Mizusawa-dera is nestled in the foothills above the Gunma town of Shibukawa. The temple is known for its statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. This statue has eleven heads and a thousand arms, so that she can hear all prayers and reach out to help those who need it.
Although many of the temple’s records have been lost to fire over the ages, it appears to have been founded with the imprimatur of the Empress Suiko, who reigned from 593 to 628, making the temple about 1,300 years old.
The ancient legend about this Kannon and the founding of the temple vaguely resembles the Cinderella story.
Princess Ikaho was the youngest of three sisters. Their mother died when they were still very young and their father remarried. But he was a warrior and often away and his new wife did not like her young step-daughters. So she decided to do away with them.
The step-mother managed to drown the first two sisters in the river, but when it came Princess Ikaho’s turn, the Princess prayed for divine intervention to save her. Her prayer was answered by Kannon, whisking her away to safety. Later, after she was married and living happily ever after, she founded Mizusawa-dera and had this Kannon statue installed in gratitude for her timely rescue.
A visit to Mizusawa-dera begins from the Nio-mon gate, situated between two flights of stairs up the mountainside to the temple. There are a total of 97 steps to ascend. The number is symbolic since nine is “ku” in Japanese and seven is “na” in Japanese and the Japanese phrase “ku na” can also mean “don’t suffer” (something anyone ascending/descending icy stairs aspires to).
The two story gate was last rebuilt in 1787 and has recently been restored. In addition to the traditional Nio (deva king) guardians facing outward, the inner chambers of the gate also contain statues of the gods of wind and thunder. Don’t forget to look up at the dragons painted on the ceiling!
Dragons are also closely associated with Mizusawa-dera. The reasons for this are a little unclear. Some stories say that Kannon assumed the shape of a dragon when rescuing Princess Ikaho, while others suggest that the dragon is a reincarnation of one of Ikaho’s drowned older sisters, which also performs good deeds and acts of rescue.
Currently the second floor of the gate is also open to visitors (no indication of how long this will continue), if you are game to brave the extremely steep stairs. Inside are three gilded Buddha images thought to date to the seventeenth century, as well as images of 16 rakan (arhats). On the veranda outside is a chance for a close-up look at the structure and its carvings. The view of the village and valley below the temple is another reward for making the climb.
When you reach the courtyard, having ascended all 97 steps, the main temple in front of you is so inviting that you are tempted to immediately visit, but in fact, you are intended to first ring the temple bell, off to the right of the courtyard. Although the privilege costs you JPY100 per ring and is not compulsory, it is said that ringing a bell gives voice to the Buddha and brings good fortune to the ringer. But to ring the bell after worshiping can be bad luck. So if you want to ring the bell, do it first!
Next, visit the main temple which, like the Nio-mon, was last rebuilt in 1787. It is a colorful building, with lots of carvings under its eaves.
Plenty of dragons and other characters representing various legends appear in the decorations of the building.
The Mizusawa Kannon is a particularly popular object of worship among women, as she is said to especially help ease troubles in marriage, childbirth and motherhood. At the same time, she is said to help overcome seven life difficulties and provide seven life pleasures. Perhaps for this reason, there are seven possible bells to ring when praying at Mizusawa-dera.
Situated between the temple’s bell and the main temple building is a distinctive, almost Chinese looking, two-story structure known as the Rokkakudo (six-sided hall) or the Jizodo (Jizo Hall). Inside the ground floor, six life-sized statues of the bodhisattva Jizo stand on a kind of carousel. These Jizo represent the guardians of Buddhism’s six realms of rebirth and existence: hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods and gods. It is said that if you turn the carousel (by walking along side it) three full rotations while fervently praying, your prayer will be answered.
The Shaka Hall, a modern building holding the temple’s treasures, and especially a triad of gilded statues of Shaka Buddha, is up a slope above the bell tower. Along the way, there is a small hall dedicated to Fudo-myo, the wrathful yet compassionate god, and some small concession stands. Across from the Shaka Hall is an outdoor produce stand with great prices, open daily and run by friendly local ladies. Perhaps even friendlier than the ladies at the produce stand is the coffee vendor operating out of a van nearby. His tasty coffee and warm personality beckons you to linger, even on a sunny winter day. (By the way, he’s also a big fan of the anime character Doraemon.)
In the village below the temple you will find lots of restaurants offering the local speciality, udon noodles. They are most popularly served cold with a dipping sauce, but bowls of hot noodles are also available. Shimizu-ya claims the title of the oldest udon restaurant at Mizusawa-dera, with 500 years of history and photos and drawings of past premises hanging on its walls, along with records of when members of the imperial family have dined there.
There is no direct train to Mizusawa-dera. From Tokyo take the Shinkansen to Takasaki Station and catch a Gunma Bus bound for Ikaho Onsen, getting off at Mizusawa Kannon (about an hour on the bus). If you’re driving, the temple is about 20 minutes from the Shibukawa Ikaho Interchange on the Ken-Etsu Expressway. It’s possible to visit Mizusawa-dera as a day trip from Tokyo, but it may be even more fun to combine a visit to the temple with an overnight stay at nearby Ikaho Onsen.
© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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