When you say the word “Chiba” or “Narita” to most foreigners, images of Japan’s largest international airport comes immediately to mind, along with that mad rush foreigners make to catch their plane. Yet, if you say Narita or Chiba to most Japanese, you might hear two diverse descriptions – the first, of course is the airport, and the second, is one of the most famous Buddhists temples in Japan. The Naritasan Shinshoji is one of the largest temple complexes in Japan.
Dating back to the 10th century, it is one of those places that makes you realise – this is Japan. Close to the airport, several ‘mini tours’ allow foreigners quick access to this “glimpse of Japan” before catching their plane home. Another such “glimpse” can be found in Chiba City – a place most Narita trains pass through. Equally impressive, yet lesser known, the shrine here is magnificent.
So, if a walk through Japan’s historic past interests you… read on!
The Shinshō-ji, which means “new victory”, is the lead branch of the Chisan-ha sect of Shingon Buddhism – one of the last original Buddhist sects from India still operating in Japan. Large crowds inundate the place during the temple’s major events especially during Oshogatsu, held in the first week in January. The Omotesandō to the temple during this time is packed, with police guiding the multitudes of visitors. Yet outside these times, the street and temple can be enjoyed in peace.
The Shinshoji consists of several wonderful buildings, each having its own character and history. Interestingly, when Narita was originally constructed, it was viewed only as a provincial temple. It rose to prominence during the Edo period. Yet the main person responsible for foresting its notoriety was not a politician, but Ichikawa Danjūrō, an influential kabuki actor. Because of this, Narita is one of the most famous temples to have live kabuki performed.
Danjūrō, a devout Buddhist, gave the temple credit for the birth of his son. This established an association between childbirth and the temple. Currently, Ebizo Ichikawa XI is Naritasan’s cultural ambassador. Several of the structures in Naritasan have been designated national properties, including the Kōmyō-dō, Dainichi Buddha, 3-story pagoda and great Shakyamuni Hall.
The first thing that greets you at the temple is the kannon lantern (built in 1858) and the ancient Nio God Statues that guard the gate. Past the gate is a rock garden with an array of small sculptures, a pond and stairs that lead you into the temple complex.
The Great Hall, a relatively newly built building, contains a perpetual holy fire and prayer center. It is located past the pagoda and flower gardens.
The fire deity – Fudō Myō-ō is the central deity of the temple. He is supposed to be able to convert anger into salvation and his glaring face seeks to frighten people into accepting the teachings of Dainichi Buddha. His statue can be found in the Komyodo Hall. The hall is also home to a style of Noh theatre, known as Takigi Noh and is famous for granting wishes about love – so there is always a queue to access the prayer site and Goshuin area.
Heiwa no Daito
The final building worth a see is the Heiwa no Daitou (Peace Pagoda). Inside the Peace Hall you can enjoy a museum and the opportunity to copy Buddhist sutra –designed to clear your mind and grant inner peace. Walking past the Tower of Peace is perhaps one of the most beautiful temple gardens in Japan. Narita-san park is a lush green park, with a pond and a series of traditional statues. There is also a calligraphy museum and a ‘water well’ that turns the sound of water into a lovely tune. The diverse array of trees makes Naritasan park easy to enjoy throughout the seasons.
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Another glimpse of traditional Japan that can be easily accessed before leaving Japan is situated right in the heart of Chiba City. Chiba City Shrine, with its colourful display and intricate artwork, is a rival for Asakusa. Yet its understated garden and serenity make it a place for reflection as well as amazement.
Walking distance from Chiba City JR station, the shrine is poorly advertised, which is a real shame, as it is one of Chiba’s strongest draw cards. Chiba Shrine will surprise you. Surrounded by office buildings, it is a wonderfully unexpected treat. With its strong, bold colouring and astrological focus, it’s a wonder why its image is not the centerpiece of Chiba promotional guides.
The shrine is dedicated to the Myoken, a Bodhisattva said to be the personification of the North Star. The shrine was built in 1181 and is used by locals to offer prayers against bad health. As the deity is deeply associated with astrology, the shrine entrance is dawned with the various signs of the zodiac.
The shrine is a fine example of the Shinto faith. Its main prayer hall has a prominent place in the complex. Visitors can walk throughout the building, including the second floor where there is a nice view of Chiba city. The shrine’s pictorials are based on both astrological myths and those found in Japan’s ancient book – the “Kojiki”. The pictorial of “creation”, when the heavens opened and Emperor Jimmu descended with the guidance of a three-legged crow (Yatagarasu), is truly remarkable.