Japan-Insights is a site where leading experts in Japanese studies present a broad range of historical and contemporary topics, encouraging visitors to engage with the real Japan through immersive experiences.

November 21, 2019

In the Foothills of Mt. Oyama, the Hinata Yakushi Temple

by Alice Gordenker

Japan-Insights Expert Alice Gordenker sent us this report about her recent visit to the Hinata Yakushi temple in Kanagawa Prefecture.
This ancient thatch-roofed temple houses an unusually high number of rare and important Buddhist statues and has recently reopened after a multiyear restoration to bring back its original glory.
The temple was one stop on the old pilgrimage trail to Mt. Oyama, which has been featured in Alice Gordenker's article Mt. Oyama Pilgrimage at Japan-Insights.jp.
A special exhibition, with English guidance, is open to the public through December 14, 2019.

Alice Gordenker

In the Foothills of Mt. Oyama, the Hinata Yakushi Temple

Earlier this month, I was very happy to make a return trip to the Hinata Yakushi Temple in Kanagawa Prefecture, which can be reached from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station with a short journey of about 90 minutes. The temple lies in the foothills to one side of Mt. Oyama, which I wrote about extensively in Japan-Insights, and was a stop for pilgrims on the Oyama Pilgrimage. I had visited the temple once before, in 2015 when it was undergoing restoration, and was anxious to see it again now that the scaffolding was gone. How would it look with the restoration complete?

Yakushi Nyorai (Image courtesy of Isehara Board of Education)

The Hinata Yakushi temple has a history of more than 1,300 years, said to have been founded during the Nara Period in 716. It is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Healing Buddha, and is counted among the three great temples in Japan devoted to this important Buddhist deity (Nihon San Yakushi). Today the temple is not well known outside of the local area, but it was once a famous center of Buddhist faith, supported over the centuries by numerous emperors and powerful warrior-clan families.

The Nio-mon gate marks the entrance to Hinata Yakushi

The beautiful wooded approach to the temple begins at the Nio-mon, a majestic structure built in 1833 following a fire that consumed the earlier gate and the images it contained. The current gate houses two huge wooden gate guardian statues with fierce countenances (Kongo Rikishi) but if you give a respectful bow, they’ll let you pass unhindered. After an uphill walk of about ten minutes winding past moss-covered rocks through a forest of chinquapins, firs, zelkova, maples, and cedar trees, you arrive at the main building, which is known as the Hojobo Hondo.

The Hojobo Hondo. (Image courtesy of Isehara Board of Education)

It is a beautiful structure, quite different from most temples you may see in Japan, and majestic with its massive thatch roof. It has been rebuilt several times over the centuries but was in poor condition when a decision was made to undertake a full restoration, which began in 2011. The entire building was encased in scaffolding and a temporary roof erected, and the painstaking process of disassembly began. Each piece was photographed, cataloged and numbered as it was removed, and wherever possible, the original wood was kept and repaired. The old thatching, of course, had to be removed, and new thatching was installed by skilled carpenters. Through diligent research into ancient pigments, the colors were restored to an inky black and iron-based orange-vermillion that are believed to represent the temple’s original coloration. The entire restoration took almost seven years and was finally completed in November 2016.

The new thatch roof photographed in 2015 from scaffolding as trimming was nearly complete

Although many temples in Japan preserve ancient Buddhist images, Hinata Yakushi houses an unusually high number of rare and important wooden statues of Buddhist deities, including six that are nationally designated Important Cultural Properties. Because the statues are so valuable, they have been moved for safekeeping into a fireproof building next to the main building, where they can be viewed for a small fee. Through December 14 there is enhanced lighting and foreign-language guidance, making this an excellent opportunity for international visitors to pay a visit.

The official main image of the temple is a hidden Buddha, an image of Yakushi Nyorai flanked by two attendants that is kept behind closed doors in an altar. These wooden statues are believed to have been carved in the late 10th or early 11th century and are notable because they were carved with a technique called natabori, or rough cut, in which the chisel marks are obvious and no attempt was made to make a smooth finish. Neither painted nor lacquered, the rough surface is said to convey a sense of simplicity and directness.

Yakushi Nyorai and attendants (photographed with special permission)

The altar is opened only five days a year, which unfortunately did not coincide with my visit. This was disappointing but the images that are available for viewing every day are of the quality and importance of Buddhist statuary you might normally see only in a national museum. There are two very large statues of seated Buddhas, each about three meters in height, which is a standard size (known in Japanese as joroku) for monumental-sized Buddhas. On the right side of the room is Yakushi Nyorai, identifiable by the medicine pot in its right hand; on the left is Amida Nyorai, sitting in judgment with the hands positioned with second fingers touching the thumbs.

Amida Nyorai
One of the Twelve Heavenly Generals

There are also very large statues representing the Four Heavenly Kings and life-size carvings of the Twelve Heavenly Generals, each with a unique facial expression and posture. All were made with a technique known as yosegi-zukuri, or joined-block method, in which pieces were carved separately and joined after they were completed. Although the images were once coated in gold-leaf, most of that finish has been lost to time.

