A Temple of Giants
During the first week of the New Year, the in-laws and I went on a road trip to Chiba, which is just east of Tokyo. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Nihon-ji, which is a Soto Zen temple in the mountains that dates back to 725 AD. The first thing you notice while driving around this area is that it’s warmer than Tokyo. There are palm trees and flowers still in bloom. So even as we hiked around the mountain, it felt like we were just strolling through a city park.
The centerpiece of the temple is a Great Buddha carved from the mountainside. This particular Buddha oversees medicine and health. It’s twice as big as the more famous Great Buddhas in Kamakura and Nara.
Near the Buddha is a small statuette of Kannon surrounded by piles of little Jizo. I’m not sure what the story here is. It was quite a sight. Larger Jizo can be found all over Japan in the randomest places, usually by roadsides where small children had died, placed there to placate their spirits.
Next to all these little Jizo is a sapling of a bodhi tree given by the Indian government. It’s not just any tree though. It’s from a cutting of a branch of the original bodhi tree that the Buddha sat under and reached enlightenment. I couldn’t take a good picture of it though since it was covered with netting and some security alarm system I’m sure.
As you hike up the steep steps of the mountainside there are 500 Arhat (or “Rakan” in Japanese). They are the saints of Buddhism. Some are faceless from erosion and others have kept their stern expressions.
At the top of the mountain are several viewpoints looking out into the Pacific. Hidden away just under the jagged ridge is an enormous Kannon carved from the rock. Though it looks like a cool ancient work of art, it was actually only chiseled out 90 years ago. Still, this was probably my favorite part of the temple.
Getting to the temple was interesting in and of itself. We drove underwater through a tunnel highway that linked western Tokyo and Yokohama with the southern end of the Chiba Peninsula. The entrance from the Tokyo end had a curious glass pyramid above. The engineering of this tunnel is almost as awe-inspiring as the figures of stone at the temple. I was especially impressed with the ten-story sail-like vents that aired out the miles of tunnel.
Midway through the tunnel we emerged into a glorified pit stop with floors of shops and restaurants teeming with tourists. It reminded me a little of the visiting hordes that visit the Golden Gate Bridge on the weekends.
Best thing about this place was the super cheap and super fresh sushi bar. And the most interesting thing was the giant drill that was used to bore the tunnel. It was displayed like a gargantuan piece of modern art. Here’s the slide show for those pictures.