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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!

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