By Avi Landau
The Phoenix Hall of the Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, is one of the Japan`s more sublime works of architecture and design. It is also one of the most familiar- since its image is stamped onto all the country`s 10-Yen coins ( while one of the phoenixes which adorns its roof- and is the source of its nickname- can be seen on the 10,000 Yen bill).
The city of Uji, prominently featured in the world`s first novel- The Tale of Genji, and famous today for its high quality tea, was a favorite spot for the aristocracy to build their summer villas during the Heian Period (794-1185). This was not only because it was conveniently situated midway between the old capital Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) and the even older capital- Nara, but also because the breezes by the banks of the Uji River provided a cooler refuge from the stultifying summer heat of those cultural centers.
So it was only natural that in the year 998, the Minister of the Left, and one of the most important men of his era- FUJIWARA NO MICHINAGA- bought an old villa in Uji and had it restored. And though the great minister did spend his last years there in peaceful seclusion devoted to religious contemplation, it was not until long after his death (in 1028), that a proper temple was built on the property by his son FUJIWARA NO YORIMICHI. What later came to be known as The Phoenix Hall was completed in 1053. Other buildings and landscape features were added later and over the generations , in a temple compound called BYO-DO-IN (平等院)
The building, along with its surroundings and interior decor which continued to develop over the years, grew to be not only beautiful, but also to perfectly encapsulate the religious ideas that were popular among Japan`s aristocracy of the time ( and which would later take a great hold on the general poulation, as well)- the belief that upon ones death, one would be saved ( be brought to the Western Paradise) if one had faith in the Buddha Amida ( who among other things, made a vow to save all those who trusted in him).
The most distinctive architectural features which help to accomplish this act of symbolic representation are the WING-LIKE appendages which come out of each side of the relatively small hall, which contains the main Buddhist image ( a seated Amida), and then bend forward. To someone who gazes at this structure from across the pond which lies in front of it, it appears as if the building is coming forward as if to gently embrace or even scoop up the viewer to be carried off to paradise ( it is for this bird-like quality as well as the bronze birds on the buildings roof that the nickname Phoenix Hall was popularized in the Edo Period). At the same time, through an opening, one can see the seated golden Amida, as if floating serenely in the center it all.
Later, if one enters the hall, one can see what for me are the most beautiful works of art in all of Japanese history lining the walls- a set of heavenly musicians carved ever so elegently in wood. Its truly as if one has been lifted off to paradise.
Not long after the establishment of Byodo-In, in the same Heian Era, though far, far from the capital and from Uji - in what is now Hojo Town in Tsukuba City, it seems apparent that a temple was built which had been MODELLED AFTER the famous Phoenix Hall. Unfortunately, however, today only the foundation stones upon which its posts were set ( along with some roof tiles) remain for us to see. It is the pattern which these stones form- showing the same wing-like extensions as the Phoenix Hall, that seem to confirm that the faith in Amida and the architecture which represented this faith, had spread all the way to the foot of Mt Jo-Yama (129.4 m), just to the south of Mt Tsukuba.
In the late Heian Period, a fortress was built on this little mountain ( more of a hill, you could say)- the new home of the TAKI ( also pronounced TAKEH) FAMILY, a branch of the great TAIRA. The Taki`s had moved to their new fortification from their former stronghold the MIMORI JO CASTLE ( a few kilometers away on the other side of the Sakura River)- on the same vast lands which the family had recieved for helping suppress the rebellion of Taira no Masakado.
It seems likely that it was one of the Taki`s rulers built the temple- perhaps under the influence of their relatives living in capital at the time.
We cannot be sure, however, since there are no written records left providing any explanation of the buildings origins ( though the ruins do seem to indicate that whatever the building was, it was destroyed by fire). The Taki Family was eventually wiped out after being wrongly accussed of rising in rebellion after the establishment of the first Shoguante in Kamakura.
No one had any idea that such an usual building had once existed at the foot of the old castle mountain until the year 1979 when a housing development was being constructed for town officials. Work was stopped when the foundation stones were discovered, and an excavation and survey were carried out over a period of two years.
Since the address of that particular spot in Hojo Town was HYUGA (日向), the ruin came to be known as the Former Hyuga Temple ( Hyuga Haiji Iseki, 日向廃寺遺跡).
The construction project was eventually re-started ( and what an eye-sore those buidings continue to be!), though the most important part of the site has been left as an open plaza- used as a playground by local children ( the few of them that there are in this severely GRAYING town!).
I am a regular visitor to the ruin- as I live not more than two hundred meters for them. In fact, every night I can sit and contemplate the Jo-Yama mountain from the comfort of my bath ( though the little mountain completely blocks my view of Mt Tsukuba!)
Appropriately, the narrow road which runs East-West by the old temple ruin is lined ( on its North side) by temples and shrines. The Westernmost of these – closest to the Western Paradise- is the Muryo-In- which belongs to the relatively rare Ji Shu Sect (時宗)- which emphasized faith in Amida ( by continuously chanting his name- and occassionally dancing ecstatically while doing so. The founder of this sect, Ippen Shonin, took the ideas of the Heian Aristocracy ( belief in the saving powers of Amida) and brought them to the PEOPLE- especially the poor.
There ARE other example of old temples modelled after the Phoenix Hall in Uji- most notably in the North-Eastern Region of Honshu Island. And though this area lies much further away from Kyoto than does Tsukuba- this makes sense. It was an area in which the Fujiwara Family,the family which built the Phoenix Hall, took refuge centuries ago.
The Former Hyuga Temple is thus an important an RARE example of such a temple in the Kanto Area. I try to conjure up what it would have looked like as I sit in my bath, imagining a golden image- seemingly afloat- and the inviting wings spreading out before scooping up in their embrace.