Standing atop a hill, gazing southwest across the Chikugo River valley toward the Ariake Sea, stands the 62 meter tall Jobo Kannon (the motherly goddess of mercy), cradling a baby in her arms. Completed in early 1983, she is the tallest Kannon statue on the island of Kyushu.
Jobo Kannon stands on the grounds of Kurume Naritasan Temple, a branch of Chiba’s famed Narita Shinshoji Temple, although the former is much more recently established: 1958.
It is possible to enter Jobo Kannon. As one enters, there is a scale model of the statue. Flanking the door are two large dioramas of Buddha preaching. In one his audience is comprised of a diverse group of people, while in the other he is preaching to animals. Given that one teaching of Buddhism is that all life forms are cycling through to achieve ever higher life forms until they achieve enlightenment, preaching to animals makes a certain amount of sense. In fact, it is said that Buddha first preached in a deer park, to an audience of deer and other animals.
In another chamber on the ground level inside the Kannon are statues of three Buddha incarnations: Dainichi Nyorai, Shaka Nyorai and Yakushi Nyorai. Dainichi is regarded as the principle image of Buddha in Shingon Buddhism, while Shaka is the Buddha that most people are familiar with: Siddhartha Gautama. Yakushi is is the Buddha of medicine and healing, who can release people from illness and pain.
A staircase allows visitors to ascend to the Kannon’s shoulder level, affording them views across the valley. (I didn’t go, since it was too overcast for a good view and my time was limited.) It is said that on a clear day it is possible to see all the way to the volcanic Mt. Unzen on the Shimabara Penninsula on the other side of the Ariake Sea.
There is also a staircase leading down to a tunnel decorated with various Buddhist images.
This tunnel leads to a very curious kind of lapidary museum, known as the Heaven and Hell Museum. In addition to displays on various types of rocks and gemstones, there are dioramas of various Buddhist legends and Japanese historical figures, all made with gemstones. (Sorry, photos were not permitted.) The museum has another entrance, directly to the temple’s garden.
As if the Kannon and the museum weren’t enough to intrigue visitors, there is also a 38 meter tall Indian-style temple building, said to be a replica of the Bodh Gaya temple erected on the site in India where Siddhartha is said to have attained enlightenment and become the Buddha. It is the only structure of its kind in Japan.
Surrounding the base of the Jibo Kannon are ceramic images of rakan, arhat disciples of Buddha. Like rakan statues everywhere, each is unique. One could spend hours examining them, there were so many. At the same time, there were plenty of empty plinths just waiting for a patron to endow a statue to occupy them–a work in progress to be sure!
This entire section of the temple was developed when the Jibo Kannon was built and is separate from the main/original temple building, which is also worth exploring. Also overlooking the valley below, the main temple houses a statue of Fudo-myo, the wrathful yet protective god who, according to legend, saved the great Buddhist monk Kukai (known posthumously as Kobo Daishi) from a storm at sea when he was traveling between Japan and China. Kukai founded the Chiba parent of this temple more than 1,100 years ago and placed a Fudo-myo statue in it, so of course this branch temple would have a Fudo-myo statue as well.
This main temple has all kinds of other symbolism as well, including 88 steps of green marble to reach it. Perhaps this is an homage to Kobai Daishi, since he also founded the 88 temples that make up the Shikoku o-henro pilgrimage, but more likely it is based on the Buddhist notion that there are 88 human sins to be expunged.
The temple’s religious functions seems as eclectic as its facilities as it is said to “provide blessings for traffic safety, fortune increase, business success, family wellbeing, the salvation of aborted babies, the gratification of all wishes, and protection from evil. I guess that makes it a one-stop shop for whatever you need in your life.
And Jibo Kannon stands above the entire complex, keeping watch over it and the entire valley below. After your visit, she will keep watch over you, too.
Kurume Naritasan Temple is open daily, 9:00-17:00; admission JPY500.
© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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