13th Temple: Gokoku-ji

As the cab drops us at the gates of Gokoku-ji, the sun has dipped near the horizon on this 2nd of January. The sky is still blue, though, and the temple bustles with people celebrating New Year.  We climb a long staircase and pass through the Furomon Gate. In this magic hour before sunset, the temple grounds are bathed in saffron light.

Gokoku-ji is huge and renowned because, unlike most other temples in Tokyo, many structures remain from the Edo period, even some from when the temple was founded. We walk directly to the main Kannon-do, built in 1697. Somehow this wooden hall has survived fires, earthquakes, typhoons, and the Allied bombing of the Second World War.

On a terrace below the Kannon-do stands Gokoku-ji’s oldest structure, built in 1691, the Yakushido, dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, the doctor who cures suffering by prescribing the medicine of his teachings. The Yakushi cult was most widespread in Japanese Buddhism’s earliest period. Before the altar, Ranjini prays for her father, for our children, and for us to have a long and happy life together.

Gokoku-ji was founded in 1681 by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty and the great-grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Just as Denzuin was dedicated to Ieyasu’s mother, Gokoku-ji is dedicated to Tsunayoshi’s mother, Keishōin, one of his father’s concubines. His father, the third Tokugawa shogun, preferred Tsunayoshi’s elder half-brother to succeed him, and so ordered that the precocious child be trained as a scholar instead of a samurai. The elder brother did succeed their father as the fourth shogun, but in 1680 he died and, despite his father’s precautions, Tsunayoshi came to power.

His main adviser was his mother, Keishōin, a deeply religious woman, devoted to Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism. Her influence can be seen behind many reforms of Tsunayoshi’s rule, such as the banning of prostitution. He was a dog lover and is best known for his laws protecting animals, the Edicts on Compassion for Living Things, which earned him the nickname “The dog shogun”. His strict laws protecting animals (a man was executed for wounding a dog) led to packs of strays wandering the streets of Edo, and dog poop and rabies became serious public health issues. The problem was solved by building huge kennels in the suburbs of the city, where over fifty-thousand dogs were fed and cared for at taxpayer’s expense.

Gokoku-ji is also known for its many tea-houses, but we’ve arrived too late for fancy tea. As we wander the grounds, it grows dark and the crowds thin, but we’re attracted to the booths at the edge of the temple grounds. Some customers try their luck at firing toy rifles at targets in hopes of winning a prize. Besides the carnival games, they are selling noodles, tea and sake, and we’re hungry and tired.

Glad that we don’t have to undergo another frustrating search for a restaurant with vegetarian options, we both order noodles and eat them on plain wooden benches in tents lit by bare bulbs. I study my map and see that Gokokuji  Station is right beside the temple. We stroll back out through the Furoman Gate and down the stairs to the darkened street and to the station, where we catch the train back to our Tokyo Stay.

We do our laundry in the machine in our room, elated by our accomplishment: seven temples in one day! Tomorrow we take the Bullet Train to Kyoto, but we plan on rising early and visiting two more temples in the morning before we leave. Discussing our adventure, we eat the biscuits Buddha gave us during our first temple visit today. Such a wonderful day, like so many we’ve already spent together. What if we were to write it down, this random perfect day, this entire pilgrimage, captured in our two voices like a bee trapped in golden amber? We go to bed happy.

12th Temple: Denzuin

The temple Denzuin is best known for the fact that Lady Odai is buried here: in fact, Denzuin is her Buddhist name. She was the mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Without Tokugawa Ieyasu, there would be no Japan or Tokyo as we know them today. You might call him Japan’s King Arthur, except that there is much debate over whether Arthur existed at all. Ieyasu most certainly did. You might call him the George Washington of Japan, except that he did not lead a democratic nation out of colonial control. A warlord himself, he unified an island of warring fiefdoms into a nation, subjecting all competing warlords to his will. He was the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan for over 250 years.

