Ikoma and Heguri

Shrines and Temples in Ikoma and Heguri

The cultural history of Ikoma and Heguri dates back to the prehistoric times when this hilly undulated land was ruled by powerful clans who left tumuluses as their traces. The origin of Japan’s indigenous religion later defined as Shinto had already present in those days as an animism or natural worship which was emerged sporadically from the deep psyche of primitive tribes. Those rituals were taken place in front of the natural elements such as mountains, rocks, trees or temporary built structures where deities known as ‘kami’ in Japanese rested. Those natural elements were, however, substituted by permanent shrine architecture under the influence of newly emerged foreign religion.

Buddhism, as the Mahayana school, was first introduced to Japan in the mid 6th century and soon proclaimed as the national religion by aristocrats. The recognition and the propagation of this new belief heavily affected the ethics of the nation. Unlike Shintoism, which is rather collectively worshiped as the faith for the community, Buddhism is basically an individual practice and associated with decorative architecture and images. Under the religious syncretism, the country has dotted by Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines both of which add spice to the history with such an unique religious circumstance of the nation.

Among many Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines founded in this area, those introduced below are relatively famous ones whose history date back to ancient times and still play an important role in this modern world with the support of many worshipers.

Takayama Hachimangu Shrine

Although Ikoma City is now thoroughly modernized, each part of the city keeps traces of its past. Ikoma used to be a rural area and famous for paddy fields and cottage industries to which Chasen tea whisk was particularly regarded. Chasen is the must item for tea ceremonies and still actively produced in Ikoma holding the largest share of the market. The most Chasen manufactures are located in the north part of the city called Takayama which used to be governed by the clan with the same name as the part.

Apart from smaller shrine dedicated to each village, there was the larger shrine in the area which integrates the villages. Takayama Hachimangu was the main shrine of Soejimo County located in the current north part of Ikoma City. In medieval times, it was particularly well worshiped by Takayama clan, who invented the tea whisk with local villagers and organized the guild in order to protect the skills and industry. The origin of the shrine dates back to a temporary shrine built in 749 as a stopover for Hachiman Kami who were transported from Usa, Oita prefecture, to Nara where the Great Buddha statue was under construction. Hachiman is one of the most popular shrines in Japan and Usa Jingu has been known as its headquarter.

Hachiman Kami were first appeared in 571 at Usa primarily as local deities of agriculture and the sea for good catches. Hachiman’s principle kami is the Emperor Ojin who was on his death enshrined as a deity of war. In the mid 8th century, the Emperor Shomu invited the Hachiman Kami to Nara as the protector of Buddhist temples and, later in the Middle Ages, Samurai warriors joined the approval. Consequently, Hachiman was largely recognized throughout the country and currently about 14,800 Hachiman shrines across Japan.

The current main hall of Takayama Hachimangu was built in 1572 featuring the sankensha nagarezukuri construction; architecture of three-bay wide structure with a gable roof. The nagaretsukuri takes Japanese traditional architectural style called hirairi, where the building has its main entrance on the side which runs parallel to the roof's ridge. Following the tradition, the roof is thatched by barks of cypress tree and renewed periodically. The main hall was wholly renovated in 2020.

The name and address of the shrine is ‘Takayama Hachimangu’: 12679-1 Takayama-cho, Ikoma-shi, Nara.

Ikomataisha Shrine

Ikomataisha Shrine is often called simply Ikoma Shrine by locals since the suffix ‘taisha’ generally suggests shrines at higher ranking such as Izumo in Shimane or Kasuga in Nara. However, contrary to its size, Ikomataisha has been acknowledged even by the Imperial Family as it dedicates holy fires used in some important ceremonies of the clan.

Located in the south part of Ikoma City, Ikomataisha stands on a heavily forested hill that keeps the natural landscape of Mt. Ikoma. The forest, designated as the Natural Treasure of Nara Prefecture, surrounds the shrine amplifying holiness of the site where protectors of local villages have been enshrined. The shrine is formally called Ikomaniimasu Ikomatsuhiko Jinja, that implies the name of the local kami who is enshrined with his accompaniment Ikomatsuhime-no-Mikoto, both of which have been recognized as the deities of fire.

