Naritasan Shinshoji is one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Japan. It is a great place to visit if you have a layover at Narita Airport, as it’s only ten minutes away by local train.
1. Sightseeing spots
1.1 Omotesando street
To go to the temple from Narita Airport, you should take a train to JR Narita or Keisei Narita station and then walk for about 15 minutes. The approach to the temple is called the Omotesando street, an avenue of shops, restaurants and cafés having traditional atmosphere. Most of shops and restaurants are made of wood and some of them are more than 100 years old.
The avenue is a great place to browse local handicrafts, works of art, snacks and other foodstuffs, as well as good-luck charms and other souvenirs, such as Daruma dolls. There are also many restaurants offering Japanese food including grilled eel, sushi, and udon, soba, ramen noodles. Among them, grilled eel is the most popular dish for visitors.
1.2 Naritasan Shinshoji temple
The temple has a history of over 1080 years and it is a popular spot where over 10 million people visit every year. On the temple ground, there are many elegant old structures including the huge main hall, the three-storied pagoda, and the Niomon gate some of which are designated as Japan’s important cultural properties.
At the main hall, the Buddhist fire ritual called Goma ceremony is conducted by monks several times daily, and everyone is welcomed to witness and participate. The ceremony takes about half an hour. In front of a large old fashioned alter monks light fire, chant a sutra and beat drums. So, it is an ideal place to see something about the Japanese Buddhism.
1.3 Japanese garden
Behind the main hall of the temple, there is a beautiful Japanese garden. It is the strolling landscape garden that features paths around ponds. Mounds of earth, rocks, and trees are placed around the ponds in order to create miniature reproductions of natural scenery.
Maple and cherry trees are chosen for their seasonal appeal. Pine, bamboo and plum trees are planted because they are regarded as auspicious trees. Colorful carp fish swim in the ponds, which introduce additional color and life to the garden. It is very refreshing to amble along the paths in the picturesque gardens.
2. Cultural properties
The large temple precinct, about 200,000 ㎡, contains over twenty historical architectures.
2.1 Important cultural properties
There are five buildings designated as national important cultural properties.
(1) Komyodo hall（光明堂）
This oldest building was built in 1701 and used to be the main hall until mid 19th century. There are some old Buddhist statues including Aizome Myoo which is believed to help visitors find a partner.
(2) Niomon gate（仁王門）Niomon gate is located at steep slope in front of the main hall. This traditional structure decorated with wooden carvings was constructed in 1831. In side of the gate there are four statues of guardian gods which protect the temple from evil splits.
(3) Three storied pagoda（三重塔）
It was built in 1712 as a symbol of a Buddhist temple. There are many heads of dragons on roofs to protect the pagoda from firing because dragons have been believed to be a god of water. It enshrines a Gochi Nyorai Buddha statue.
(4) Shakado hall（釈迦堂）
This building was built in 1858 and used to be the former main hall. It is now used as a place to pray for warding off evil. It has many sculptures on walls and ceilings.
(5) Gakudo hall (額堂）
This building is a place to display sums and votive tablets which were dedicated by ancient visitors. It was built in 1861.
2.2 Other traditional buildings
(1) Main hall（本堂）
Main hall in which the principal deity, Fudomyo-o is enshrined. The fire ritual called Goma ceremony has been conducted by monks several times a day from ancient times.
(2) Somon or Main gate (総門)
It is 15m high and all made of zelkova, a kind of tree in the elm family called Keyaki in Japanese.
(3) Great Pagoda of Peace (平和大塔)
This 58m tall pagoda symbolizes the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. Visitors can transcribe scriptures with a brush or pen on the first floor. This practice of tracing Buddhist teachings by brush is a part of a monk’s religious training.
2.3 Fudo-myoo (不動明王) statue
Shinshoji temple enshrines Fudo-myoo which is one of the important deities of Japanese Buddhism. His statue can be seen in so many places in Japan that it’s not uncommon to find one near a waterfall or simply by a mountain path.
Fudo-myoo literally means “The immovable wisdom king”. He is the guardian of Buddhism and one of the five Wisdom kings along with Gozanze, Gundari, Daiitoku and Kongoyasha.
He has a scary appearance to be able to frighten people into accepting the salvation brought by Dainichi-Nyorai. He also battles evil with his immovable faith and his compassion.
3. Origin of the temple
■ 810: Kukai carved an image of Fudomyo (不動明王)
The Naritasan Shinshoji is a temple belonging to the Shingon sect of Buddhism which a famous priest called Kukai established in the Heian period in 9th century. He went to China, was initiated into esoteric Buddhism, and brought back esoteric teachings to Japan. Then he founded the Shingon school of Buddhism in Kyoto.
The image of Fudomyo is a valuable piece of sculpture made by Kukai by order of Emperor Saga. Kukai carved the image of Fudomyo in such a manner that for each line he chiseled, he prayed three times.
■ 939: The war of Taira no Masakado（平将門の乱）
Taira no Masakado, a samurai in Kanto which is the region including the greater Tokyo area of the eastern Japan, led a rebellion against the imperial court of Kyoto as he referred to himself as the new emperor.
In the age of provincial wars, people lived in constant fear and confusion. At the Imperial Court, Emperor Suzaku, who hoped for an immediate end to the rebellion, ordered Kancho, a Buddhist priest of the highest order, to take the image of Fudo-myo made by Kukai to the battlefield to suppress the rebellion. He sailed by ship from Osaka to Boso peninsula.
■ 940: Foundation of Naritasan (成田山の始まり）
The great priest Kancho enshrined the image of Fudo-myo in Narita and prayed for the end of the rebellion by burning goma, which are small pieces of wood on the altar to invoke divine help. On the last day of the goma ceremony, Taira no Masakado was defeated and peace prevailed in the country.
The great priest Kancho decided to go back to Kyoto, but the image of Fudo-myoo would not move. The image suddenly opened its mouth and said that Kancho should stay in Narita and save people there. This mysterious happening is the origin of Naritasan.
Written by: Eddy Murayama
Reference: Homepage of the Naritasan Shinjoji temple