Tokugawa’s roots are twisted to say the least. He was the son of Matsudaira Hirotada, the daimyo who ruled Okazaki Castle. His wife’s mother was also his father’s step-mother, so she was both his mother-in-law and grandmother. (His grandfather must have married the young bride, his 2nd wife, near the end of his life and they had no children. She then remarried and gave birth to Tokugawa’s bride-to-be). Tokugawa’s father was seventeen and his mother fifteen when they married, but the marriage only lasted until little Ieyasu was two years old, when his mother’s uncle defected to the Oda clan, who attacked Okazaki Castle. His parents divorced and his mother was sent back to her family. When he was five-years-old the Oda clan kidnapped him and threatened they’d kill him if his father didn’t sever all ties with their rivals, the Imagawa clan. His father refused, taunting that they could go ahead and slit the boy’s throat for all he cared. They did not. Instead they bribed his father’s servants to kill his father. Tokugawa lived as a captive of the Oda for a few years before being ransomed back to the Imagawa and becoming their hostage for many more years.

At fifteen Tokugawa married an Imagawa girl, Lady Tsukiyama, and a year later their son, Matsudaira Nobuyasu, was born. When clan-leader Imagawa Yoshimoto was killed by Oda Nobunaga’s forces in a surprise attack, Tokugawa switched allegiances to the Oda clan, and later married his son to Oda Nobunaga’s daughter to cement the alliance. A few years later, his son’s wife wrote a letter to her father accusing her Imagawa mother-in-law of scheming against him. When Oda informed him of this claim, to show his loyalty Tokugawa had his wife beheaded and, being concerned that he would eventually try to avenge his mother, forced his son to commit seppuku.

Presumably it was Tokugawa’s father who taught him that blood is not thicker than ice.

He must have been reunited with his mother at some point. Two years after he had unified Japan under his rule, she was buried in 1602 at Denzuin and the temple, which had already existed for two centuries, was moved to the site of her burial and renamed for her.

He lived for another fourteen years, constantly strengthening the position of his lineage, and died in 1616, the same year that Shakespeare and Cervantes died. He is perhaps best known in the west for outlawing Christianity, a policy that led to the execution of thousands of Christians, and forced the Japanese Christian church underground

Since arriving in Bunkyo this morning, we’ve visited five temples on foot, but Denzuin, though still in Bunkyo, is far enough away that we need to take the train. It’s less than a ten-minute walk from Korakuen Station, up a hill, until we reach the grand gates of Denzuin, completed in 2011. Like almost everything else in Tokyo, the old temple was destroyed by the Allied bombing in World War II.

It’s late afternoon: daylight is waning, the air cooling. We pass the cemetery where Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mother, Lady Odai, has rested for over four centuries. We’re searching for the office where we can get our go-shuin books inscribed, and discover it beside a lovely tea room, where we rest for half an hour from our long day’s pilgrimage. A young monk serves us tea and tells us about the temple. They offer classes in yoga, haiku, calligraphy, and the rudiments of the tea ceremony. The young monk is pleased to see Marcus Powles’ book about the pilgrimage, and we chat for quite some time. I snap a photo of Ranjini beside a beautiful golden Kannon figurine before we set off for the main hall.


We climb the staircase and enter the Hondo, where we sit and meditate on the tatami mats. It is a large and peaceful space. The main image is Amida Buddha, with images of Kannon to the right and graceful two metre wooden Kannon to the left of the altar.

We descend the staircase, make our way back past Lady Odai’s tomb and out the gates to the street. Flagging down a cab, we leave Bunkyo behind.

10th & 11th Temples: Daien-ji & Enjyo-ji

Daien-ji in Bunkyo, like New Year’s Day, is often associated with headaches. While the celebration of another circuit of the sun has produced many a headache, the shrine to Horoku Jizo at the side-gate to Daien-ji is known for healing them. Sufferers write their name, address and ailment (the nature of their head pain) on a slip of paper, place it on an earthenware plate, and balance the plate on Horuko Jizo’s head. It is their hope and belief that Jizo will take their ache from them, presumably into his own earthenware cranium.

The fame of Horuko Jizo provides a steady revenue stream for this temple, just as the six childlike Jizos of Gyoran-ji attract the donations of grateful parents whose children have recovered from sickness as well as from grieving parents whose children have died of illness. Jizo guides the souls of these deceased children from the hell realms. Parents even offer money at Jizo shrines to protect the souls of their miscarried, stillborn, or aborted offspring.            

A large haloed Kannon framed against the blue sky greets us as we enter Daien-ji. Perched on a lotus pedestal, Kannon presides over the temple grounds. The staff in his left hand (this Kannon is clearly male) is most often associated with Jizo and is used for prying open the gates of the hell realms; his right hand reaches down toward us.

We leave our go-shuin books to be signed while we pay a visit to the main temple hall. Unfortunately, it is closed, but we’re able to peer through the glass at the shrines, which are well lit by natural light through screens along one wall.