As a record suggests, Ikomataisha had an appointment with the Imperial Court in the 8th century, but its history as a local shrine dates back to the mid 5th century. The shrine was farther enlarged in medieval period inviting five Hachiman Kami that include the Emperor Ojin, Emperor Chuai, Empress Jingu and her parents. Ojin was the essence of Hachiman Kami. He was on his death enshrined as a deity of war.

Because of such history, in the annual autumn festival, while the fire is apotheosized to celebrate the local kami, a performing ritual called Benzuri-mai reminds us the presence of the Hachiman kami. It is a humorous religious dance that assimilates actions of several rituals include movements of Hayato made as a sign of surrender to the Imperial army. Hayato was a group of people who were considered to be the Polynesian origin and originates to the Imperial Household.

Seven halls are aligned in the inner sanctuary of Ikomataisha hence it enshrines seven kami. It offers the rare view of shrine architecture since the shrine main hall normally stands alone or less than a few. Each main hall features the ikkensha kasugazukuri construction; architecture of one-bay wide structure with a thatched gable roof. The kasugazukuri takes Japanese traditional architectural style called tsumairi, where the main entrance is on one or both of the gabled sides.

In the precinct, there has been a Buddhist temple since the Middle Ages. The temple holds an Eleven Faced Kannon Bodhisattva as the image of Ikomatsuhiko. This mixture is the reflection of Japan’s religious syncretism in which Kami are considered as Buddhas themselves or their transformations who protect the sanctuary. This relationship is more explicitly schematized by the shrine’s mandara currently kept in the Nara National Museum.

The name and address of the shrine is ‘Ikomataisha’: 1527-1 Ichibu-cho, Ikoma-shi, Nara.

Kizuki Shrine

Kizuki Shrine stands at the mountainous region of Heguri Town that adjoins Ikoma City. Those administrative wards were once integrated but now each area asserts its own characteristics as an independent area. Like Ikoma City, Heguri Town has agreed to urbanization but it still keeps agriculture as its main industry and this helps to keep not only a rural atmosphere but also tighter relationship between the religion and community.

There are a number of shrines and temples in Heguri Town but most of them are small and often located on the side of a hill or a mountain. None of them expect to earn a sum of revenue from tourism, but solely stands watching over the community. As one of such shrines, Kizuki Shrine is remotely located near by the route across Jyusan Mountain Pass, which is one of the oldest and the most representative passes in the Ikoma Mountains. This isolation, however, helps to preserve an authentic look of shrine complex in its local atmosphere.

The origin of Kizuki Shrine is unknown yet it seemed to be founded during the Middle Ages, and it was temporally called Gozutenno-sha around the 18th century. The main hall features nagarezukuri construction with authentic thatched roof. It is the typical inner sanctuary made by unpainted plain timbers with a cypress bark roof. Those unpainted timbers retain the pristine charm of nature in the midst of which Shinto deities are evoked.

Kizuki Shrine is dedicated to Susanowo-no-mikoto, who is one of the central figures in the Shinto faith among about 300 kami appeared in the first records and chronicles of Japan: Kojiki and Nihonshoki. A Shinto shrine which enshrines the popular kami like Susanowo tends to its architecture unpainted.

Reflecting the religious syncretism, however, Kizuki Shrine seems to more proudly represent two Buddhist statues executed in the 15th and the 16th century, kept in the Buddhist hall. One of them, Jinja Taisyo Ryuzo Statue, assimilates a king which was first realized by famous Chinese priest Xuanzang as a reincarnation of Tamonten God who guards the north part of the Buddhist’s Heaven. This two meters high colored wooden statue with a glaring face is indeed quite rare example of this kind.

The name and address of the shrine is ‘Kizuki-jinja’: Fukihata, Heguri-cho, Ikoma-gun, Nara

Hozanji Temple

Beach trees deeply spread halfway up the eastern side of Mt. Ikoma, which used be the training ground of Buddhist monks and mountain worshipers and there were many small temples. In the late 17th century one of such temples was re-founded acquiring new images which would answer to lay people for ultimate divine grace in this world. The temple, newly named as Hozanji, was soon popularized and even a prosperous temple town was emerged which ultimately became a byword of the area for a long time.

