Finding Mercy at the End of the Earth: Enpukuji’s Iinuma Kannon

Looking at a map of Japan, there is a spot due east of Tokyo that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. This is the mouth of the Tone River, which, at this point, forms the boundary between Ibaraki and Chiba Prefecture’s. It is, in a sense, the end of the earth. Yet it is a vibrant fishing and shipping port with centuries of history.

One of the area’s most historical items is a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, which, legend has it, was pulled from the river by two fisherman in 728AD. Veneration of Kannon had only begun in Japan about 100 years before. Kannon is a boddhisatva, an enlightened one who has chosen to postpone Nirvana to instead help humanity end their suffering. She is often depicted with 11 heads (10 of them on top of the head like a crown), to allow her to see in all directions to find those who need her help, or with 1,000 arms to allow her to render aid in myriad ways.

Enpukuji temple was established in the early ninth century by the Buddhist evangelist Kukai (now known as Kobo Daishi) as a home for the Kannon statue those fisherman pulled from river, known as the Iinuma Kannon. More than 1,200 years later, in spite of various ups and downs, Enpukuji remains a popular center of worship.

There are, in fact, two Enpukuji Temples within a couple of blocks of each other. Old maps on display in the temples indicate that the river’s mouth was once a delta with multiple islands and waterways, but modern landfill and flood control measures have pushed the river into a single, albeit wide, channel north of the temples. The Enpukuji closer to the river, is a modern, ferro-concrete red and white structure built after its predecessor was destroyed during a World War II air raid, while its sister temple is a solemn wooden structure surrounded by a traditional cemetery.

Each, in its own way, pays particular homage to Kannon. At the wooden Enpukuji, with its quiet, serene atmosphere, stone statues representing the 88 temples of the Shikoku henro pilgrimage (also established by Kobo Daishi) and the 33 incarnations of Kannon dominate the temple yard. Peek inside the temple to glimpse antique carvings and paintings as well as traditional altar decor.

The red and white Enpukuji, the one housing the Kannon statue, is a busier place. Between the two story niomon gate and the elevated temple building is a courtyard bustling with activity and various other structures and items of historical interest.

Most prominent is the 33.5 meter tall five-storied pagoda, built in 2009. On public holidays and on the 8th and 18th of every month (as long as the weather is fine and there is no wind), the ground floor of the pagoda is open so that visitors can step in and see the Medicine Buddha inside.

This new pagoda replaces one that was destroyed in the World War II bombings.

Behind the pagoda is a curious spot marked off by an iron fence. Inside is a stone plate known as a genpyoseki. The signboard explains that this spot is a piece of Japan’s civil engineering history, the starting point from which water levels of the Tone and Edo Rivers were measured by Dutch civil engineer I. A. Lindo from July to November 1872 in order that he could advise the Meiji Government on river improvement and flood prevention measures.

Another feature of the courtyard is the 5.4 bronze statue of Nyorai Buddha. The statue, known as the Great Buddha of Choshi, was cast in 1711.

To the right of the stairs leading up to the main temple building is a bell tower and a dry stone garden. The garden includes a large stone lantern and, curiously, an old, disused temple bell.

Inside the temple, five colored cords hang from the ceiling in front of the donation box. They are the five colors of Buddhism: blue for space, white for air, yellow for earth, red for fire and green for water. On close inspection, one sees that the cords extend to inside the sanctuary where they are held in the hand of the Kannon statue at the altar. This Kannon is a modern replica of the one rescued from the river back in 728AD, which is hidden away in the cabinet behind the replica statue. Touching the colored cables is regarded as touching the statue, an act sure to result in answered prayers, or at least mercy.

Friendly, helpful priests and acolytes beckon visitors to step through a short passage and enter the inner sanctum where they can gain an appreciation of this temple’s respect for pilgrims and religious pilgrimage.

The ceilings of the two chambers on either side of the altar are particularly noteworthy. The one on the north side is made up of 100 panels on which are painted 100 images of Kannon, images of the Kannon statues to be worshipped during three famous pilgrimages: the 33 Kannon of Bando (of which this is number 27), the 33 Kannon of Saikoku, and the 34 Kannon of Chichibu.

In the chamber on the south side, the panels depict the Buddhas of the 88 temples of the Shikoku henro pilgrimage. The priest encourages visitors to lie down on the tatami floor to better appreciate the artwork on the ceiling.

If you are lucky enough to visit Enpukuji on the 8th, 18th, or 28th of any month, try to stay until dark as the entire complex is specially lit up on those nights. All other days, the temple is open from 8:00 to 17:00.

Enpukuji is a 5 minute walk from Kannon station on the Choshi Electric Railway.

© 2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
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