The main image in the central altar is so far away that it is difficult to see, but apparently it is a seated Shakyamuni Buddha sculpted by noted Japanese artist Takamura Koun, who died in 1934. This sculpture was saved from the bombing in World War II by being buried underground. Takamura Koun was born in 1852 in Edo and is famed for his wood carvings, as he persisted in using wood as a medium when his contemporaries were carving ivory (and profiting accordingly). There are other sculptures in the temple hall done by his students to replace sculptures that were destroyed in the Allied bombing raids. We bend and peer through the glass at the three major shrines. Buddha, Jizo, Kannon.

After collecting our go-shuin books, we leave Daien-ji, passing the Horuki Jizo shrine, where we stop to see the plates balanced on his head. From there we set off to nearby Enjyo-ji.

Born in 1666, Yaoya Oshichi was the daughter of a greengrocer in Bunkyo. In December 1682 the Great Tenna Fire swept through Edo, killing thousands and destroying huge swaths of the city. Yaoya and her family fled to Enjyo-ji where they were given shelter. There she met a young page who worked at the temple; she fell deeply in love.

The great fire was extinguished and Yaoya returned home with her family, but the fire within the sixteen-year-old girl raged on. She tried returning to the temple to see the young man, but again and again was sent away. Her parents told her to forget and move on, but all she could think of was him. Would she ever see him again? How could she survive without him? Why couldn’t the monks and her family understand that they were meant to be together? Was there no justice in the universe?

In her misery, she devised a plan to get back inside Enjyo-ji and reunite with her beloved. A great fire had brought them together: what was needed was another fire.

Yaoya was spotted lighting the fire and, once the flames had been smothered, she was arrested for arson. Fires were such a common terror in Edo that it was known as the “City of Fires” and very strict laws had been enacted in an attempt to prevent them. The penalty for arson was death. When the judge heard Yaoya’s story, he was moved to mercy. If she were only fifteen, she would not be old enough to be tried as an adult.

            “You must be fifteen years old,” he said.

            “No,” she said, “I am sixteen.”

            He took a deep breath and gravely shook his head.

            “I think you must be fifteen.”

            “I am sixteen,” she insisted.

On March 29, 1683, at the Suzugamori execution grounds, just outside the gates of Edo, Yaoya Osichi was burned at the stake for the crime of arson.

While Enjyo-ji was a large temple in Yaoya’s time, it’s now a single small hall with a booth at the front where we leave our go-shuin books to be signed as we peer through glass at Buddha between Jizo and Kannon. At the temple gates is Yaoya Osichi’s grave and a shrine with a small Jizo statue that, according to legend, she once owned.

Enjyo-ji is our fifth and final Bunkyo temple, marking the end of the first third of our pilgrimage.

9th temple: Jyoshin-ji

After ramen lunch, we wander toward Jysohin-ji. From a block away, we spot Hotei beckoning, a pearl cradled in his left palm. In China he’s called Budai. This particular representation at the gates of Jyoshin-ji has travelled all the way from Taiwan. In the west we’re familiar with him as “Fat Buddha” or “Laughing Buddha”, but he is not Gautama. He is a jolly fat monk with a huge sack slung over his right shoulder, a bit like Santa Claus, but without the reindeer and elves and fixed address: no workshop at the north pole. His cloak is red and his skin stark white, his belt a black sash, like a martial artist or sumo wrestler.

Budai lived in China over a thousand years ago. He left a death note claiming he was an incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, a millenarian messianic figure who will return to teach the pure dharma to the suffering world. He’s part of a long procession of travelling monks, but at the same time stands outside the mainstream of a tradition extending all the way from Gautama himself, to ascetic monks meditating on mountaintops, to troubadours and other pilgrims (like us), to tramps and hoboes, with their meagre belongings in sacks tied to sticks carried over their shoulders. Today they might push a shopping cart. Hotei is different because of the size of his sack and because of the smile on his face. Most of his brethren are a sorrowing and sorry crew of travellers, like Beckett’s tramps. Somehow, Hotei came to represent luck and abundance. Some say he stores blessings in his sack. Someone told Ranjini that he hauls away our worries.

His smile makes me think of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, though he carries more flesh. A Zen koan tells how a monk approached Hotei and asked him the meaning of Zen. Hotei dropped his bag. The monk then asked him how one achieved Zen. Hotei picked up his bag and continued on his way.

