Ikegami Honmonji

When people talk about "Edo", they usually are referring to the sprawling city that surrounds the castle built by the Shogun. However, not everyone has precisely the same view of what the geographical boundaries of Edo are. There isnt any clear border that divides "Edo" from some other city or province, such as the border between Musashi province and Sagami province, for example. Some people would say that the city's Southern and Western borders are the large gates at Takanawa and Yotsuya. However, the city already sprawls well beyond these two landmarks. The average person usually thinks of "Edo" as a much wider area, extending into the suburbs and farming villages that surround the city, and supply it with much of its food.

For most city residents, at least, the little town of Ikegami probably represents the furthest southern limit of what they call "Edo". Ikegami is much like any other small farming town in the area, with a few large shops and other buildings lining the main road, clusters of wooden farmhouses with thatched roofs, and extensive fields of rice and vegetables stretching down to the banks of the Tama river. However, one thing about Ikegami distinguishes it from the other villages in the area, and give it an importance in the minds of people not only in Edo, but throughout the country. On top of the steep, flat-topped hill which looms over the town sits a vast temple complex known as Ikegami Honmonji. This is the main temple of one of Edo's strongest Buddhist orders, the so-called Hokke, or "Lotus" sect. The main temple and the multitude of smaller temples, shrines and monestaries dominate the entire town.

The Lotus sect is an branch of Buddhism which is found only in Japan. The sect was founded by the monk Nichiren back in 1260, and after Nichiren passed away, the site where he was buried became the headquarters of the Lotus sect. For centuries, Ikegami has been the center of religious worship, and a place of pilgrimage for all people who belong to the sect.

When Nichiren was born, the Minamoto Shoguns had just finished establishing their rule over the country. The Minamoto family were the first rulers in Japan to receive the title of sei-i tai shogun, or simply "Shogun". This title effectively made them the leaders of the entire military class (the samurai). The head of the Minamoto family, Yoritomo, received the title of "Shogun" as a reward for defeating another powerful family, the Taira family, who had rebelled against the Emperor. However, once he became Shogun, and thus gained control over the warrior class, he and his descendants became more powerful than the Emperor. Since 1192, when Yoritomo received the title of Shogun, the Emperor has always been just a figurehead, and the real power has been in the hands of the Shogun and his bakufu (military government). The Minamoto set up their capital in the town of Kamakura, which is about 50 kilometers from the current site of Edo castle. Therefore the Minamoto government is often called the "Kamakura Bakufu"

Nichiren was a poor but very intelligent young man, and at a very early age he became a Buddhist monk. In those days, monestaries were important centers of learning, as well as centers of political power. However, many of the main Buddhist sects had become corrupted by their power, and no longer spend much time on real prayer, meditation and religious devotion. According to tradition, Nichiren spent long years wondering what to do about the corruption. Then, one day he had a revelation which changed his entire life. Threreafter, he decided to try to lead others back to a purer form of religion.

Unfortunately, Nichiren was always a rather annoying fellow, and when he began teaching his brand of Buddhism, he quickly made lots of powerful enemies. Nichiren harshly criticized the monks and priests from more established Buddhist sects. He said that they had become lazy, corrupt and worldly. His inflammatory speeches won him a few close followers, but most people were very upset by his outspoken criticism. Eventually, he became so annoying and unpopular that the Kamakura Bakufu decided to exile him. He was driven out of Kamakura, and sent to live on Sado Island, a remote island in the far North, where the rulers assumed he could do no trouble. He remained on Sado for three years. However, in his absence some of his more charismatic (and less annoying) followers continued to spread his message. Nichiren's fame continued to grow, and eventually the Shogun gave in to pressure from his followers, and agreed to release him.

Nichiren was a bit nervous about going back to Kamakura, where the more established Buddhist sects were plotting more trouble for him, so he and his followers settled down at a more isolated temple in rural Sagami province. Despite the opposition of "standard" Buddhist sects and the disapproval of the Shogun, Nichiren's Lotus sect began to gain more and more followers. Many people who were dissatisfied with the Kamakura rulers or the established Buddhist churches decided to join the new religion simply as a "protest" against the status quo.

