Shokokuji: The Mysteries of Zama’s Star Valley

Kannon, sometimes referred to as the Buddhist goddess of mercy, was introduced to Japan in the late sixth century, and many temples dedicated to Kannon can trace their origins back to the seventh or eighth centuries. Shokokuji, in Kanagawa’s Zama city, is one such temple. It dates its origins to the Tenpyo Era (729-749) and claims to have been founded by a Buddhist priest named Gyoki (668-749).

Modern Shokokuji is just a five minute walk from Zama Station on the Odakyu train line. The temple, whose name means “temple of star valley”, sits in serene surroundings with a number of pleasant features. It claims to be home to “seven mysteries”, which are portrayed on a map board in front of the main temple building. Finding them all proved to be a rather challenging scavenger hunt, in the course of which further mysteries presented themselves.

The easiest “mystery” to spot, also Mystery #1, is the temple bell, which hangs in a modern belfry near the entrance to the complex. The mystery is how this massive bell, cast in 1227, can hang by a single hook (most bells require more support). The bell, which weighs 384 kg., is said to be the second oldest bell this far north in Japan (only the bell at Tokakuji in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki is older–by about 20 years). You’ve got to admit, that hook does look like its straining a bit.

As at most temples, two Nio deva kings guard the entrance. But at Shokokuji, instead of being carved of wood and housed in a gate, these Nio are cast and standing in the elements. They are both fierce and beautiful, and surely perform well at their job of keeping evil away. Why there is no gate is an unsolved mystery.

As I made my way up the central walkway to the main temple building, I encountered more mysteries. The first thing I spotted on the right was a statue of Kobo Daishi (774-835), the much-revered Buddhist priest who founded temples the length and breadth of Japan and is considered to be a bodhisattva who still performs good works today. Nothing particularly mysterious about him! Somewhere between this statue and a stone Hokyointo tower are two more of the temple’s claimed mysteries: a plant known as Kannon Grass (Mystery #3) and a Camellia bush said to bloom with a number of different kinds of blossoms in differing colors (Mystery #5). Kannon Grass remains a mystery, as I couldn’t spot it during my visit (possibly because I don’t know what it looks like). I did learn that it is a plant whose healing properties were used by Sakanoue Tamura Maro, a legendary warrior said to have been a retainer of the Emperor Kanmu (735-806).

According to the map, Mystery #2 should be just at the corner of the main temple: an old maple tree with an odd shape on its trunk that looks like a sagging breast from which, according to legend, milk sometimes dripped. It turns out the tree is long dead, but the oddly shaped trunk was cut off and is kept inside the temple. Actually, I found some of the other adornments inside the temple far more interesting. In spite of the fact that Shokokuji is dedicated to Kannon and its main temple is known as the Kannon Hall, Kannon herself could not be seen.

According to the signboard, the remaining three mysteries are behind a gateway that beckons off to the side. Before pursuing them, take just a little more time to explore the area in front of the temple. It is dominated by a massive ginkgo tree (note to self: be sure to visit again in late November/early December to see its golden glory) under which is a pretty dry stone garden. There is also an intriguing bronze incense burner–check out the feet. And what temple courtyard is complete without six Jizo statues?

The gateway led to a pretty little courtyard/garden, home to an elegant bronze Kannon statue, and more temple buildings, but the remaining three mysteries remained mysteries until I encountered a friendly priest who provided further information.

First, he admitted that Mystery #6, a petrified Paulownia stump, was behind his home and could not be viewed. Mystery #7, the ever-blooming cherry tree, was in the cemetery and therefore also off limits. Fortunately, Mystery #4, the “star well” that is said to give the temple its name, could be seen through an archway at the back of the courtyard. The star well is a deep freshwater well whose water is said to reflect the stars in the sky, even during broad daylight when no stars can be seen in the sky. Maybe I’m not pure enough, but I couldn’t see anything but my own reflection when I looked into the well.

As I was leaving, I noticed one last mysterious object, but the friendly priest had disappeared so I could not ask about it. The roof line of the Kannon Hall formed a curious pyramid shape, topped with a cupola that resembles a Japanese traditional palanquin. Like many temple roof peaks, it bears a jimon, temple crest. Jimon are usually the kamon, family crest, of the noble or daimyo family patron of the temple. This particular jimon/kamon is known as kuyo and symbolizes the sun and the eight planets revolve around it. It is, alas, one of the most common crests, leaving me with the mystery of which mighty family may have patronized this temple or whether in fact the use of the kuyo here has more to do with the star valley.

But a little mystery is a good thing, right? It just reinforces what a puzzle Japan can be.

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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