It’s been more than six months since I meant to write this post… where last I left off, I’d just visited the three old samurai houses along Kaburaki-kôji, and it was still early in the day. Of course, since it’s been six months, sadly, I can no longer remember exactly what route I took, or how I was feeling, over the course of the day.
To summarize, then, I wandered around the town, which is wonderfully walkable, and checked out a whole bunch of Buddhist temples. I’d picked up a few tourist guide pamphlets and maps at the museum, which list 27 sites across town. Looking at the pamphlets again right now, I realize I missed the Sakura Old Samurai Town Museum of History and Folklore altogether. Drat. But, I did manage to make it to quite a few of the temples. It’s hard to tell from the tourist pamphlets which temples are going to be particularly beautiful, or which might be hiding some great historical significance. So, why not check them all out?
The main hall at Daishô-in.
The first stop was Daishô-in, which is located along the same street as the samurai houses. The home to two of Sakura’s “Seven Lucky Gods” – Daikokuten and Hotei – Daishô-in is also the site of the grave of Hosokawa Tadayoshi, a famous Sakura swordsmith.
Above: The Sakura Shinmachi O-hayashikan. Below: Hiyodori-zaka.
After making my way down Hiyodori-zaka, a small bamboo-lined walking path said to be (more or less) still in the same form it was in the Edo period, I made my way to the center of town, passing by quite a number of old homes dating to the Edo or Meiji periods, and the Tsukamoto Sword Museum, which is closed on weekends, and which I was thus never able to visit. I found my way to the Sakura Shinmachi Ohayashikan, where locals practice folk dances and the like for annual festivals, thinking that I might rent a bicycle, to get around town faster. There are several places in town that one can rent a bike, and it’s a wonderfully convenient thing that they offer it. However, I was advised by the kind woman manning the desk there that it wouldn’t really be worth it, logistically, for me, since bikes had to be returned by 4pm, and returned to one of several places nowhere near the guest house I was staying at (in other words, I’d have to return the bike and then walk halfway across town to get home). Besides, she assured me, the town is really quite walkable – and, dear readers, having now done it, exploring more or less everything there is to see in Sakura, on foot, I’d have to say I agree.
Noticing that quite a few of the temples on the map were quite close together, all along one small side street, I headed off in that direction. And, incidentally, I should mention, Sakura does an excellent job of having signs pointing towards the major historical sites in town. As you walk around the town, you’re constantly coming upon signs with arrows, “Jindaiji 300 m [this way]”, “Juntendo Memorial Hall, 1km [that way],” “Makata Shrine, right here” [point point]. It’s really quite nice, especially as many of the temples are hidden down back streets.
The main hall at Jindai-ji, originally built in 1726, but at a different temple, being moved here only in 1961.
Sôen-ji, home to the grave of Juntendô founder & Rangaku scholar Satô Taizen, was my next stop. It is also the Jurôjin shrine on the circuit of the Sakura Seven Lucky Gods. Sadly, I did not get to see the grave, but Jindai-ji, right across the street, would more than make up for that. Jindai-ji is the patron family temple, or ”bodaiji”, of the Hotta clan, who ruled Sakura from 1746 until the abolition of the domains in 1871. The temple itself is quite nice, with a main hall (hondô) with striking vermillion accents. But, the real key attraction, and I’d say for any fan of samurai history, perhaps the top historical attraction in the city outside of the National History Museum, is the Hotta clan graveyard, which contains the graves of all the Hotta clan daimyô of Sakura, including Hotta Masatoshi (1634-1684, rôjû under Ietsuna and Tairô under Tsunayoshi), Hotta Masayoshi (1810-1864, the chief shogunate official involved in negotiating and signing the Harris Treaty), and Hotta Masatomo (1851-1911, the last daimyô of Sakura, who built the Hotta clan mansion maintained on the outskirts of town). I’ve seen a couple of other clan graveyards – the chief one that comes to mind is that of the Hosokawa at Kôtô-in in Kyoto – but this is the first one I’ve seen where you can really sort of walk around in it.
