Takkoku no Iwaya: history carved in stone

On the outskirts of the Iwate town of Hiraizumi stands a striking red and white Buddhist temple, built into a cliff-face: Takkoku no Iwaya. This is a temple steeped in history. It has been a sacred site since 801AD.

Like many early Buddhist sites, it began with a cave, which was then enclosed by a temple building, now known as Bishamondo. Bishamon is an ancient god of war and the temple was built in his honor in 801 after a local war ended and peace was restored to this area.

Since it was built to front the cave, Bishamondo sits high up on a scaffold. Photos are not permitted inside, which looks like many temple interiors until you look up and realize that the back wall is living rock. It is said that a number of antique Buddha statues are stored deep inside the cave. They are only infrequently brought out for public display; apparently the next time will be in 2042 (!).

Bishamon is the popular recipient of prayers by those who are struggling, whether it is with attaining wealth; achieving business, education or relationship success; or overcoming some kind of conflict.

Back outside Bishamondo, stroll to the far end of the temple compound and take a close look at the rock face. At 16.5 meters, about the height of a four-story building, you’ll be able to make out the face and shoulders of a Buddha carved into the living rock. This is Ganmen Daibutsu, also known as the Northern Rock Buddha.

Believed to have been carved around the 14th century in honor of war dead of the 11th century, this was once an image of a seated Buddha, but the lower half of its body crumbled in an earthquake in 1896. Even what remains is regarded as rather delicate; it is being carefully maintained.

There is an interesting legend about this Daibutsu, that holds that the Buddha was actually created by a great warlord, Minamoto Yoshiie (1039-1106), who effected the carving by firing arrows at the sandstone cliff. Yoshiie is reputed to have been a fierce and skilled warrior who doubtless had mean archery skills, but this still seems a bit of a tall tale.

Prayers offered here are said to sooth the souls of ten thousand war dead.

Circle back to the pond that stands in front of Bishamondo. A small island on the pond contains a shrine honoring the goddess Benten. Benten is the goddess of music and fine arts. She is usually found on an island, surrounded by water, an element used by her messenger, the dragon or the snake. Apparently when this pond was drained in 1990 for repair work, pot sherds dating to around the 10th century were excavated.

It is said that Benten is a jealous goddess. Don’t pray to her as a couple; she will contrive to split you up.

Near the entrance to the temple grounds are the temple’s belfry and a couple of other small temples, including one sporting very old thatch and housing an image of Fudo-myoo, the wrathful messenger god who converts anger to salvation. Prayers are often offered to Fudo-myoo for protection from fire or to cure eye ailments.

While Takkoku no Iwaya is a small temple complex, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it’s definitely worth a visit and is actually quite accessible. Visitors to Hiraizumi can rent bikes and ride out, or take a local cab (about JPY1,000 one way). It is also not far from Genbikei Gorge, and one local hotel that provides shuttle bus service to Hiraizumi can also arrange to drop you at Takkoku no Iwaya. Don’t miss it!

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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