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Monday, May 25, 2015

Basho And Unganji Temple

Situated south of my hometown of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, is a very rural village known as Kurobane. That's the hometown of one of my bosses, Kanemaru-san.

It was he that first took myself and fellow AET Ashley (the not-so-secret girlfriend of myself) out to visit Unganji, a small temple retreat.

It's one of my most favorite places in all of Japan. And most people have never heard of it.

Images here are all mine, but feel free to use as long as you note where you got it from (Andrew Joseph or The black and white shots were taken in the early Spring, the color in early Summer between 1991-1993.

Now Kurbane itself had been famous once because haiku poet Basho had once traveled out there to visit students (with his student Sora)... on what he thought would be his final trek around Japan. At Kurobane, he wrote quite a few haiku - and there are seven stone markers containing those haiku (put up later)... composed by Basho and Sora.

Here's one, translated to English:

Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before the tall clogs of a statue, 
asking a blessing of my journey.
(situated at Komyoji temple) 

Basho had long wanted to visit Unganji, and did so on his second day in Kurobane. He stayed at this hermitage and wrote a few more haiku - many of which are now engraved on stone markers throughout the facility. I, of course, failed to take photos of them - because at the time, no one told me that they were haiku by Basho - just that they were famous haiku... and so I ignored them, not being able to read them.

Yeah - there's no English translation anywhere, mostly because this is NOT a tourist trap.

From Kurobane, it's a 15-minute drive through the winding roads, passing farmland and light forested area until you reach Unganji... though there is supposed to be a 30 minute bus ride... not sure from where, though - probably Kurobane... but getting there might be tricky seeing as how you would have to come from Ohtawara - also by bus.

The road will eventually start an incline up past the Yamizo mountains through a pass called Karamatsu-Toge (the Larch pass).

Once you cross the pass, you start coming down... opening up into a valley below known as Susaki.

Unganji is at the easternmost part of Susaki.

Mossy banks... it's still early summer...
In Basho's time, it is written by him that "The temple was situated on the side of a mountain, completely covered with dark cedars and pines. A narrow road trailed up the valley, between banks of dripping moss... the air was still cold, though it was April."

When you come up to Unganji, it's impressive.

That ain't no river! I always enjoy wandering off the beaten path. The bridge is behind me. I took a shot from her of the bridge, but there's a large cement drainage thingy jutting out of the water - Not zen.
There's a beautiful vermillion arched bridge that crosses over the Mumi-gawa... a river by name only, as it is a small stream.

There's a major difference between Chinese and Japanese-style bridges... at least those old-fashioned typical ones... yes, I know there are many style of bridges for each culture, but let's suppose you are watching something on TV, and you see an arched bridge... look at the railings or sides of the bridge... the Japanese have an open railing... you can peer through the sides, whereas the Chinese are solid... I don't know if that's true or not, but it's an observation of mine based on semi-experience. I've not been to China, but I've observed Chinese bridges.

Crossing the arched bridge, you arrive at the temple's main gate: San-mon.
My buddy Ken, the only Japanese guy I met who was a bigger perv than myself - seen here trudging up the steps towards the San-mon gate. IF you are on the left side entering, I learned you are supposed to enter with your left foot first so as to not show your butt to the middle of the temple as you step over the big timber threshold. Opposite is true if you enter from the right side.
Gates to temples are always quite impressive, and San-mon here is no exception... perhaps because it has nature closed around it to make it seem even more idyllic.

Now, since Basho made the visit back in the mid 1600s, we might expect that some of the buildings had been destroyed, but happily, this gate is still in its original state.

Step through the gate and you see a simple building, Zazen Hall, on the other side of the neatly raked gravel. Woodpeckers knocking on trees looking for bugs, birds chirping in a serene manner... it's all quite relaxing.

It's suspected that Basho wrote this haiku right there:

iwo-wa yaburazu
natsu- kodachi

Even the woodpeckers have left it untouched,
this tiny hermitage
in a summer grove.

On either side of the grounds are stone stairways (left and right), that lead up to Hondo, a main worship hall located behind the Zazen Hall.

There is still a hermitage - a lonely area - still on the grounds, but up high and away from the temple, but the stone stairs leading up to it are a bit perilous, and so it's been blocked off.

I climbed up a bit - again... I go where I'm not supposed to - and took the following shot:
This faces out to the entrance... the entrance gate is at the back and to the right.
I like roofs... it's an architecture point I enjoy - perhaps because it was so different from anything I ever saw back in Canada...
But, if we could climb up there, we'd find another Basho haiku (I think it's more like a tanka!!) which describes this little piece of zen accurately:

go-syaku-ni taranu
kusa-no iwo
musubumo kuyashi
ame nakariseba

This grassy hermitage,
hardly any more
than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
but for the rain.

For the visitor, note that this is not a sight-seeing place... this is a working temple. There are no restaurants or snack shops and certainly no vending machines.

There is, of course, a souvenir shop... which I suppose is still zen...
The shop was closed today, Sunday, in the early Spring... and yes, it was at an angle... that's snow piled up in front of the door.
I visited the Unganji temple about five times  - various people wanting to surprise me with visits to a REAL Japanese temple that feels zen - and not those ego-inflated ones in Nikko or Tokyo... plus a bike trip with one of my schools (Sakuyama Chu Gakkko)... I rode in a car, because you don't want me showboating with the students... and I would have.... we wouldn't have paid as close attention to the rules of the road if we were all trying to talk with one another... besides, as a teacher, I was ensuring that the kids weren't getting lost... weren't in any distress... didn't get taken out by any of the car-driving locos, I mean locales.

The place - Unganji - it was what I imagine it would feel like if I really could slip back in time. Not with the students... but when it was just myself and three other visitors... quite... serene... calming...

I'm not sure why I went all black and white with the photos (I did use black and white film), but I like the crispness it brings to photos... and in this case, a nice bit of shadow-play.
As you can see, I visited Unganji in the early Spring and Summer, amongst other seasons....

I'm a city boy... or rather I live and grew up in the suburbs of a huge city (Toronto), but I prefer being able to escape to the quiet locales like Unganji.

It's not spectacular with awesome architecture or carvings or the largest bell or rope or anything... but for me, Unganji has captured the soul of Japan... one long since lost everywhere else in the towns and the cities...

Andrew Joseph
PS: Special thanks to Matthew who, over one year ago, sent me a brochure on the place effectively telling me what the heck the temple was called! Thanks, buddy!


  1. You're right—I've never heard of it. That's near my wife's hometown in Tochigi City, though, so next time I am up that way I'll have to try to make some time to visit there. Looks and sounds like a great place.

    1. It IS, David. Small, but quaint. I think if you cross the street from the temple, you'll see a samurai burial mound or two... unidentified samurai... probably stripped of their clothes and weapons but buried there... perhaps paid top defend the town or temple, but dying in the process... no one is sure...
      Bring food and drinks with you!!!