We enter the gates of Jyoshin-ji feeling blessed with abundance. Near the gate we meet Kannon holding a baby, another child draped over her shoulder, like Hotei’s sack. We think of our four children in Canada and Dubai.

Jyoshin-ji distinguishes itself from the other temples we visit in Bunkyo-ku (we’ll visit six today) by its size. For a local temple, it is large, though this morning we are almost alone on the huge grounds. Jyoshin-ji is mainly used for funeral services and as we approach the main temple we are surrounded by the dead, their graves stretching away all around. After dropping off our go-shuin books with the monk in the office, we climb the long stairs up to the temple, pausing to take photos at the incense burner wrapped around by a dragon with yellow eyes.

At the top of the stairs we find the main hall closed, but glassed completely so that we can peer in at the altar. This is a Pure Land temple. Amida Buddha is flanked by Seishi Bosatsu and Kannon.

To the left is a life-sized carving of a tiger, and to the right is the largest mukugyo in all Japan. The mukugyo is a fish drum, used in Pure Land Buddhism to keep the rhythm as the devotees chant the name of Amitabha. Simply speaking the name is enough to awaken oneself to our home in the Pure Land, which exists right here all around us in the world we sleepwalk through each day. This mukugyo drum is a metre-and-half high, two metres wide, and weighs over five-hundred kilograms.

We descend the long temple steps, retrieve our signed go-shuin books and, like wandering Hotei, proceed on our pilgrimage.

8th Temple: Seiren-ji

In 1977 Seiren-ji’s head priest, Joichi Nishioka, began planning the construction of a traditional wooden three-tier pagoda. Its model was one of the oldest surviving wooden structures on earth, the five-tier pagoda at Horyu-ji in Nara. The Horyu-ji pagoda dates from the Akusa period in the 7th century, at the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. Nishioka’s goal was to employ the traditional building techniques used in constructing this national treasure, but his ambitious project was found to have structural problems and had to be entirely dismantled, the work begun again.

On the second day of 2016, shielded behind dusty grey screens, the work continues. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, and we do our part by having our go-shuin books signed and buying another book: an English translation of the Heart Sutra from 7th Century Japanese (as opposed to a translation from the original Pali) done by American-Japanese writer Hideo Levy.

In the 7th Century, at the time of Buddhism’s introduction to Japan, the pagoda was the central structure of most Buddhist temples. Pagodas originated in China as an interpretation of the Buddhist stupa. The stupa, a reliquary, was a heap of stones meant to mark the grave and store the bones and other sacred relics of the Buddha (and also meant to symbolize the mind of Buddha). Pagodas originally served the same purpose. Unlike Chinese pagodas, the Horyu-ji five-tier pagoda is built around a single pillar, the shinbashira, the trunk of a cypress tree felled in the year 594, a thousand years before Shakespeare. This “heart pillar” is what has allowed an ancient wooden structure to survive 1300 years in a country that sits on “the ring of fire”, one of the earth’s most active fault-lines. The pagoda is anchored by this central pillar, allowing it to survive earthquakes that have flattened modern concrete buildings. The shinbashira is now used for “earthquake-proofing” modern structures such as the Tokyo Skytree, built around a central concrete pillar. I recall condominiums built this way in the Westend of Vancouver.

And so it was that on January 2nd, 2016 we purchased a translation of The Heart Sutra to help pay for the heart pillar for this auspicious and ambitious pagoda, an ancient modern visualization of the form of Buddha’s mind. The goal was to unveil the pagoda in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I’m writing this in 2021, so I know now that those Olympics were cancelled by a global pandemic. So far as I know, the pagoda has also not yet been completed.

Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Despite all the bustle of construction and fundraising going on at Seiren-ji, it is its neighbor, Kogen-ji, that we remember best from our visit. This area of Tokyo, Bungkyo, is dense with temples, and there is no fence to separate Serien-ji from Kogen-ji, so we don’t even need to walk back to the street to pass from one to the other. Kogen-ji is not part of our pilgrimage, but Seiren-ji’s small Kannon holding a lotus, the image related to the pilgrimage, is housed in an outer building that isn’t even open today, while Kogen-ji’s special treasure happens to be open to public viewing for the New Year.

