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Archive for the ‘Temple’ Category

About two years ago I first wrote about hatsumode, the first shrine / temple visit of the new year, on the *Facebook page of Abandoned Kansai* after exploring the *Shiga Shrine*. Let’s make abandoned temples and shrines a new New Year’s tradition by following up with the Shimane Temple…

As I mentioned before, I take much pride in the fact that I do the vast majority of my location research myself, which often is a slow and tedious process, but extremely rewarding when successful. Since the spring of 2016 I’ve been extremely lucky to explore on occasion (i.e. two or three times a year) with an amazing Japanese couple and their friends. Explorations that include the weirdest hours (getting up at 3:30!), but also locations I haven’t even heard of before – and strangely enough after, it’s almost as if they create their own places that mysteriously vanish after we leave. And all I have left as proof are some quick photos and shaky videos… (I guess that’s the advantage of being well-connected – and being native speakers!)
One of those mysterious trips / locations included the Shimane Temple. At least I think it was in Shimane, Japan’s second least populous prefecture – but who knows for sure? We started in the middle of the night (not at midnight!) and explored two other places before we all of a sudden stopped on a tiny mountain road on that rainy and slightly foggy autumn day. Silence for a couple of seconds, then somebody said in Japanese: “We are here – it’s to the right, over there!” And indeed there it was, mysterious, almost surreal through the low hanging clouds: A large temple building, about three storeys tall… and it looked as if a giant creature, a demon probably, ripped off its whole front. If large wooden constructions could be injured like a living being, this one had a gigantic gashing wound revealing the innards of the temple. (And aren’t there people out there considering their bodies a temple?) I had never seen or heard of this location before, so it was an extremely stunning sight as it literally and figuratively came out of nowhere. Sadly, as always, time was of the essence with my Japanese friends, so I had less than 90 minutes to explore the temple and the nearby abandoned monk’s house… enough to enjoy the amazing atmosphere up there, but barely enough to do due diligence to this unique location. (And no, I don’t know anything about this temple. Not its name, not when it was built, not when it was abandoned, not when or why it collapsed. Strangely enough I actually don’t care in this case, the lack of information just adds to the mystery of the location.)
As much as I dislike exploring on rainy days, I strongly believe that the unfortunate weather elevated the experience that day – it felt a little bit like being in a different world, being in a different time. Everything came together perfectly… like on that sunny summer day when I explored the *Kyoto Dam*.

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Like many other countries, Japan struggled with religion and its negative attending ills many times. In 794 the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo, modern day Kyoto, when Buddhist clergy became too powerful and the Imperial household decided to break free from its influence. In the early 17th century Tokugawa Hidetada and Tokugawa Iemitsu struggled with Christian merchants and missionaries so much, that the Sakoku Edict of 1639 turned pre-modern Japan into North Korea 0.9 – more than 200 years later, religious freedom was restored, the total power of an absolute leader was abolished and the country opened again for modernization, trade and travelling. Since World War 2 a more moderate country in many ways, Japan had to dispel only two religious groups for criminal activities in the past 70 years: Aum Shinrikyu after their sarin gas attack at the Tokyo subway in 1995… and Ibaraki’s Myokaku temple for financial fraud – welcome to the Japanese Gold Cult!

The whole story started back in 1984, at the same time when Aum Shinrikyu was founded. The superintendent priest of the Myokaku Temple in Chiba prefecture established a company that sold aborted fetus bodhisattva. In 1987 he established a religious enterprise called Hongaku Temple and started to sell all over Kanto, before becoming an independent temple in 1988. Soon after, the Consumer Affairs Agency started to receive complaints and temporarily shut down business. Unimpressed, the gold cult bought the Myokaku Temple on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture to expand its business to Kansai – which at that point included spiritual consultations for 3000 Yen and performing memorial services for 1 million Yen (back then and currently more than 9000 USD!) as well as selling overpriced item like marble vases and items made from gold. Center of the scam were the ihai, spirit tablets believed to hold the souls of deceased people – the cult took care of thousands of them and placed them in two special buildings at the Myokaku temple; but obviously they didn’t take of them in a proper way, hence the fraud accusations. In December 1999 a Wakayama district court finally followed the Agency for Cultural Affairs request to dissolve Myokaku / Hongaku Temple – the organization subsequently lost a legal battle for survival in front of the Supreme Court.
Sadly and surprisingly I couldn’t find anything about the case in English or German, so I had to piece together above information from various very complicated Japanese sources; please feel free to correct me if I misunderstood something! (My knowledge about Buddhism is limited, so I tried to avoid specialized terminology when possible… and I still don’t know what happened to Mount Koya’s Myokaku temple.)

After hiking through the mountainous Japanese countryside for about an hour on a hot, sunny spring day I finally reached the headquarters of the former Japanese Gold Cult:  a cluster of about half a dozen buildings – and after climbing a rather long and steep flight of stairs I reached a regular looking building that probably was used for meetings and as living quarters. To the right, past a pond and a collapsed gate, there was a comparatively small storage house – nothing of interest. Up another small flight of stairs I found the main hall, which was hard to miss at it was by far the biggest building. Almost as good as new, with lots of dark corners and significantly colder than the outside, it felt kind of strange being there. Solo explorations are always a lot more nerve-wrecking than group explorations… but this location had a spiritual / religious component to it, obviously. I don’t believe in ghosts and I am not religious at all, nevertheless there is some awe-inspiring element to a lot of those institutions – graveyards like the Okunoin, cathedrals like the Kölner Dom… and abandoned fake temples like this one.
The main reason though why explorers from all over Japan travel to the middle of nowhere are two small buildings behind the main hall, in which the Japanese Cold Cult stored all the ihai – and the bling-bling of gold and black lacquer was indeed quite impressive and worth the long trip from Kansai!
I just had entered an official looking, administrative building, probably the one where visitors were welcomed, when I saw somebody outside through a window – so I left through the back without taking any video material or interesting photos. The parts I saw were small offices and a main room full of boxes and random items, not of interest.
The last building looked like a big, chaotic family home and was probably used for meditation. Since it was pretty much busted open, nature was taking over again and parts of the floor were rather soft and brittle. Again, items were scattered all over the place, as if somebody was looking for valuables without finding anything.

