The Amida Hall in Kasuge, Tsuchiura (粕毛の阿弥陀堂) – and the story of the Eight-Child Amida (八子持ちの阿弥陀さま)
By Avi Landau
When the Tsuchiura-Gakuen Road (Rt. 24) was laid out in the 1970s, the old village of Kasuge (粕毛) found itself divided by the thoroughfares’ four lanes – and its venerable Amida Hall, which houses an ancient and cherished statue of Amida Nyorai, almost completely obscured by an unseemly overpass.
Besides catching glimpses of the hall`s roof as I passed by on the way to or from Tsuchiura (by car, bus or bicycle), I had the opportunity of seeing it up-close on several occasions – long before I had any idea of what it was. You see, the spot is a perfect place to park : for the Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition, the amazing egret nesting-ground along the the Sakura River (just over the bridge on the eastern bank), the Dondoyaki Bonfire (on the same riverbank, just to the south) or the Kanekizushi sushi restaurant located immediately to the hall`s east.
Once, though, after having had an end-of-the-year (Bo-nenkai) sushi lunch at Kaneki, my friends and I walked up to the large, brownish-red hall, before getting into the car, and read the big explanatory signboard posted beside it. It told us that the structure had been designated an Important Cultural Property (with details on its dimensions and architectural features) and that it housed an old Buddhist statue (also an Important Cultural Property) made of Japanese nutmeg-yew and covered in lacquer. A detailed description of the hall`s design sculpture`s physical features was also given – in cold, academic language, that dulled any interest my Japanese friends might have had. I suggested we try to peek inside, but nothing could be made of the interior, bathed in darkness, and I sensed that the people I was with would not have had the patience to wait if I had stood there till my eyes adjusted. So I headed off with them to where we were parked. On the way, my eyes were grabbed by some very interesting looking stone-Buddhas. Knowing, though, that those friends did not share my enthusiasm for such things, I got in the car rode off with them back to Tsukuba…. realizing that I would have to come back soon!
And come back I did, many times over the years – but always, as I have already mentioned, as a stop-over on the way to somewhere else. And while I still couldn`t get inside the hall and have a look at the old wooden Amida ( which is kept inside the special “cabinet” shown above), I was slowly but surely able to examine EACH of the stone Buddhas that were outside the hall (and found two of them to be quite rare – the Yakushi Nyorai (dated 1723) – and the stone Amida Nyorai from 1720 (see photos below).
Besides not getting to see the actual statue or even stepping inside the hall itself (all I could do was peek into the darkness through a wooden grating), something that continued to bother me was the name of the hamlet – Kasuge (粕毛) – in which it was located. I couldn`t find it in any of the books I have on the origins of place-names in the area . And it seemed so odd! The two kanji characters used to write it are – KASU (粕) – meaning dregs, junk, or scum – and then GE (which is written which the Kanji KE 毛), means hair, fur or plumage! I had no idea of what connection there could be to the place.
A Japanese-Japanese dictionary though, told me that when the two characters are combined they form a word that refers to the color of a horse`s coat, a color which English-speakers (who know a lot about horses) call Roan.
So when I discovered that just across the bridge, on the other side of the Sakura River, there was an old slaughter-house and a large stone monument erected to console the spirits of horses, I thought I might have found an important clue.
But then, when I was doing a little browsing at the tiny library inside the Oho Community Center and I came across a book that I had never seen before, published by the now (sadly) defunkt Joyo Newspaper – The Story of Tsuchiura – Told in 100 Tales. I flipped through the first few pages and found a chapter entitled:
The Amida of Kasuge (粕毛の阿弥陀さま) – Let me translate it for you.
The Amida Nyorai at the Amida Hall in Kasuge was actually part of what was once known as the Buddhist Triad of Nakaya Village (which formerly comprised several districts) along with the Yakushi Nyorai of the Jofukuji Temple in Shimotakatsu (see below) and the Shaka Nyorai of the Hannyaji Temple in Shishizuka.
