Fri, Jan 17, 2020
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
Onsenji temple stands on the western end of town along a mountain slope, away from streets embellished by the click-clack of geta sandals as visitors make their way to the town’s seven bath houses. It is said that the temple was initially opened in 738 A.D. in honor of Dochi Shonin, the Buddhist saint who founded Kinosaki Onsen, and, since its opening, has shared a near 1,300-year history alongside the town. The temple not only acts as a place of devotion, but is also said to provide prosperity for the onsen’s gushing spring water.
As legend has it, the traveling priest Dochi Shonin desired to cure humanity of suffering, and upon arriving to this area, resolved to pray for 1000 consecutive days. His prayers were answered, and, in 720, water suddenly rushed from the ground. Thoroughly inspired by this miracle, he opened Onsenji temple and Kinosaki Onsen. To this day, people come to Kinosaki from all over the world to pay respects to Dochi Shonin before embarking on their ablutions.
Onsenji temple is notable not only for its history, but for what’s enshrined as well. At the center of the temple’s inner sanctuary stands its principle statue the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion and Mercy. This figure was made about 1,300 years ago, and has been designated an important cultural property by the nation. Ordinarily, this statue is hidden away in an altar case and is only visible to the public for 3 years at a time every 33 years. The statue is currently on display from 2018 to 2021. Additionally, the principle statue’s hands are tied with five different colored threads known as the “Hand Threads” (mite no ito) or the “Strings of Virtue” (zen no tsuna). By touching these threads, you can directly connect your whole being with the universe, thus tightly tying your fate together.
There are also two statues on each side of the altar case; heroic, armor-clad figures known as the Four Heavenly Kings (shitennou). They were created around 900 years ago and are designated as a cultural asset of Hyogo Prefecture. They act as guardians of Buddhist teachings, promising to protect the principle statue from all four directions. Finally, the 28th of each month is a special day when visitors’ wishes written on wooden tablets are burned in a sacrificial fire for a Buddhist ritual known as goma.
Onsenji temple can be accessed one of two ways – walking along a trail through the woods, or taking a ropeway car. Most people choose to go up by ropeway, which makes one stop at the temple and a second at the top of Mt. Daishi. The view from the mountaintop is truly spectacular, and has even earned a Michelin star for its beauty. Although only halfway up the mountain, Onsenji itself boasts a wonderful view of Kinosaki spanning across the horizon below. It is a vantage point from which one can drink in the expansive natural landscape of the area including its lush mountains, the Maruyama River, billowy steam from Kinosaki’s bath houses, and visitors clad in colorful yukata.
Onsenji temple is cherished by residents of Kinosaki, and has become the centerpiece for various holidays in the area. Perhaps the most distinct of these holidays is the Kinosaki Onsen Festival held on April 23 – 24. This period coincides with a memorial service immortalizing the memory of founder Dochi Shonin on the anniversary of his death, also known as the Kaisanki ceremony. Alongside this solemn ceremony, the rest of town celebrates the Onsen Festival as a way to expresses its gratitude to the onsen. The monks of Onsenji have a procession through the streets, visiting each public bath to offer their blessings. There is a mochi-throwing tradition, and the top half of the upper body of the rare principle statue at the temple is shown to the public.
In the evening, food and game stalls are set up along the Otani River, and a stage is placed in the center of town for performances. Each year, there is also an appearance from the mysterious Onsengers, a group of power rangers who protect the temple and offer an entertaining show filled with action and colorful effects. The Onsen Festival is a bright celebration of Kinosaki, with the Onsenji temple as the backbone of its rich culture and healing properties.
(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)
Juliana is a first year Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) placed in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture. She was born and raised in Ukraine, but moved to the United States and now represents U.S.-Japan relations. She works with two offices, the municipal department of tourism at city hall, and the Kinosaki International Arts Center – an artist residency for performing arts.
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