Written by Mutlu Sayar
Kongoshoji Temple is located near the summit of Mt. Asama in Ise City, Mie Prefecture. It was built by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan.
I took “Sangu Bus” in front of Isuzugawa Station of Kintetsu Railway to visit the temple. The bus entered Iseshima Skyline Road, which is known as a “Driveway of the Heavens.” As the bus kept ascending Mt. Asama through the winding Skyline road, the beautiful view of shores of Ise Bay came into sight.
I got off the bus at the second stop Kongoshoji. It was softly raining and the sound of the drops hitting on the ground and leaves of tall trees was creating a mystical mood. As I passed through the gate, I took the left walkway, and I found a red torii and a little shrine behind it, guarded by a fox statue. All of these were related to Shintoism. What was a Shinto shrine doing in the grounds of a Buddhist temple? This was explained by a staff member of this Buddhist temple at the main hall I visited next. He was very kind and invited me to inside the main hall “Hondo,” which usually allows only people who apply for prayer service.
In general, in Buddhist temples, the main object of worship is enshrined in the main hall called Hondo as well as other most important objects of veneration. The term “Kondo” was also used to name such halls long ago. Japanese characters of Kondo mean “Golden Hall,” and as soon as I entered, I felt that was exactly right. Everything in this hall was all gold-plated, and the pillars, tengai canopy, vases and many other artifacts were just gorgeous.
The principal object of worship of the temple is hiddenly enshrined in a cabinet which looks like a miniature temple, called zushi, and the statue I saw was a temporary appearance. The real one is right in the middle of Hondo and revealed once in 20 years only. This practice is similar to Ise Jingu’s Shikinen Sengu, in which the divine palaces of Ise Jingu are reconstructed at alternate sites in every 20 years. Opening the zushi’s doors and revealing the principal object of Kongoshoji Temple is carried out one year after Ise Jingu’s Shikinen Sengu.
In Hondo, there was also a wooden statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and one of the most important figures in the history of Japan. He played a very important role to support this temple. Thus, his statue was placed in Hondo with all other religious objects, as an expression of respect.
In traditional Japanese geomancy, the direction of northeast is thought to be unlucky. It is believed evil spirits can enter from that direction. As Kongoshoji Temple is located to the northeast of Ise Jingu, which has been revered as a special shrine in Japan since ancient times, it has been regarded as the protector of the spiritually vulnerable northeastern direction to the shrine.
Although Shintoism and Buddhism are different religions, they are worshipped here at the same time. Japan has a unique religious belief system whereby Japan’s indigenous deities of Shinto and Buddhist deities introduced from overseas are harmonized and fused, and they are believed in at the same time. Thus, I understood why even though Kongoshoji Temple is a Buddhist temple, it protects Ise Jingu that is Shinto. My question was answered.
In front of the main hall, down the stairs was a pond covered with pink lotus flowers, remindful of the paintings of Claude Monet. In the middle of the pond, there was an old, very arched, red, wooden bridge, which seemed to be painted by Monet. This pond was surrounded by many religious symbols and huts as well as nature itself.
The path to the right side of Hondo brought me to another gate. This gate was called Gokurakumon, which means The Gate of Paradise. It led to a walkway surrounded by a very unique graveyard. As well as tombstones and Buddhist statues, there were long wooden posts on which posthumous names of deceased people were written.
These posts are called sotoba, which is the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit stupa. The path along this unique graveyard led to an inner sanctuary called OkunoIn.
The only way out of this OkunoIn was the way in. After coming out of Gokurakumon, I took the path on the left side.
After a few minutes’ walk, this uphill path led to the observatory of Mt. Asama.
I had the pleasure of eating Ise udon, one of specialty dishes for lunch in Ise.
The observatory itself had a gorgeous view of Ise-Shima and Ise Bay. There was also a public footbath where you can rest your tired feet while enjoying the view. Looking at the view, I clearly realized my head was right below the clouds.
In the garden of the observatory there was an old red postbox, which is an official postbox located at the Ise-Shima’s highest point and popular as a gathering spot for lovers. It seemed to be popular among young people to pose and take pictures with this postbox.