The Mysterious and Beautiful Temple Built into a Cave: Bishamon-do in Iwate

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  • Over a thousand years ago, a Buddhist Temple was built in the rock wall of a cliff in Hiraizumi, Iwate. It was called Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo which was primarily dedicated to the warrior gods of the 9th century. At that time, Japanese territories were expanding northwards which was followed by several battles with Emishi (or Ainu) people represented by different tribes.


    Why the Temple Was Built


    One prominent battle was against a warlord known as Akuro Takamiro. He was a nasty leader who was known for ruling Ezo, a Japanese name historically referring to the lands of the north. He would often steal women and children and keep them as prisoners for his own pleasure. Some of them became slaves while others concubines. It was also claimed that he would lock them up in a dungeon and kill some of them for fun.

    Because of his brutality, Sakanoue no Tamuramaru, a general and shogun, was appointed by the ruling Emperor to defeat him. He was able to free the slaves and erect a shrine on the cave where Takamiro used to enslave women and children. The shrine was also dedicated to the guardian of Buddhist law, Bishamon and thus, it has been named Iwaya Bishamondo. However, due to a number of Buddhist buildings that were added, it was often called a temple.

    Reconstruction of the Temple


    The temple was destroyed a number of times resulting in many reconstructions. However, the current building was modeled after Kiyomizudera Shrine in Kyoto and was built in 1961. There were originally 108 statues of Bishamon but not only 33 are left behind. These are considered sacred and are only exposed to the public every 33 years. The temple also consists of a rock face of Buddha carved on a wall over 920 years ago which is also considered one of the largest images of Buddha.

    The temple is a great reminder of how religion was once of great importance in Japan. The extremes being done to honor the gods is something to be respected and admired.

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