On the side of the mountain, there is a rocky stretch that significantly rises and seen like an independent peak. It is a result of a mere volcanic activity in the prehistoric times so the ground is made from hardened lava. Its peculiar shape and harshness of the surface, however, immediately appealed to ancient people then worshiped as the symbol of divine.

The origin of Hozanji Temple dates back to a training hall built beneath the stretch in the 8th century by En no Gyoja; a legendary priest who has been defined as the founder of Japanese mountain asceticism called Shugendo. The hall was continued as a temple called Daishomudoji mostly worshiped by monks under discipline. The current complex of Hozanji was founded by a monk called Tankai in the late 17th century. At the age of 50, he began to re-construct Daishomudoji with the help of the local clan and villagers then thoroughly realized his plan almost a decade later.

Although the principle image of Hozanji is Fudomyo-o King created by Tankai himself, the most beloved one is the god called Kangiten. Affectionately called Shoten-san, Kangiten is known as the god especially for thriving business and ardently worshiped by merchants particularly in Osaka area: one of Japan’s foremost commercial ground. Since the time of its foundation, Hozanji has been highly prospered by donations of many successful merchants and even rulers of the day who believed the grace of Shoten-san.

Providing variety of images to worship in its large precinct, Hozanji has been the main spot for the most visitors traveling around Ikoma. Contrary to the temple complex, the surrounding area that made up the temple town no longer bustles as it used to be, but it still has a remnant of those days. Visitors can conveniently access to the temple with the cable line that started its operation in 1918 as Japan’s first railway of this kind.

Hozanji Temple is affiliated by the Shingon Ritsu school of Buddhism. Its full name and address is ‘Ikomasan Hozanji’: 1-1 Monzen-cho, Ikoma-shi, Nara.

Chogosonshiji Temple

It was not quite easy for Buddhism, as newly imported faith, to settle in Japan. Buddhism was first introduced in the mid 6th century from Korean peninsula but its presence provoked a conflict between influential clans for and against the acceptance of this unfamiliar monotheistic religion. Buddhism was, however, ultimately accepted then Prince Shotoku, a pro Buddhist noble and the pivotal figure in ancient Japan, founded temples utilizing Buddhism as a tool to govern the country under new ruling styles. Prince Shotoku also originates Chogosonshiji as it is inscribed in its forename.

Every Japan’s Buddhist temple has a forename called sango, literally the name of the mountain where the temple resides. The sango of Chogosonshiji Temple, Shigisan, was named after an event occurred in the late 6th century, in which prince Shotoku sensed Bishamonten God, who brought a lack, at an anonymous mountain. He appreciated the god’s grace and named the mountain Shi-gi which means believable and respectable founding a temple. Prince Shotoku brought Buddhism into national religion and in 604 ultimately issued Japan’s first constitution with his pious Buddhist faith.

In the late 10th century, a monk called Myoren took over the temple upon curing the emperor Daigo of his serious disease with his magical power. Daigo highly praised him for his act then named the temple cho-go-sonshi. Myoren hereditary set Bishamonten as its principal image which would attract wide range of worshipers. Bishamonten equals to Tamonten, one of four guardian gods of the Buddhist heaven, who fulfills wishes of success in business, wealth and good luck.

Like other large temples, Chogosonshiji enshrines various images which includes a big stone statue of Bodhisattva, but painted statues of tiger may be more eye-catching for many visitors. They are neither god nor the subject of worship but emphasize the presence of prince Shotoku, as it was the Time, the Day, the Year of the Tiger when he sensed Bishamonten at so far the anonymous mountain.

Along with Hozanji in Ikoma City, Chogosonshiji attracts many visitors all year round as one of the largest and most popular temples of the region. The current complex holds several halls with temple lodgings where visitors could stay overnight looking at exquisite evening scenery and taking part in religious services in the early morning.

Chogosonshiji Temple is affiliated by the Shigisan Shingon school of Buddhism. Its full name and address is ‘Shigisan Chogosonshiji’: 2280-1 Shigisan, Heguri-cho, Ikoma-gun, Nara.

Chokyuji Temple

The fame of Chokyuji Temple parallels to its main hall built in the Middle Ages. It is only the temple main hall in the region that is registered as the National Treasure of Japan and has been admired especially by professional carpenters due to its architectural significance. The history of the temple, however, dates back to the 8th century, about five hundred years before its completion.

