Please allow me to say that the most beautiful temple in Tokyo is in my neighborhood. This may sound like a very subjective comment but please give Taishakuten Temple located in Katsushika a chance when you next visit Tokyo. You will not be disappointed if you have the slightest level of interest in temples. You can get to Shin-Shibamata Station from Asakusa in 17 minutes and from there it is a mere five minutes walk to Taishakuten Temple and its amazing wood carvings. The temple was founded in 1629. Do not get excited though. Its main structure was rebuilt in its current form in 1929 and miraculously survived the World War II bombings. Most of the temples that you will see in Japan will be presenting themselves to you in their rebuilt form. It is in most cases due to fires or other natural or man made catastrophes. Knowing this may occasionally get people less enthusiastic about the temple visits but I think the rebuilt structures and the surrounding atmosphere are still very good at taking you back in time.
Soundscapes of Japan
Taishakuten Temple is included in two lists published by the Ministry of Environment of Japan – 100 Soundscapes of Japan and 100 Landscapes of Japan. While the purpose of the latter is quite obvious, you may wonder what the first list is all about. It is a list aiming to promote the discovery of the sounds of every-day life, combat noise pollution and pass these beautiful sounds to the next generations. While the list is expectedly dominated by the sounds of nature, there are also some cultural (thus Taishakuten) or craft making sounds included in the list.
As it is the case with most temples in Japan – a traditional narrow shopping street will lead the way for you to the beautiful Nitenmon Gate built in 1896. Enjoy the gate and the front yard but the real reward is hidden inside. You will have to pay 400 Yen to get to the inner sanctuary where the carvings are located and it is definitely worth it. The admission price also covers the temple’s beautiful Japanese garden. I was most of the time the only one in the garden and had the luxury of enjoying the remote neighborhood sounds while sitting on the bench for maybe at least an hour. While in the garden, you can also treat yourself to cold or hot tea but I think I would prefer the absence of that modern tea machine for my visual pleasure at the expense of not sipping tea while walking in the garden.
Our Burning World
The wood carvings all depict a story from Lotus Sutra and they are all accompanied by English translations. My favorite was the one carved by Koun Kijima titled “Three Carts and a Burning House” where a house burns and we humans are depicted as kids still playing around in blissful ignorance of the burning World surrounding them – “we people are like children busily playing in what is a burning house without any fears. The tree carts were readied by their caring father to rescue them“.
The carvings were sculpted by different artists and some of the them were area locals. Do not forget that there are additional carvings on the ground floor even though the above deck makes the area feel a little bit claustrophobic. The carving area is covered by glass roof making it possible to visit in every season and even during the mighty rainy season in Tokyo (June-July)!
You can exit the temple from its back door and find yourself in front of Yamamoto Tea House, which is also home to a very beautiful garden with giant windows allowing you to enjoy it while sipping your tea. You can just visit the tea house for 100 yen or get some matcha tea and sweat treat for 500 yen. This former home built for a camera part merchant in 1920s was turned into a tea house in early 1990s and is another nice touch in Shibamata, which really makes you feel disconnected from the extra urban vibe of Tokyo. The seating area is divided into two big and couple other smaller rooms. There were around ten guests when I visited the tea house during a weekday afternoon but I assume that the place may get quite packed over the weekends. Shibamata – while little known to international visitors – is a quite popular destination for locals.