Tokyo-wan Kannon: a surprising pantheon of peace

For many in Japan, Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, has also come to be associated with prayers for peace and the repose of the souls of war dead. Predictably, this association arose in the years after Japan’s defeat in World War II, but the association remains these many decades after the war has ended, perhaps because of the many large statues of Kannon that have been erected as prayers for world peace.

One such statue can be found on a hill above the western shore of Tokyo Bay, south of the Chiba city of Kisarazu. Known as the Tokyo-wan Kannon, she stands 56 meters (approx. 20 stories) tall.

The statue, erected between 1957 and 1961, was the brainchild of Usami Masaei (1889-1978), a local timber merchant/builder who had witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by World War II and desired that no such war should ever recur.

The design of the standing statue, holding a pearl of peace and gazing serenely south toward to tip of the Boso Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean beyond, is based on the Kuse Kannon of Nara’s Horyuji Temple, a seventh century bronze said to have had Prince Shotoku (574-622) as its model. Like the Kuse Kannon, this statue is believed to protect people from suffering and offers the fact that no accidents occurred during its erection as evidence of that power.

Like many of Japan’s out-sized standing statues, it is possible to enter the Kannon and ascend to the top via a 324 step spiral staircase. While the idea of climbing 324 stairs is daunting, the climb is broken by carved wooden statues placed in niches in the central core at various intervals.

Between the third and ninth levels, the niches contain statues of Japan’s seven lucky gods, making the ascent simultaneously a seven lucky gods pilgrimage that can be commemorated by stamps for each god visited. The stamps are arrayed on a table at the ground floor entrance, which is guarded by a statue of Fudo-myo, the wrathful god known for his compassion. Don’t be tempted to cheat and collect the stamps without visiting each of the gods; Fudo-myo will catch you with the rope of truth he holds in his left hand!

The first of the seven lucky gods encountered is Ebisu, the only native Japanese of the seven. He is the god of commerce and a patron of fishermen and travelers. On the next three levels are the three gods originally from India: Daikokuten, Bishamonten and Benten. Daikokuten, said to be Ebisu’s father, is the god of agriculture and prosperity, while Bishamonten is a warrior god said to bring peace and Benten, the only female of the group, is the goddess of music and the arts.

The remaining three gods, originally from China, sit on the next four levels: Jurojin, Fukurokuju and Hotei. Both Jurojin and Fukurokuju are gods of longevity, although Fukurokuju additionally brings fortune and happiness. Hotei is a god of happiness and contentment. Unusually, in this depiction he is not carrying his never-empty cloth bag of gifts from which his name, which literally means “cloth bag”, derives.

Ascending further, there are niches containing statues of other Buddhist luminaries, including the founders of various Japanese Buddhist sects and, in a surprising show of ecumenism, even a Maria Kannon, a statue of Kannon holding a child that was worshipped for centuries by Japan’s hidden Christians as a depiction of the Virgin Mary.

Each statue is carved from a single block of wood by sculptor Kou Hasegawa (1909-2012), another Chiba native. Traditionally, wooden Buddhist statues are comprised of several carved pieces carefully assembled to make the whole. Hasegawa’s style of using a single block of wood is said to emulate that of the prolific seventeenth century sculptor monk, Enku.

About two-thirds of the way up, it is possible to go outside into caged walkways at the statue’s arms. Even on an overcast day the views are lovely; they must be spectacular on a clear day. It is said that Mt. Fuji and Tokyo Sky Tree are among the landmarks visible in the distance. Situated approximately behind the pearl of peace in the statue’s hands is a bronze replica of the Horyuji’s Kuse Kannon.

Needless to say, the passage narrows as it continues higher. Photos on the wall show the position relative to the outside of the statue until finally reaching a tiny chamber at the very top, where visitors can record their feelings in a guest book.

Back outside, the garden surrounding the statue is nicely arranged and even has a viewing platform overlooking a quasi-national park and Tokyo Bay below. Mt. Fuji is also visible from the viewing platform on clear days.

Getting There: The Tokyo-wan Kannon is most easily accessed by private car. Intrepid adventurers using public transportation can reach the Kannon via Sanukimachi Station on the JR Uchibo Line and walking approx. 30 minutes.

Hours and Admission: The Tokyo-wan Kannon is open daily 8:00-16:00; admission is JPY500 (adults); JPY400 (jr. high and sr. high students); JPY300 (primary students).

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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