The majority of Tokyoites usually head on up to Tochigi Prefectures to see the majestic temples of Nikko, the onsen at Kinagawa or to eat gyoza in Utsunomiya. Over the last few years I’ve been off the beaten track a bit more when dipping in and out of the area and this time I explored a few places south-east of Utsunomiya.
The Mōka Railway is a small private rail line (17 stops) connecting Shimodate to Motegi and so back in early March (a few weeks before the State of Emergency began in Japan) I headed up that way to see some places of interest. It was a very early start as I left the Tokyo Fox Global Operations Centre at 6:30 am to cycle to Akabane for the 7:10 train to Shimodate via Oyama. From there it was a local line to Mashiko Station where I handed my ticket to the station attendant as I disembarked at 9:36 from the deserted single-car train.
There was no time to hang about in this pottery town as I needed to return to the station for the 11:18 train as they don’t come too often on this local line. My maps app said it was a 45 minute walk to Saimyoji Temple and so a bit of running was in order but such a thing is quite normal for me when exploring places where public transport is rather limited.
It was a very pleasant area and it’s always a relief to see a sign reassuring you that you’re on track. This one came about 20 minutes (if walking) into my journey which was along deserted countryside roads all the way but there are nature trails in the area where you can feel history, culture and nature with the mountains in the background.
To be fair, it was quite an easy ascend up to the temple grounds with just a bit of steepness at the end. Seeing these steps on arrival though didn’t please me! The fat, smiling bald god known as Hotei laughing at me from the side of the steps didn’t help much either!
My main interest at this place was Enmado; the hall that was built in 1714 and then rebuilt in 1743. It’s said to be a simple wooden structure with a thatched roof but those words seem a bit modest to me!
The sign outside said that five buddha statues were lined up in the building with the features of each one representing a different aspect of Buddha. I could only see three of them and from left to right we have Aku Douji, a laughing Yama (Enma Daio) and Zen Douji. Now you know!
Saimyoji Temple is a small complex featuring about half a dozen buildings (as well as all the usual temple fixtures and fittings such as stone lanterns, statues and so on) with the most prominent and symbolic one being the three storied pagoda which was built in the 16th century by Mashiko Iemune and it is a mix of Chinese (3rd floor) and Japanese (ground floor) styles.
The next sight was the one I was most curious about and it wasn’t too far away.
A ten minute journey to Kita Mōka Station followed by a 15 minute walk and I was stood in front of a huge 20 metre high statue of a lucky god with a koi carp in one hand and his rod in the other.
It’s almost impossible for me to not think of the place in Tokyo when I see or hear the word Ebisu but this Ebisu, with the prominent head and smile, is one of the seven lucky gods of Japanese folklore. It is enshrined at Osaki-jinja Shrine * (Higashigo Mōka 937, Tochigi) and is said to be the joint-largest Ebisu statue in Japan with the other one being Nakanotake Shrine (1248 Kamiosaka, Shimonita) in Gunma.
Ebisu is the only one of the seven gods of fortune to originate purely from Japan without any Hindu influence. He is the god of fishermen, love and economic fortune. This shrine was actually famous for a series of cases a few years back where the person praying for money here has then gone on to win some kind of lottery.
The rest of the shrine is a pretty normal-looking place other than the two characters standing at the foot of the giant red torii gate in front of the statue.
The final place of worship to visit was a small place not on the map called Shoren-ji Temple (1037 Aramachi, Moka) which was about 25 minutes away on foot.
This Benzaiten (Japanese goddess of love) is another stunning golden statue surrounded by 15 expressionless children in gold clothing but sadly I don’t have any other information about it.
The final port of call on this whirlwind trip to Tochigi was Mōka Station which is famed for looking like a steam locomotive. It was another 15 minute walk to get there where I then took the 12:26 train back to Shimodate and then down towards Tokyo.
* Not a temple but don’t let small matters like that get in the way of a good title!
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