The Amida statue is a standing image, about 150 centimeters in height, said to have been carved by none other than Prince Shotoku – who used the ITTOH SANREI (一刀三礼) method ( saying three prayers after every single carving stroke) to create it.
It was brought to this place (Kasuge, in Tsuchiura) by a man named Yataro Ogamino, who carried it on his back all the way from Tango Province, in what is now Kyoto Prefecture.
You see, upon the death of the Buddhist Emperor Yomei ( who reigned from 585-587), the forces of Mononobe no Moriya, who had long opposed the introduction of the foreign religion into Japan, began burning Buddhist temples and statues, throwing any bronze images that resisted the flames into rivers and canals. They pitted themselves against the forces of Soga no Umako and Prince Shotoku who, for the benefit of the nation, had been fervently promoting the new faith.
Fearing that the Amida image he was devoted to would fall into the hands of the Mononobe, Yataro Ogamino, fled his village of KASUGE, in Yosa County, Tango Province, taking the Amida and his family far from the reach of the anti-Buddhist vandals. In fact, they travelled on until they arrived here – on the western bank of the Sakura River in the Province of Hitachi where they would be safe to practice their faith and properly take care of Amida (though the Mononobe were in fact defeated, allowing for Buddhism to thrive on a national scale).
So that was it ! There was no connection to horses – Yataro Ogamino had named the land he settled on after his old hometown, Kasuge, in Tango Province! At least that is the story that has been handed down (though the question still remains of why the village in Tango was called Kasuge!)
And to give you a sense of what this Amida Hall meant to the local people in ages past, let me translate a story I found in the book Tsuchiura no Mukashi Banashi ( Folk Tales From Tsuchiura)
The Eight-Son Bearing Amida (八子持の阿弥陀さま)
Long ago, in Kasuge Village, there lived a diligent young couple who worked harmoniously together in both their rice fields and vegetable fields. And all their efforts paid off, too, as their harvests grew better and better with each year – along with their reputation in the village.
But when they came home from their long days at work and finally had a chance to relax by the brazier, the honest and hard-working young man and wife would always be overcome, somehow, by a terrible sense of loneliness. And the reason for that was – that they did not yet have a child.
Both of them would feel a longing, a bit of jealousy even, whenever they so the young kids playing out on the country roads. And being very religious, they would stop by the Amida Hall, twice a day, on their way to and from the fields, put their hands together and bow their heads in prayer for a child of their own.
Then, one night, both the husband and wife dreamed the same exact dream! The face of Amida appeared to them, smiling kindly as he gazed upon them, with lips moving… as if whispering something to them.
When the couple abruptly – and simultaneously – woke up, they found that their hands were pressed together in prayer. And they were astonished to find out that they had both seen the seen thing!
The following morning, the young couple left home earlier than usual and headed for the Amida Hall. When they got there they prayed fervently, hoping to receive some kind of message from the deity.
And it just happened that right at that time, the oldest man in the village, came to pay his respects to Amida. When he heard their story, he smiled happily at the couple and said:
“That was a good omen, ay, that dream that you had! Amida has seen your hard work, your sincerity… and your passionate faith – and your wish is going to be granted! Now what was it that you wished for, ay?”
When the couple explained that it was a child they had been praying for, the old man said: ” Well, in that case, go drink some water from the well here on the grounds of the Amida Hall… it should help do the trick!”
And after that, the couple came to the Amida Hall everyday, morning and evening, drinking the well-water with a deep sense of gratitude and respect. And of course they continued to work out in the fields as hard as they always did.
And then, after several months, they found themselves on Cloud Nine, beyond themselves with joy – the woman was pregnant!
The young couples faith then grew even stronger and every evening they would go to the Amida Hall to recite the Nembutsu Mantra.
On the 8th day of the 8th month their child was born – a beautiful baby boy! His first cries were strong and healthy and sent a wave of joy throughout the village.
And that wasn`t the only joyous occasion for the couple. The next year, and then the year after that – and then again and again sons were born – until finally there were blessed with eight!
Word of the Amida`s child-granting powers spread far and wide – and it became known as the Eight Son Bearing Amida! It became the object of fervent worship to this day….