Unfortunately, Nichiren was also worn out from his years in exile, and his health began to fail. His followers pursuaded him to go to a famous onsen (hot springs) in the northern Kanto area in order to recuperate, but after crossing the Tama river he became so weak and ill that he could not continue. His followers found a place or him to stay at a small temple in Ikegami. Back then, the area was wild and remote. As the name "Ikegami" suggests, the hill on which the temple was built was almost entirely surrounded by marshes and ponds bordering the Tama river. Nichiren died a few weeks later, on October 13, 1282. His followers cremated his body beside the temple, and from that day forward the place where Nichiren died became a holy site for members of the Lotus sect

The road leading into Ikegami branches off from the Tokaido just a short distance from the river. If you look down the main road you can see the center of town, and a huge stone staircase leading up the hill to the temple complex. Ikegami has grown into a thriving town, since it not only is a center of farming in this area, but also receives hundreds of pilgrims, visiting the temples. On top of the hill, the huge buildings of Ikegami Honmonji soar above even the tall cedar trees that cover the hill. In addition to the many grand buildings and structures on top of the hill, hundreds of smaller temples crowd about its base. The site has become a popular place for the people of Edo to visit, especially those who belong to the Lotus sect.

The main road ends at the base of the hill, and a steep staircase made of large stone blocks lead to the summit of the hill-- 96 steps in all. The broad staircase is thronged with people, passing pilgrims, local villagers making a daily visit to the temple, clusters of street merchants selling religious charms, snacks and other goods, as well as a number of itinerant priests asking the pilgrims for coins. Why dont you give that fellow a copper coin and ask him to say a prayer for you.

Climbing up the stairs is exhausting, but now that we have reached the top, you can take some time to catch your breath. If you look to the south, you can have a great view of the Tama river valley. The Tama basin plays an important role for Edo. This relatively narrow yet fertile plain is filled with rice fields which provide food for the people in the city. It is a truly beautiful sight -- a carpet of lush green that shimmers brightly as the sun reflects off water in the rice paddies. Actually, the majority of the city's food supply comes from farms in the broad plains along the Ara, Edo and Tone rivers, or is brought in by ship from from Naniwa (Osaka). However, those areas are owned by other Daimyo. The land in the Tama basin, on the other hand, is owned directly by the Shogun. The rice grown here, therefore, provides an important supplement to the Shogun's tax revenues.

Although coins are used for many daily business transactions, rice is still the standard basis of currency and wealth in Edo. All of the Shogun's retainers and samurai are paid salaries based on rice. The standard unit of currency is known as a koku (about 5 bushels of rice). Since rice is the basis of wealth, and the key to maintianing strong finances, Shogun Yoshimune ordered much of the swampy land in the Tama valley to be reclaimed, building dikes and making the land suitable for rice cultivation. For this, and other measures, he earned the nickname kome kubo or "the Rice Shogun".

Well, if you're done enjoying the view, we can move on into the temple itself. As is the case with most Buddhist temples, the entrance to the main temple grounds is guarded by an enormous wooden gate that serves as both an entryway and a watchtower. These gates are not only for decoration. Back in the days when the entire country was at war, temples were often used as fortresses and strong points in the battles. Some of the monks even got involved in the fighting themselves. Therefore, the gates of many temples are as strong and solid as the gates of a castle.

Inside the gate is a broad, gravel-covered plaza. On either side of the gate are statues of the "Thunder Gods", who guard the entrance and keep evil forces out of the temple grounds.At the opposite end of the plaza is the enormous main hall of the temple. This is used for large gatherings of monks, and it is also the building that the pilgrims visit to make their offerings. Along both sides of the plaza are smaller chapels and shrines to specific gods or saints. Each shrine, as well as the main hall of the temple, has a large offering box in front of the door or building. People thros coins into the box and then clap their hands twice, before saying a prayer. Most people pray for good luck, health or good fortune. There is also a water fountain, where visitors to the temple wash their hands and feet, and rinse out their mouth, to purify themselves before going into the main temple. In front of the temple steps is a huge bronze censer, where monks and visitors burn incense. A column of smoke rises from the enormous bronze vessel, and a wonderful fragrance fills the air.

Ikegami Hommonji also has a five-storied pagoda. Though there are many temples in Edo, only a few have pagodas, and the one at Ikegami Hommonji is one of the most magnificent. It originally served as a watchtower for the Hokke monks, who were able to scan the Tama valley for any signs that their enemies and persecutors were approaching. Nowadays, though, it is just another decoration in this rich and elaborate temple complex. Although there are many other large temples in Edo, the beautiful rural surroundings and delightful scenery of Ikegami Hommonji make it perhaps the most pleasant and refreshing place to go for a quiet moment of reflection and prayer.

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