Kogen-ji dates from 1589 and in 1697 they erected a spectacular eight-metre tall figure of Kannon on the site. This was destroyed in the WW II Allied bombing raids, but was re-erected as a six-metre, eleven-faced golden Kannon in 1993. Marcus Powles calls this the most beautiful Kannon statue in all of Tokyo. Housed outside the main hall, in a building much like a small chapel, this majestic Kannon is regal and awe-inspiring. He (for this is definitely a male Kannon) holds a golden Pilgrim’s Staff that stretches from the ground to higher than his head, though he is twenty feet tall. His eleven heads are surrounded by a huge golden filigreed halo.

The top of his Pilgrim’s Staff holds six rings, symbolic of the six karmic realms of existence: damned in hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asura (semi-blessed beings, partly good and partly evil, who exist in a realm of constant war), human, and heavenly beings.

I take a photo of Ranjini with Kannon over her shoulder and leave her to pray and to sit with Kannon. A small boy comes and gazes up at Kannon as she rests in the doorway of the chapel.

7th Temple: Jyosen-ji

Jyosen-ji in Bunkyo-ku is not well known. In fact, I found it impossible to find any information about the temple at all, other than what Marcus Powles tells us in his guidebook: it was built in 1621 but destroyed, like most everything in Tokyo, in the Allied bombings during World War II. The main temple image, a small golden sitting Amida Buddha, did survive the bombing, but the golden seven-headed Kannon had to be remade after the war. Jyosen translates as “purification” or “decontamination”. When I Google it later I find many other more famous temples named Jyosen-ji, along with references to decontaminating sites (such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant) that have been exposed to radiation.

The white building is a mixture of modern and traditional, with sweeping hip roof eaves. As we approach through the lush peaceful garden, we have no idea that this temple will remain with us as a favourite memory of our pilgrimage. The front sliding wooden doors are flanked by windows in the shapes of bells. We ring the buzzer and are welcomed inside by a friendly monk dressed in blue jeans and a denim robe—unusual—with a face familiar from a million carvings. If he told us his name, I’ve forgotten, and we did not write it down. The name I give him now is Buddha.

In India, a traditional greeting is Namaste, which means “I bow to the god within you”, and in Hindu/Buddhist tradition there is a Sanskrit saying Atithi Devo Bhava, which means, “the guest is god”.

Buddha himself was more often a guest than a host as he travelled around the country, spreading the Dharma. Monks were instructed never to stay anywhere longer than two nights, in order not to take advantage of their hosts. They begged for alms and enabled their hosts to gain good karma through generosity.

However, during the monsoon season each year the Buddha would stop for three months in a park near an urban centre, such as Deer Park near Varanasi, and the monks would set up a community there for that extended period. Supplicants would come to visit the Buddha and learn the Dharma, thus becoming guests, and gods, themselves. This communal living became a central innovation of the Buddhist religion that has lasted 2500 years.

We are Buddha’s only visitors on this January 2nd morning. He shows us the beautiful altar room with the ancient Amida Buddha, the seven-headed Kannon, and countless other resplendent relics. Behind the bell-shaped window openings are stained-glass renderings of lotus flowers against a colourful checkered background, light streaming through, and nearby a painting of Honen, the founder of the Jodo-Shu school of Pure Land Buddhism. When the monk returns with our go-shuin book he invites us for tea at a table overlooking the garden. He wonders how we discovered Jyosen-ji and we show him Marcus Powles’ book, which he has never seen before, and which, like everything else, delights him. There is a wonderful warmth to the man that makes him feel like an old friend we are seeing after a long separation. The tea is hot, its flavors subtle, and looking out at the beautiful gardens we feel an exquisite peace and happiness.

Ranjini takes a photo of the monk and me, and he offers to take our photo together in front of the altar. Afterwards, he leads us up close to the ancient Buddha, showing us some painted panels stored in cupboards under the altar, one of the hell-lands and one of the Pure Land. Dream-like figures float in suffering and ecstasy against the plain brown background. I take a photo of Ranjini with Kannon. She says a prayer to the goddess before we return to finish our tea by the gardens. I study the guide book and our Buddha gives us directions to the next temple, Seiren-ji, and gives us some cookies to take with us. We thank him and go.

Outside, we stay a while in the gardens, sitting on a bench next to the fat Buddha, enjoying the lovely morning air, before we set off on our way.

6th Temple: Gyoran-ji

In the story generally associated with Gyoran-ji, Kannon appears as a beautiful young maiden in a village market. The fish in her basket look so tasty that many people rush to buy them from her, to which she responds that she’ll only sell them to someone who will set them free. People laugh and no one buys her fish.

