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The Buddhist temple Takahata-Fudoson Kongoji has long been regarded as one of the three great Fudo temples of Japan’s Kanto region. The historic temple is located near the Asa River in Hino, Tokyo, and houses many sacred objects of Buddhist worship, including a triad of wooden statues portraying the temple’s primary deity, Fudo Myo-o, and two attendants.
The set was designated as an important cultural property of Japan on June 28, 1994, and includes one 282.5-centimeter-tall statue of Fudo Myo-o, one 191-centimeter-tall statue of the attendant Kongara, one 230-centimeter-tall statue of the attendant Seitaka, and a 424-centimeter-tall panel of flames. The statues were constructed using the yosegi method, by which multiple blocks of wood are carved, then joined to form a complete statue. Various types of wood were used for the triad; Fudo Myo-o and the background flames are made primarily of cypress, Kongara is made mainly from magnolia, and Seitaka is made mostly with Japanese horse chestnut. All three figures also have parts made with kaya wood.
Due to the way the statues are pieced together, they have hollow interiors. In the Showa era, the cavity of the Fudo Myo-o statue was revealed to hold a collection of 69 documents believed to be from the 14th century. Of them, 50 are letters written by a warrior named Yamanouchi Tsuneyuki, addressed to his family and the priests of Takahata-Fudoson Kongoji. Like the statue it was found in, the collection of writings has been designated as important cultural property due to the insight it offers into Japanese history.
The wooden statues, however, have been around much longer than the letters. While the exact dates of the statues’ creation are unknown, they are estimated to have been made in the late Heian period. Both then and now, Fudo Myo-o (also known as Wisdom King Acala) is revered in various schools of Buddhism as a protective deity. The name “Fudo” means “immovable” in reflection of the deity’s stalwart nature. In the statue, Fudo Myo-o is depicted sitting, wearing a fierce expression meant to resemble a stern father.
In its right hand, the statue wields a sword symbolizing wisdom to banish evil and worldly desires. In the left hand, Fudo Myo-o raises a rope representing the colorful rope from Buddhist lore used to lead the masses to enlightenment. The deity’s statue is accompanied on either side by statues of attendants to aid him in accomplishing his holy tasks. Behind the three figures, Fudo Myo-o’s statue is framed by a large wall of flames which, like the sword, are believed to banish desires.
The display’s layout is very similar to the room of the temple used for worship today, where another similar triad of statues is housed for everyday use in Goma rituals. In Goma, a large ceremonial fire is lit before the statue of Fudo Myo-o as part of prayer. The frequent use of flames in the statues’ vicinity is a large part of why Takahata-Fudoson Kongoji has two sets; the valuable Heian-period wooden statues are kept on display in another hall to protect them from smoke, which could gradually damage the surface of the wood.
In their long history, the statues of Fudo Myo-o and the two attendants have undergone two major restorations. The first was completed in 1342 after the statues sustained damage during a typhoon. The second, much more recent, took place between 1997 and 2000 after the statues were designated as important cultural properties.
The wooden statues and the Goma ritual (using alternate statues) are both visible to guests year-round regardless of religion, and offer a glimpse into the woodworking techniques, culture, and religious practices of Heian Japan.
(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)
Linnea is a Southern Californian currently living in Tokyo, where she works as Hino city’s Coordinator for International Relations. In Hino, she has been writing about local history and events since 2017. She has been studying Japanese for over 10 years with a focus on translation, and also enjoys translating literature as a hobby.
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