Gumyoji: Yokohama’s oldest temple and its modern surroundings

While many people associate Yokohama with Japan’s 19th century history of opening to the world, since it was one of Japan’s treaty ports in those early days of modernization, this former fishing village and its surrounding hills have much more history to offer.

About five kilometers up the Ooka River from its mouth, near Yokohama’s original port area, sits Gumyoji, a Buddhist temple founded in 721 by an Indian Buddhist monk who had traveled to Japan during the early days of Japan’s reception of Buddhism. The hillside temple is now surrounded by a suburban neighborhood.

The temple’s historical approach is now a lively shotengai (shopping arcade) of the type that saw its heyday during Japan’s postwar economic miracle days. While many of Japan’s shotengai are in decline these days, unable to compete with the rising popularity of big box stores, this one appears to be thriving. Traversing it is a fun and interesting way to reach Gumyoji.

There are actually two stations named Gumyoji. The Keikyu line Gumyoji station sits behind Gumyoji temple, while Yokahama subway’s Gumyoji station is about 400 meters away, at the opposite end of the shotengai. It is the best place to start a visit to Gumyoji to get both a flavor of the neighborhood and a sense of the temple’s atmosphere.

All manner of goods and services are sold along the shotengai, which is covered with an arched, sky-lighted roof for its entire distance (even over the bridge crossing the Ooka River at roughly the halfway point). Along with a wide range of restaurants, fast food outlets, and coffee shops, there are stores with goods ranging from apparel and books to groceries, electronics and jewelry.

Just a block from the front gate of Gumyoji, don’t miss Mika Masaki’s little stand where she produces pictorial kanji characters in pastel colors. She can make a good luck talisman or craft a kanji name for someone who doesn’t already have one. It’s great fun to watch her work.

As one would expect from a temple with 1,300 years of history, the temple has seen many changes over the centuries and many important Buddhist scholars and teachers have played a role in its history.

Enter the temple through its Nio-mon gate, with two fierce Deva kings, carved in the late 13th century, standing guard. Six statues of jizo stand just inside the gate, the Bodhisattva who help souls move through the six cycles of rebirth, together with a very ornate Kannon statue.

Partway up the stairs leading to the main temple is a small pavilion dedicated to another jizo statue said to have healing properties. Rub the part of the statue that corresponds to any pain you’re experiencing and the jizo will take the pain from you.

To the left at the top of the stairs is a small structure containing a statue of Kobo Daishi (774-835), an early Buddhist monk/scholar who traveled to China to study Buddhism and founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism on his return. A kindly priest explained that his function here was to protect people during their yaku-doshi (calamitous years), certain ages which are thought to be unlucky for people and therefore ages when they most need divine intervention to keep them safe. Traditionally, for men those ages are 25, 42, and 61 and for women they are 19, 33, and 37. There are minor variations in different regions or communities.

The current main temple building dates to 1766. Originally it had a thatched roof, which was covered by copper sheeting in 1976, resulting in a very distinctive roof shape.

The temple’s main icon is an 11-headed Kannon statue that dates to the 10th century and has been listed as an important cultural asset since 1915. Photos are not permitted inside the temple building, but visitors can be deemed to have touched the statue by touching a pillar in the temple’s courtyard that is attached to the statue by a multi-colored cord. It is believed that five colors used, also on the banners draped across the temple’s entrance, when taken together, represent the one and only Truth.

One of the temple’s particularly unusual features is a small enclosure containing seven rounded stones. According to legend, when the Indian monk who founded Gumyoji came to this hill after traveling to various places in Japan, he felt its sacred power and knew that he should found a temple here. At the same time, he wanted to create some sort of barrier to keep the temple safe from evil spirits, similar to the role of the Nio-mon at a temple’s entrance, a more recently adopted practice. Back in the eighth century, the best the Indian monk could do was to put in place these seven stones as a kind of talisman against evil.

After finishing at Gumyoji, continue up the hill to Keikyu Gumyoji station. But don’t go in just yet. Turn left and follow the laneway as it ascends the hill into Gumyoji Park, a delightful green space atop the hill. While the park is famous for its cherry blossoms, its stands of bamboo and other trees make it a great place to decompress.

At the very top of the hill, directly above Gumyoji Station, is a lookout tower that affords 360 degree views of Yokohama and, on a clear enough day, even Mt. Fuji.

If you are visiting during the cherry blossom season and the pink of Gumyoji Park isn’t enough for you, head back down the shotengai to the Ooka River, which is famously lines with cherry trees all the way to its mouth. Enjoy the stroll.

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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One thought on “Gumyoji: Yokohama’s oldest temple and its modern surroundings

  1. Ichiro Araki says:

    Yokohama National University’s international dormitories are located in this area. Before it moved to the current campus in Hodogaya in 1974, the engineering department and its predecessor, Yokohama Higher School of Technology, had its campus here.

    Like

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