Three hours after my arrival I left with a heavy heart as I had an afternoon flight to catch. Exploring the headquarters of the Japanese Gold Cult was a weird and unique experience. On the one hand I felt a bit uneasy as I was exploring a crime scene solo, and the garden there wasn’t out of control (which means that somebody still had an eye on it), on the other hand it was such a tranquil and beautiful place, the peaceful atmosphere disrupted only once in a while by farmers tilling their nearby fields. The Japanese Gold Cult had been kept a secret for about a year or two – now that Japanese explorers gave away too many hints and its exact location kind of became common knowledge, I really hope that people will keep respecting it. Not because it’s a (fake) sacred site, but because it’s a beautiful and unique abandoned place that deserves respect!

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Momijigari (紅葉狩, red leaves / maple leaves hunting) is almost as popular in Japan as the worldwide way more famous hanami (花見, flower viewing). In spring even the biggest couch potato leaves the house to view first the plum and then the cherry blossoms, in autumn they go to different spots to have a look at the autumn leaves. Of course every bigger city has special spots for both, but some countryside towns are pretty much dead for 50 weeks a year and completely swamped on two or three weekends. In Kansai prime examples would be Yoshino (hanami) and Minoh (momijigari). Why? Because those two spots are considered the best – or at least amongst the best. Surprisingly many Japanese people pursue the best of everything – the best food, the best company as an employer, the best spots to view nature. Or at least they pursue what the majority considers the best. With the result that some food is insanely expensive, employers with famous names exploit their employees (because they can!) and the best spots to view nature are so overrun that it’s not really fun anymore going there – you stand in crowded trains for hours just to be pushed past gorgeous trees and through crowded streets with souvenir shops.
So while half of Kansai “enjoyed” autumn leaves in Minoh and Kyoto (just to put up photos on Mixi and Facebook to let everybody know where they went for momijigari…) I made my way to the Hyogo countryside in late November of 2011. My goal was to climb a small mountain with an abandoned temple on top. 15 months prior I was able to explore an abandoned shrine (*you can your all about it here*), so I guess it was only natural to follow an abandoned Shinto site with an abandoned Buddhist site. (I know that there are plenty of abandoned churches – but how about mosques? Has anybody ever heard of an abandoned mosque?)

The Shuuhen Temple popped up on two or three Japanese haikyo blogs before, but it was surprisingly hard to locate. Even more surprisingly since the place is still marked on GoogleMaps, and when you are rather close you can find guide signs – which left me rather puzzled for a couple of minutes about how abandoned the place really was. I guess now it’s more abandoned than ever, because in September of 2011 the street up the mountain was closed. Halfway up the mountain a landslide flushed away the small asphalt road on a length of about 5 or 6 meters – even tiny cars could barely pass here anymore safely.
When I reached the mountain top I must have been one of the happiest people in all of Kansai: A stunning view, gorgeous autumn leaves and a temple all for myself. Sure, I couldn’t tweet “I’m in Arashiyama! (Be jealous!)”, but I wasn’t bothered by souvenir shops and crowded locations. Quite the opposite. When I was walking around I had to be careful not to run into one of many one square-meter large spider webs with a nasty middle finger long black and yellow spider in it. The abandoned temple itself was rather unspectacular. All buildings were closed, in rather good condition, and I didn’t even have a closer look if there was a way to open them. I’m not very religious myself, but I respect the beliefs of others and try to be respectful. (Which doesn’t keep me from making fun of them if it’s getting too ridiculous – you know, thetans, magic underwear and stuff like that…)

Open and rather interesting was the house of the monk that lived near the Shuuhen Temple. It’s hard to tell when it was abandoned. Some buildings in Japan fade away in no time, others withstand the ravages of time as if they couldn’t care less. It looked like it was built in the 60s or 70s, given the black and white photos of the bell and the belle; judging by the wiring maybe even earlier. The decay there was clearly natural, because thanks to the temple’s location the average bored youth vandal spares the place. Strangely enough the digital display of the power meter still worked…

The temple itself seems to have quite a long history. According to the homepage of the city it is located in, the Shuuhen Temple dated back to Emperor Kotoku’s days (596 – 654) and was first built in 651. In 1578 it was burnt to the ground and stayed a ruin for more than a century until 1682, when it was revived again. Not much information, but way more than one could get for most other temples and shrines in Japan… Now it is famous not so much amongst urban explorers, but more amongst Japanese fans of ghost spots (心霊スポット). I guess it makes sense to look for paranormal activity where people traditionally believe(d) in spirits.

Exploring the Shuuhen Temple was one of those nice, mellow urbex experiences. Sleeping in, taking some local trains, a nice and sunny autumn day, some hiking, some solitude, cold temperatures, but warm sun, beautiful countryside. A relaxed Japanese Indian Summer day…

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