Each day she reappears in the market, her beauty driving the young men crazy. Many propose marriage to her, so she offers a challenge: in exchange for her hand, she will marry the man who memorizes the Heart Sutra, the dharma verse where Kannon was first introduced to the world. The next day twenty young men answer the challenge by reciting the verse. The young maiden congratulates them, but it is impossible for her to marry twenty men, so she tells the twenty that she will marry the one who can memorize the Diamond Sutra. The next day four men are able to recite the sutra, and she challenges these four to perfectly memorize the entire Lotus Sutra within three days time.

Only one man, a young scholar, is able to pass the test, and the young maiden agrees to marry him. However, on the morning of their wedding day, the young woman falls ill and dies.  The entire community is overcome with grief, and the young woman’s body is buried. A few days later the grieving young scholar is approached by a monk who tells him that his betrothed was Kannon, and directs him to dig up her body for evidence of his claim. When the scholar and the villagers open her coffin they discover that the young woman’s bones have turned to gold. Mission accomplished, the monk disappears into thin air.

Two women wearing kimonos meet us at the gate to Gyoran-ji. We say the name of the temple and they nod and motion us inside. Ranjini tells them how beautiful they look and they nod and smile.  Six stone sculptures at the gate have been dressed in bright red bibs and hats to match.  These are Jizo statues. Jizo is a Bodhisattva usually depicted as a monk carrying a staff and a jewel or prayer beads. His principal role is to ease suffering and help those serving time in the hell realms. The statues are dressed in red bibs and hats because the colour red is associated with driving out illness and demons. There are six statues of Jizo to represent the six realms of suffering.

We enter the temple grounds and watch as a family approaches the main temple to ring the bell and clap their hands. We do the same, throwing a few coins in the box as an offering. Ranjini goes into the office to have our go-shuin books signed while I take photographs of three Jizo statues clad in red bibs and hats outside the doorway to the graveyard. There are two buckets of water before the statues and also plastic sacks of salt. It is traditional to offer salt to Jizo and to splash water on the statues as an offering. New Year’s Day is particularly important to the Jizo Cult: people petition the god for fertility, or recovery from an illness, or success in some endeavor, and tie a small piece of rope around the statue. On New Year’s Day the Priest cuts the ropes corresponding to wishes that have not been granted.

I walk through the graveyard, taking photos of the gravestones and the offerings that families have left to their ancestors, and watch as a father directs his young son to wash his hands before placing flowers on a grave. I think of my father, who died on the 6th of January, nine years ago, and of my Mom.

Ranjini returns with our go-shuin books, telling me that they are very busy with New Year’s preparations and the temple hall is closed. Ranjini tells the story of the fish-basket Kannon teaching dharma and we read in Marcus Powles’ book that her golden bones are also reputed to be a hidden relic of this temple.

Ranjini, I only realize later, is my fish-basket maiden.

5th Temple: Saikai-ji

In the Pali Sutra, Buddha tells the gathered monks to imagine the world an ocean containing a blind turtle that rises to the surface once every hundred years. On the surface of the ocean floats a single wooden cattle yoke.

“What chance is there the blind turtle will rise to the surface and pass his head through the wooden yoke?” Buddha asks. 

“Not bloody likely,” the monks answer.

“The likelihood is comparable to that of any non-human sentient being’s chances of being reborn as human,” Buddha says. “Only humans understand the dharma, follow its teachings, and find peace. Only humans can achieve enlightenment and be reborn in The Pure Land.”

The secret Kannon of Saikai-ji (like many Kannon, she’s hidden from prying eyes) stands on a turtle’s back. It’s an unusual representation, as there doesn’t seem to be any narrative explaining why she’s there. One educated guess is that this manifestation relates to the Pali Sutra and the blind turtle: Kannon is reminding us of how grateful we should be for our precious human lives.

Her choice of perch may also relate to her role as a protector of sailors.  One can imagine her appearing to them riding a turtle.

Many of Ranjini’s New Year’s prayers are for her dad. Only a month ago, she was called to Atlanta to be by his side. His health was failing and her mother and sister feared he might go at any moment, so she booked a flight from Dubai and rushed back to see him. By the time she arrived he had rallied. I flew down to spend a few days with her and her family in Atlanta.

