping tea. They are beautifully carved, and well preserved (but they're not that old- they date back to the 1920s.)
The Buddha's tea party- note the tea set at his feet. 
Once you're done with the carvings, there is more to discover: no self-respecting Japanese temple would be complete without a garden, and again Shibamata does not disappoint. You can obtain a free cup of tea, sip it carefully, and contemplate the great mysteries of life, like how to read a Tokyo railway map.
Peace and quiet.  Tea included. 
But wait, there's even more: Shibamata Taishakuten offers the usual Japanese temple trimmings: fountains with wooden scoops, various forms of good-luck prayers, and, if you're lucky, people dressed up in traditional garb for a festival. It's all part of the fun.


Getting there: 
Tokyo's extensive rail network will get you here. Simply ride the Keisei-Kanamachi line to Shibamata station. From the station you follow the main street, dodging the souvenir stalls and grilled-eel vendors, until you reach the towering main gate of the temple.

Useful links:
The temple has an official home page.


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