In a modern city in Japan, a temple of 500 faces

Kenny Mah
Hoon-ji Temple in Morioka is also known as the 'Temple of 500 Arhats'. — Pictures by CK Lim

MORIOKA (Japan), Sept 6 — Every time we visit Japan, making a trip to one of the many temples around the country is both inevitable and a joy.

There seems to be a temple around every corner, even in large cities such as Tokyo, and we are drawn to them whether they are on our itinerary or not.

And we are always glad we went.

Tohoku feels different from other regions in Japan, more laidback and agricultural. More rustic and closer to Nature somehow.

We arrive in Morioka, a modern city in the Iwate Prefecture, and it perfectly exemplifies this dichotomy between a business hub and its location surrounded by mountains, chief of which is the volcanic Mount Iwate.

The entrance to Hoon-ji Temple is a monument to skilled wood craft.

This being Japan, naturally we find ourselves stumbling upon a neighbourhood filled with temples. Known as Teramachi (literally means “temple town” in Japanese), the most august place of worship here is the Hoon-ji Temple.

We enter via a side alley from Teramachidori (“Temple Street”) and are greeted by the temple’s majestic entrance gate, a monument to skilled wood craft.

The air is clean and sharp, the grounds well kept and tranquil. We spot a bonsho, a bell used to summon Buddhist monks to prayer; it stayed silent as we walked inside.

Originally constructed in 1394 by a local feudal lord, Hoon-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple best known for its “500 Buddhist Disciples” who aren’t actual living monks but statues of Arhats.

The Gohyakurakan-do is the main hall where the Arhat statues reside.

In Buddhism, an Arhat is an enlightened person (though the specific definition varies between different schools). And here we have the opportunity to meet five hundred of them.

Deep inside the temple, after navigating a long corridor, we find the Gohyakurakan-do, the main hall where the Arhat (known as rakan in Japanese) statues reside. And what scene awaits us! “The Temple of 500 Arhats” turns out to be a fitting name.

Where to start? There are so many statues, so many faces, all 499 of them. That’s right: there aren’t in fact a full 500 statues. Apparently the number 500 (gohyaku) here simply represents “a large number”, which is true enough.

Close-up of one of the Arhat statue, carved entirely from wood.

The lacquered wooden statues were sculpted by nine artisans from Kyoto between 1731 and 1735. There seems to be endless rows of Arhat statues, each with tiny details to reflect upon. Look closer and you will discover that each has a slightly different pose, each face a slightly different expression.

Legend has it anyone who looks hard enough will be able to find an Arhat with the exact same facial expression as them. It’s certainly worth a try.

There are no other visitors around. The hall is so quiet we could hear a feather drop... or the chuckling of a bemused Arhat. We pad along the corridors framing the central pedestal where the Great Buddha sits softly.

Even after all the centuries, the line work on these statues is very fine, more delicate than you’d expect with the years upon them. Some appear solemn, others eternally laughing. Some are meditating, perhaps? Others prefer chatting with their neighbours.

One of the many rows of Arhat statues, each with tiny details to reflect upon.

They don’t just look alive, they are alive, vividly so, describing with their very gestures the ways we live.

As we exit the hall, we step into the temple’s courtyard. It’s serene: the breeze in the branches, the texture of the stone paths and the mossy lawn, the changing colours as summer ends and an early autumn appears.

This space, the quiet grounds of Hoon-ji Temple, allows visitors to bathe in Nature. It’s not unlike a suburban form of shinrin-yoku, which may be translated as “taking in the forest” in Japanese.

Forest bathing — even though we are in a garden — to allow our senses and our bodies to relax. To allow our minds and our hearts to meditate deeply as though upon the still surface of a bottomless pond...

The temple’s serene garden courtyard allows visitors to bathe in Nature.

We ponder how gardens are often a neglected part of renowned temples. Oh, but what a missed opportunity!

This realm of an older world lifts us up beyond more contemporary and antiseptic landscapes could.

Consider this garden together with the hundreds of Arhat statues carved entirely from wood, and we marvel at the craftsmanship and dedication. The artisans who made them have not won any awards or any acclaim.

In fact they remain nameless, their identities lost to history. But they have created something that will stand the test of time. We give our thanks, silently as though in prayer, for their good work.

This is the temple of 500 faces. May all who visit find their own smiles reflected back upon them, happy and peaceful and at ease.

Hoon-ji Temple
31-5 Nasukawacho, Morioka, Iwate, Japan
Open daily 9am-4pm
Admission: Adults 300 yen (RM11.70); elementary school students 100 yen (RM3.90)
Getting there: At the JR Morioka Station, take the bus (Matsuzono-Morioka Station Line, Kitayama Line or Sakura Danchi Line) from East Exit Boarding Area 11 and get off at Kitayama. The temple is a 5-minute walk on foot from the bus stop.

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