My mother had died only six months before, on June 4th, 2015. I’d gone to Saskatchewan to visit her on Victoria Day weekend and was lucky to spend time with her before the end. Less than two weeks later she fell and fractured her knee. The doctors operated, and when they cut her open they found bone cancer. Then, on the operating table, her heart stopped. The medical team revived her and were surprised when she stabilized long enough for us to gather around her hospital bed. My sisters, my son Adam, and I were there with her when she died.

Ranjini’s father and my mother never met. Though from opposite ends of the earth, they had many similarities, the most obvious being that dementia had left them confused in their final years, the only time that Ranjini knew my mom and I knew her dad. Mom didn’t always know who I was at the end, and Ranjini sometimes wondered if her father knew her.

A more important similarity was the sense of calm watchfulness that I saw in Ranjini’s father and had always associated with Mom. They were both quiet, caring, and supportive parents.

In Hindu mythology a turtle holds up the earth. Ranjini’s father and my mother held up our two worlds.

Another important similarity was that neither feared death. My father, who died of lung cancer almost a decade before, fought the reaper to the very end, but my mother met him calmly, and if you asked Ranjini’s father where he was going, as he set off somewhere, he would often point to the sky and say, “Up there.”

Saikai-ji, once the French Consulate, has more the air of a government building than a place of worship. It functions now as a funeral home. We walk through the imposing gates to find ourselves in a parking lot, beside a small wooden shed. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of the shed, knowing from Marcus Powles’ book that this is the Kannon-do. We peer through a gap in the frosted glass but can see nothing inside.

Nearby, centuries ago, fifty Christians were executed after refusing to step on the cross.

We enter the temple office, ring the bell, and a woman tries to send us away before we get a chance to show our go-shuin books. The woman offers some pre-stamped pages. Ranjini points to the calligraphy from the previous temples and the woman impatiently asks for our money and tells us to wait outside. We stand in the parking lot and a few minutes later a friendlier woman brings us out our go-shuin with the new stamps and calligraphy. She smiles, bows, and we bow and go on our way.

4th Temple: Douou-ji

Entering the gates of Douou-ji, we find ourselves on a stone path bounded by a latticed fence on one side and a elegant temple floating above us against the blue sky. Douou-ji was established in the 17th Century, during the Edo period, and belongs to an ancient denomination of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo-shu, but there is little that is old about this temple or its grounds. The architecture is Modernist and minimalist, by Masaki Ogawa, and the temple was inaugurated in April of 2013. As we approach the ground floor along the path, we see to our right a fountain for performing ablutions and a cemetery where the graves are swept and polished. Families have left offerings for the ancestors before their gravestones: flowers, mochi, fruit, and beer. New Year’s is a particularly important time to give thanks to one’s ancestors. With gratitude for the past, we can face the future without fear.


Douou-ji is dedicated to the future of Buddhism. The lower floor of the temple, housing a community centre where weekly yoga classes are offered, is almost entirely glass, and a Zen rock garden bedded in white gravel extends in a rectangle both inside and outside the windows, connecting the inner sanctum to the outside world. On the inside, contrails in the gravel make lines that suggest the rocks move when you aren’t looking, tracing their own paths in the pebbles. On the outside there are circular patterns, wheels within wheels, descending to a single simple dot. The peaceful atmosphere of the garden and its surroundings make me feel content to sit and enjoy the calm, but we ring the bell and Ranjini tells the voice who answers that we’re here following the Edo Kannon pilgrimage.  The voice instructs us to come up in the elevator.

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The priest meets us upstairs and takes our go-shuin books to stamp, directing us outside to contemplate the Kannon-do while we wait for him to finish his calligraphy.  The shrine is located at the corner of the building, and we approach it along an upper deck that passes in front of windows revealing the main hall of the temple. This Kannon-do is one of the loveliest we’ve seen, with 33 different images of Kannon gathered from temples across Japan, representing her 33 different manifestations (seated, standing, eleven headed, thousand armed), all arranged inside the black box of the shrine. Ranjini sits while I photograph her image reflected in the glass between the camera and the varied Kannon images. Walking around behind the temple, I photograph the fountain and gardens and cemetery below.


Returning for our go-shuin books, we tell the priest how impressed we are by the temple. He’s pleased, and intrigued by the fact that we’ve come all the way from Canada. (Ranjini always introduces herself as from Toronto, even though she’s living in Dubai). The idea of West has a special status in Pure Land Buddhism, as the Pure Land lies in the West. Perhaps that is why Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest was used for the elegant beams that support the temple. The priest introduces us to his teenaged daughter, who is studying in Canada, and Ranjini tells them that her daughter will also soon be starting University somewhere in Canada. After exchanging email addresses, the Priest offers to give us a tour of the main hall.