Not that it’s all that huge – took me no more than five or ten minutes to see the whole thing, including taking pictures and such. It’s also an interesting space in that the temple itself isn’t that large, and is kind of next door, so to speak, so the clan graveyard really doesn’t feel contained within a temple grounds, so much as just sort of, there, along a small suburban street. I suppose, now that I look at my photos again, there is a wall around the cemetery, and gates that can be closed. But, even so, the approach from the street isn’t particularly marked at all – it feels more like entering an empty lot than it does a temple or historical site. Not that I’m complaining – this kind of variety only makes it more interesting. Imagine if all temples & historical sites looked the same.. it’d drain all the enjoyment out of it.
Above: The squat, plain main hall at Shôrin-ji. Right: The “Sakura daibutsu,” at Kyôan-ji.
Shôrin-ji, constructed under the patronage of prominent early Edo period figure Doi Toshikatsu, contains small memorial towers (kuyôtô) dedicated to Toshikatsu, his parents, and his wife, as well as the oldest wooden building in the city. Kairin-ji, meanwhile, is the patron temple of the Chiba clan, though I’m not sure there are actually any proper graves of famous Chiba lords to be found there. Another small temple in town, Kyôan-ji, is known for its large bronze Jizô, also known as the Sakura Daibutsu, despite not being nearly the size of the more famous Daibutsu in Kamakura, or that in Nara.
In wrapping up this post, I suppose I ought to say something about travel tips or the like, rather than just listing off places I saw. Generally, I’m a fan of just wandering around, taking in the atmosphere of the city, and seeing what you run into. I guess that’s the New Yorker in me. But, while that works well in Manhattan, and in a city like Kyoto which is about as dense as they get in historical sites on nearly every corner, in a place like Sakura, or for that matter, Naha, or almost anywhere else you might go, I do think that having a map is a huge help. Especially if, like myself, you do not have a full smartphone data plan in Japan, and thus cannot call upon the internet and Google Maps to help you find your way around.
Even when I was in Kyoto, though, and was in full-on roaming mode, I still usually had a specific destination in mind; and then, on the way to that destination, whether you get lost or find it quickly, you’ll find other things along the way. In Sakura, there were not necessarily all that many historical sites or the like of true interest along the way, but, in the process of traipsing around looking for temples, I did get to see quite a few back streets, residential neighborhoods, and to really get a nice feeling for the town, a bit more than if I’d stuck to the main streets and more exclusively to the bigger-name sites. And there really is something interesting and enjoyable about simply seeing the range of style of houses, the range of layouts of streets (gee, I wonder what it would be like to live on this tiny street, or on this major street, or up on that hill, or next door to this temple). Sakura also has an interesting variety of styles of temple gates – it might just be that I visited so many in one day, but it truly did strike me, how some temples had simply two stone pillars framing the entrance to the space, some had more elaborate roofed wooden gates, and some no gates at all; Myôryû-ji even has a pair of ornately carved white pillars topped with lion-dogs, one of which has sadly, however, toppled over. The temple buildings themselves are also quite varied, in a calm, simple sort of way.
Since I did visit so many in one day, and since each was so small, with very little to take notice of, or to set them apart, beyond simply the style of the buildings, I guess it helped focus me in on noticing the variety. I can’t quite figure out how to put it into words… of course temples have great variety – if you go around Kyoto, you’ll see some incredibly, wildly different buildings. But, in Sakura, none of the buildings are, to be honest, all that especially striking, and in a way, this makes the variety more… what am I trying to say? I guess, the great famous monuments of Kyoto will certainly give you a crash course in many of the most iconic buildings in Japanese history, but, Sakura gives me a sense of seeing a more standard, typical, variety of architecture such as would have (and, obviously, still does) exist in any average typical Japanese city. Kyoto, Nara, certain other cities, you know are going to have a rather special feel, because of their very special histories. But, in Sakura, the temples – their main halls, their gates – alongside old homes and shops from the Edo & Meiji periods, and more modern structures, come together to provide a real atmosphere of a “typical” (though I don’t know how typical it truly is) small Japanese city.
In my next Sakura post, I’ll talk about the Juntendô, and the Hotta clan mansion.
All photos my own.