Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sanjusangendo - I Just Love to Count

28th October, 2006 - It was a chilly early morning when we got up. Our first destination was Sanjusangendo... one of the most famous and popular temples in Kyōto, Sanjusangendo (literally 33 bays) Temple complex was first constructed on the orders of the ex-Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-92) in the year 1164 AD on the site of one of the Imperial villas. The cloistered Emperor had become a follower of the Buddhist Kannon, and was assisted by Taira-no-Kiyomori (of the Heiké clan) who was defacto ruler of Kyōto at that time.

The complex was destroyed, as with many such temples, in 1249, from which only about 125 Kannon statues were saved. It was then re-constructed by Emperor Go-Fukakusa (1243 – 1304). The temple is also known as the Renge-o in.

The most famous feature of the temple are the 1,001 Kannon statues which are our arranged along the 33 bays (hence the name) of the main Hondo building (shown above) which stretches some 390 feet from end to end. Each of the Kannon were the product (after the first reconstruction) of approximately seventy artisans under the famous artist Tenkei who personally constructed the central larger Kannon statue (shown below) at the age of 82.
Photo taken  from official pamphlet (no cameras allowed inside)

This central Kannon has 500 smaller Kannon located on either side, together with the 28 guardians of Buddhism (Nijuhachibu-shu) – and are also bookended by the gods of fire (Fujin) and wind (Raijin). Whilst it is the sheer scale of the smaller Kannon statues that initially inspires the visitor, almost without fail it is the individual statues themselves that captures the attention after recovering from the initial shock. Each of the 1,000 Kannon is reportedly unique, based on the individual designs of each of the artisans.

Photo taken from official pamphlet (no cameras allowed inside)

The story has it that the statues have 1,000 arms, however a quick count will find only 40 in total on each statue. By Buddhist reckoning however, each arm can reach into 25 different worlds (ok doing the maths 25 x 40 = 1000... convenient). Furthermore, each Kannon can have 33 representations, and thus there are 33,000 different representations of the Kannon. Man... my head is starting to hurt with all this transcendental mathemagics.... Each Kannon statue also has 11 different heads, and each palm is adorned (though difficult to see with the naked eye) with an eye. 

The statues were constructed using the yosegi technique where a number of crudely carved hollowed wooden boards are secured together. The hollowing prevented cracking due to shrinkage of the wood with age. After this the surface carving was conducted and then they were lacquered and gold-plated. This technique has been central to the excellent preservation of the essentially wooden statues in Japan.

Sanjusangendo is also the location of the archery contest known as Hikizome Matsuri ("first shooting festival") on the 15th of January each year. This contest started in 1606 when aspiring archers would have to shoot the 196 feet along the veranda of the Hondo at a target 1 yard in diameter. The record being 8,233 hits (out of 13,053) in 24 hours, in 1686 AD. Now that's some sporting dedication for you... but perhaps this is one sport that Fox might skip over (or at least limit to the highlights package).

Now the verandah's look rather empty - it's hard to imagine such a spectacle here.

The grounds of Sanjusangendo themselves are simple, almost sparse - and there's no sense of the grand Kyōto gardens here. There is a straight-forward practicality exhibited.

They know that the real attraction lies within the long wooden temple building... 

Overall - I'd definitely recommend visiting Sanjusangendo - you can visit it separately or include it in a trip to Kiyomizu Dera. In my opinion it most probably rates as one of the more popular temples amongst Japanese, more so than foreign tourists... but it is very rewarding to both. Take your time, don't bring in too many expectations, and enjoy trying to find your doppleganger amongst the assembled Kannon statues.

BTW - the temple is also noted for selling small charms for safe car-driving (don't ask me why)... o' those crazy monks!

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