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The room is flooded with light. At its centre is a golden Amida Buddha cast in the Edo period. A light tower above the statue showers down sunshine, and the windows behind the Buddha and behind us open the temple to the world and to the gardens and the ancestors lying below. Wooden chairs have been set out for a service. The hall feels open and spacious, with the focus squarely on the central Buddha. The architect, Masaki Ogawa, was concerned that dark and crowded ancient temples had left the Japanese feeling out of touch with their spirituality and so he designed this temple with the idea of renewing and deepening the intensity of a worshipper’s relationship with the Buddha and his teachings.

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3rd Temple: Ryusen-ji (New Year’s Eve)


And so we arrive on New Year’s Eve in Ryusen-ji, home of the black-eyed fire-god.

Our friendly guide leads us through the grand Nio gates, the monstrous horned guardians scowling down at us as we pass. I remember them from yesterday at Senso-ji, but at night, brilliantly illuminated, they are much more menacing.


Once inside, we are met by Fudo Myo-o, every bit as frightening as the Nio twins. Like us, he has come a long way: his origins are in India, as the Hindu god Acala. He perches to our left on a large stone. He has two fangs, one pointing upwards and the other down, and clutches a sword in his right hand, and a lariat in his left. Nearby two small waterfalls flow from a natural spring presided over by another image of the fire-god. Here initiates sometimes perform a purification ritual associated with the god by standing under the torrent of cold water.


We’ve arrived early and our guide and the few others at the temple are just setting up, readying for the celebrants, who will come closer to midnight. No one, though, seems to mind our presence. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of a tall Kannon statue.

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We climb the stairs alone to the upper temple and circle around behind to discover Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha, haloed in gold. Ranjini sits while I take more photos. We have no idea that the wrathful fire-god, Fudo Myo-o, is an emanation of this peaceful figure. Once frightened by the fire-god into believing, you are beckoned by Dainichi Nyorai toward the Pure Land.

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People have begun to arrive. At 11:30 a procession forms, led by two men walking abreast in purple robes (are they monks?), followed by eight monks in multi-coloured robes walking single file.  We follow the crowd toward the temple bell-tower, where we stand and watch and listen to the 108 gongs of the bell. I’ve heard it explained that there are 108 human sins and as we begin again in the New Year we are made mindful of them by this ritual. People snap photos on their phones. The final gong comes a moment after midnight.

It is 2016.

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We kiss and join the line and follow the crowd up the steps toward the temple, which houses Ennin’s original sculpture of Fudo Myo-o, now 1200 years old. We pass the dragon incense burner and Ranj directs the smoke over us; throw coins in the offering box, clap our hands twice, and bow. Exhausted, we make our way back down the steps, past the fire-god and through the Nio gates, by the sleeping lovers, who we still do not notice, and plod wearily back to the station to catch our train to the Hotel.



Lee and I make our way up the steps of the main temple. Time on our hands, not exactly sure what we’re waiting for, we begin to circle the temple, turn the corner, and see an immense Buddha sitting in absolute stillness. He is Dainichi Nyorai, especially important in Esoteric Buddhism: Vairocana Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism.

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This New Year’s eve, I pray especially for my father. Last summer, Lee and I had visited my parents in Atlanta.  Sitting out on my sister’s screened porch, my father would say, all-smiles and cheer, “See! See, God!” and point to the trees, or, “Listen, God,” and bow his head before birdsong and cicadas.

“I’m ready to go.”

“Where Daddy?”

His deep-set eyes still bright, “Up there.”


Some weeks before Japan, I had flown again from Dubai to Atlanta and on the day that I was returning to Dubai, we had admitted my father to the retirement home. I pray to the Christ whom my father loves with all his heart to release him from the limitations of his body.  I pray now that my mother will know when to bring him home so that he can leave this world from the bed that they have shared for decades.  I pray that he can transition from this world to the next with her by his side, from their home.

George and Sarah enjoyed a simple love and like the fabulous hikyoduri, they had flown together for almost 56 years.

Lee and I line up, throw coins, clap hands, and enter the temple where the goma fires burns away wooden plaques with last year’s wishes and prayers. I linger before the deities, smoke, and chanting.

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