Normally the many statues of Hinata Yakushi are kept in semi-darkness to conserve them, but for a one-month period ending December 14, special lighting has been installed to allow visitors to view them in much greater detail than is normally possible, and there are new explanatory panels with full English translation. During this special exhibition period only, from 10:00 to 16:00 daily, there will be a guide on site who can provide explanation and answer questions in both English and French. Please note that photography is not allowed – the photographs here were taken with special permission from the Isehara Board of Education.

To visit Hinata Yakushi, start at Isehara station on the Odawara Odakyu train line (approximately 1 hour from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station). At bus stop #3 at the north exit, board the bus for Hinata Yakushi and ride to the end. Buses run approximately twice an hour. The temple is about 15 minutes on foot from the bus stop and is open 10:00 to 16:00 in the winter months (November to March) and 09:00 to 17:00 the rest of the year. Admission to the building with the Buddhist images is 300 Yen.

© all photos Alice Gordenker unless otherwise indicated

Read Alice Gordenker's article Mt. Oyama Pilgrimage at Japan-Insights.jp!

November 15, 2019

October at the Kanayama Megaliths

by Harriet H. Natsuyama

Japan-Insights Expert Harriet H. Natsuyama ,  visiting Scholar at the Kanayama Research Center provided us with this report on her recent visit to the Kanayama Megaliths in Gifu Prefecture – a power spot of global significance she has introduced at Japan-Insights.jp in her eassay Jomon Astronomy , the Solar Calendar of the Kanayama Megaliths.

Harriet H. Natsuyama

October at the Kanayama Megaliths

There are some wonderful solar observation events that take place at the Kanayama Megaliths in October, as well as all through the year.
The three sites of megalithic constructions form a system for determining a high-accuracy solar calendar — complete with adjustments every four years and 128 years of the leap-year cycles. This calendar has been operating for 5,000 years or more.



Iwaya-Ikage, October 15, 09:30 ©Shiho Tokuda

Leap-year observation

One such determination of the leap year occurs every four years on October 15. This year 2019, is one of those four years. Naturally, I wanted to be there to see it.

I had booked my flight to Kansai Airport well in advance. Just before my departure, the news announced that super-typhoon Hagibis would make landfall on October 12, my planned arrival date. I delayed my trip and I missed the observation of October 15. I was deeply concerned that Kanayama would suffer flooding as it did last year.
After days of wind and rain, the sky over Iwaya Valley on October 15 cleared and a beautiful spotlight appeared in the chamber of Iwaya-Iwakage. Shiho Tokuda, researcher and official photographer, provided these photos.

The spotlight in Iwaya travels across the floor from west to east. At 09:30, the spotlight shone exactly on the tip of the triangular stone where Shiho Tokuda had placed the template stone – a stone shaped by the Jomon astronomers. This was the sign that a leap day would be inserted in the calendar after the second confirming observation of February 28. Therefore, in 2020, the Jomon solar calendar has a leap day, just as we do on our February 29.
What a coincidence of dates!


Iwaya-Ikage, October 15, 09:30 ©Shiho Tokuda

Iwaya-Iwakage (the cavern's megalith shade), sixty days before Winter Solstice

I arrived in Kanayama a few days later. Although the storm had passed, the days were cloudy and rainy. The next observation was to take place on October 23 to mark the coming of the winter solstice sixty days later. This date is one of the four dates of the year that divides the zone of the sun in the sky into four parts. The same observation would be repeated when the sun returned to the same spot in the sky 60 days after the winter solstice.

Visitors to Iwaya-Iwakage, guided by Shiho Tokuda, October 23 ©Harriet Natsuyama

Once more, nature smiled on us. My photos above show a sunny day with visitors to Iwaya-Iwakage, led by Shiho Tokuda. This would be the first autumn day that the same beam of light as the leap-year spotlight would shine on the flat part of the Sekimen-Ishi. This plane protrudes from the gigantic face of the megalith covering the Iwaya chamber, facing due south. The two photos below were taken around 12:44. They show (1) the spotlight on Sekimen-Ishi, and (2) the opening in Iwaya where the light comes in.

Spotlight on Sekimen-Ishi and the opening in Iwaya-Ikage where the sunlight shines in, October 23, 12:44 ©Harriet Natsuyama

Higashinoyama (Eastern Mountain), sixty days before Winter Solstice

This spot, too, has an observation event sixty days before and after the winter solstice. At 08:30 on October 23, a group of nine hikers assembled to climb this mountain, more than 1km eastwards of the Iwaya-Iwakage. They were led by Shiho Tokuda and Yoshiki Kobayashi, her fellow investigator of twenty years.

Sun rising in front of S-Stone, October 23, 09:34 ©Shiho Tokuda

On the winter solstice, observation will be made from the 9-meter long R-Stone as the sun rises over the mountain ridge. The observation of October 23, sixty days before the winter solstice, is made at the edge of the S-Stone. , also 9 meters long, sitting somewhat below the R-Stone at an upward angle of 35 degrees. The S-Stone does not observe the sunrise on winter solstice.
From below, next to the S-Stone, the sun cannot be directly observed during the 120 days of the winter season, when the sun’s solar altitude is less than 35 degrees.

The next time to observe the rising sun from S-Stone is around February 20, 2020.

Visit Harriet Natsuyama's blog here
Read her article on the Kanayama Megaliths at Japan-Insights.jp!