Chokyuji Temple originates in a small hall that enshrined a Ekadasamukha, a eleven faced kannon-bosatsu statue, as a memorial of Onono-Mayumino-Takeyumi, who died in an unfortunate accident. Takeyumi, one of powerful clans of the area, was killed by his adopted son while hunting birds with still young emperor Shomu. Holding the kannon statue, whose top face was thus specially made with the handle of Shomu’s bow, the hall was gradually developed into proper temple complex.

The current main hall was built in 1279 but the roof was thatched 60 years later. Thatched roof, generally made with barks of cypress tree, is rare for temples but with which it could realize the beautifully up swept design that mimes the shape of a bird flying away. The main hall was accompanied by a three-story pagoda built in the same period. However, the upper parts were later lost and the only survived ground floor was sold in the mid 1930s together with the bell tower and the gate in order to squeeze out the money to repair the roof and other facilities damaged by a typhoon.

The main image of Chokyuji Temple has been the Ekadasamukha statue since its foundation. The current image was made of wood possibly in the early 12th century and stands in the main hall with other statues. The temple has been accompanied by a Shinto shrine since the time of its foundation. Under the religious syncretism, which had widely been spread into the society until the mid 19th century, the end of Japan’s feudalism, Buddhist temples were in parallel to Shinto shrines and vice versa.

Apart from lotus flowers, which symbolize Buddha, temples in Japan often consciously provide special flowers such as azaleas, phonies, rhododendrons, cosmoses or even roses according to its own preference. Chokyuji’s first choice is hydrangeas which enter full bloom usually from late May to the early summer. Together with seasonal flowers, many stone statues stand in the precinct welcome worshipers all year round.

Chokyuji Temple is affiliated by the Shingon Ritsu school of Buddhism. Its full name and address is ‘Mayumisan Chokyuji’: 4443 Kamimachi, Ikoma-shi, Nara.

Senkoji Temple

There is a nature trail paralleling to the highway along the ridge of Mt. Ikoma, which extends from the north to south marking the border line between Nara and Osaka. Although Mt. Ikoma itself has been the place of ascetic practice, the pass called Narukawa, on the way to Mt. Shigi, is particularly spotted as the place for Shugendo worshipers. Shugendo is a syncretic religion which venerates mountains as the home of sacred spirits. It is a mountain-dwelling asceticism, which incorporates animism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and other spiritual concepts.

Senkoji Temple is located on the east side of Narukawa Pass and has been known as the local center of Shugendo practice. It was established by a mysterious monk called En-No-Ozunu in the late 7th century, as the place where he and his mother called Shiratoume were practiced with other disciples, according to the temple’s legend. After the son left for his further practice to the south, Shiratoume still remained there and continued her own. This story made the temple the sacred ground for also women who were often excluded from this type of mountain religious practices.

As the name suggests Senkoji is the Buddhist temple but the essence of Shugendo is beyond the capacity of Buddhist practice thus it naturally shows aspects of other religious activities such as Shintoism. Known as religious syncretism, this kind of mixture is quite common in Japan, but a temple dedicated to Shugendo often creates more complex scenery in the precinct.

Despite its vagueness and mysterious features based on its particular idiosyncracy, Shugendo has been one of the socially recognized religious practices of Japan. Senkoji adjoins Gyoba, places of religious practice, in which visitors may meet Shugendo worshipers under practice. Their look and behavior trace the roots of Japanese spiritualism which still shapes the nation both collectively and individually.

Senkoji Temple offers Shugendo practice courses according to one’s experience. A youth hostel is provided adjacent to the temple. Both require provisional bookings.

Senkoji Temple is affiliated by the Shingon Daigo-ha school of Buddhism. Its full name and address is ‘Narukawasan Senkoji’ or ‘Motosanjo Senkoji’: 188 Narukawa, Heguri-cho, Ikoma-gun, Nara.

Guided tours are provided by Kenichi Nakatsu who is an official tourist guide interpreter of Nara Prefecture. Living in the north western edge of Nara, Kenichi works as a guide to introduce relatively unknown along with the famous spots of this insightful region of Japan. Special tours will be made according to the request. For more information and queries, please contact Kenichi Nakatsu.

Note: all photographs are taken by the author unless otherwise stated. No part of this website may be copied, reproduced, saved or reused.

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