Zojoji’s Sanmon: A Rare Look at a Gateway of Antiquities

Zojiji Temple in Tokyo’s Shiba neighborhood was once considered a guardian of the southwest entry to Edo (the old name for Tokyo). Visitors approaching the city via the Tokaido Road would have passed nearby and would, inevitably, have seen the massive awe-inspiring structures of the expansive temple complex, which was a seminary and center of Buddhist learning, as well as the family temple of the Tokugawa, shogun leaders of Japan from 1603 to 1868. Indeed, a number of Tokugawa family graves remain on the site today.

With more than six centuries of history behind it, the temple has seen its fortunes ebb and flow, and was very nearly closed after the Meiji government ordered a separation of Buddhism and Shintoism (shinbutsu bunri) in 1868. Although it survived, its precincts shrank; most of its major structures were then destroyed by American bombs in 1945. Many of these have since been rebuilt, although not always in their original locations.

One temple structure to stand through all of the temple’s reversals is the Sanmon or main gate. Once known as the Sangedatsumon, the gate was built in 1622 and is registered one of the oldest wooden structures extant in Tokyo.

Like many Japanese gateways, the gate is more than just a barrier. It is a building in its own right, with a large room high above the apertures leading from the street to the temple precincts. Many who pass through such gates are only dimly aware that they are actually passing through a building, so intent are they on reaching what is on the other side.

In the case of Zojoji’s Sanmon, those who pass through are passing (usually unbeknownst) under a chamber that houses incredible Buddhist statuary mostly as old as the gate itself. In a celebration of the gate’s fourth centenary, that chamber is currently open to the public (except on Tuesdays), for the first time in 11 years and for only the second time since the end of World War II.

This opening will last only until November 27, 2022. From April 2025 the entire gate and the artwork inside will be restored, an exercise expected to take about a decade.

Those in Tokyo should be sure to take advantage of this rare opportunity, which will not come again for at least a dozen years.

The Sanmon sits in a north-south orientation, with the temple to the west of the entrance. There is a ground level chamber anchoring each end of the Sanmon and visitors to the upper chamber enter from inside the gate itself through the chamber on the north end.

Friendly docents help point the way and also help visitors to navigate the ticket machines (entry fee is JPY1,000–cash only) and draw a card from a “lucky dip” box. These cards, resembling American baseball cards, contain drawings of one of the 16 arhats whose statues are waiting high above along with a brief explanation that the arhats are Buddhist “saints”. I have also heard them referred to as the disciples of Buddha. Hang on to this, it will have some meaning during your visit.

Next visitors must negotiate the aluminum ladder that has been installed to provide access to the upper chamber. Doubtless this is viewed as safer to ascend than the original wooden stairs. The overlayed stairs also prevent undue wear on the antique originals, especially since visitors are allowed to keep their shoes on. The docent exhorts visitors to climb with care and watch their heads when negotiating the even steeper second ladder above this one, and then watches anxiously as they climb.

At the top is a small landing with views of treetops and the street below and then one is in the vast upper chamber, its western wall covered by antique statuary and a small red altar place before the Buddhist triad occupying the center bay.

The triad are Shaka Nyorai (the Buddha) in the center position, flanked by Fugen (in Sanskrit, Samantabhadra) at his right hand and Monju (in Sanskrit, Manjushri) on his left. Fugen depicted sitting atop an elephant, is associated with devout meditation and dedication to doing good in the world. Monju, who rides a blue lion, symbolizes realization of transcendent wisdom and minimization of ignorance (something the world could certainly use today!).

These three gaze out the open windows into the distance of the street far below. When the statues were first place here their view likely reached to Tokyo Bay, now no longer visible thanks both to land reclamation that has pushed the shoreline farther way and the abundance of modern buildings.

Facing the sea with a mountain (well, a hill, really, but why quibble) at their backs, they sit in feng shui perfection. Indeed, Zojoji is often regarded as one of Tokyo’s best power spots for exactly that reason.

Take a bit of time to admire the structure itself, held in place with massive interlocking timber beams.

There is still more to ponder in the solemn and sacred room. Surrounding the central triad are dozens of other statues of Buddhist luminaries. They are faded and dust covered and will clearly benefit from the upcoming planned restoration, but they are still beautiful.

The sixteen larger statues are the arhats mentioned above. Each is labelled in Japanese with a name and number. I had drawn #12, Nagasaina, and another friendly docent eagerly helped me locate the corresponding statue. Nagasaina (also known as Nagasena) was a sage who lived around 150 BCE and is believed to have written some Buddhist texts. He is also credited with carrying to Thailand a statue known as the Emerald Buddha.

Once sated by the statuary, visitors depart by descending slightly gentler stairs on the other side, emerging back into the temple courtyard.

Once back in the courtyard, visitors may want to continue to explore the rest of Zojoji. The broad cedar tree planted in 1879 by former U.S. president Ulysses Grant and the belfry with its 15 ton bell, cast in 1673, are especially notable. Slightly up the hill is the massive central temple, the Hondo, with Tokyo Tower visible behind it. The land on which Tokyo Tower now stands was once inside the temple’s precincts. Immediately behind the Hondo stands a Tokugawa family mausoleum, the graves moved here from their original location (now the site of the nearby Tokyo Prince Hotel) after the mausoleum there was destroyed by American bombs. Beneath the Hondo is the temple’s treasure gallery (admission to the Sanmon provides a discount to the treasure gallery).

  • Entry to the Sanmon through November 27, 2022 is 10:00 to 16:00 Thursday through Tuesday. Admission is JPY1,000.
  • Entry to the Treasure Gallery is 10:00 to 16:00 Wednesday through Monday. Admission is JPY700.
  • Special Opportunity through October 18, 2022 – night entry to the Sanmon 17:30 to 20:45. Admission is JPY1,500.

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