Monday, October 10, 2011
Well, for the first time in a while I was able to get out of the city to see more of Akita’s countryside. Because I’m leaving at the end of this month, a kind colleague of mine offered to take me to an area I’d previously said I was eager to visit: Yuri-Honjo, home to one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan, as well as blueberry fields and a forest known for its Sentai Jizo (千体地蔵), or 1000 stone Jizo statues.
By car, Yuri-Honjo is only about 30 minutes south of Akita, and the drive there is pretty scenic. Once in Araya, where the zoo is, one passes along the coast before swinging a few kilometers inland.
My colleague somehow figured out which left to take to get to Yuri-Honjo, and then he did well to recall (or made a lucky guess) which back roads to take to get to Chokokuji (長谷寺) Temple, where the Great Buddha of Akata is housed. We parked across the street in front of a tourist area called Tohkoh House, which is set beside a rose garden, playground, and outdoor cooking area, and is surrounded by rice and blueberry fields.
We crossed the street and made our way through a grove of pine trees to the temple area, in front of which were several weathered stone tablets with kanji engravings as well as various Jizo statues.
Some local tourists greeted us at the temple steps and pointed to where we needed to take off our shoes and put on slippers, and encouraged us to take our time inside.
We slid open the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. Directly before us stood a giant wooden Buddha (Daibutsu) in a somewhat narrow room hung with paintings of the Akita countryside and stories, apparently, of the Buddha’s significance to Yuri-Honjo.
The Buddha was flanked on the left and right by bright-blue deities and behind by numerous golden Kan’non Rashiki (bodhisattvas, I believe).
My understanding is that the temple was founded in 1774, and after a devastating fire the Daibutsu one finds here today was installed in 1888. With a height of 9.8 meters, it’s currently the third tallest Buddha statue in Japan, next to the Daibutsu in Kamakura and the Daibutsu in Nara’s Todaiji Temple.
If I’m correct, a Shinto festival dating back more than 200 years also takes place here in September.
Across from Chokokuji Temple are numerous rice fields, which at this time of year have just been harvested.
But recently a few local families have started planting blueberries in the vicinity, and adjacent to the temple entrance is a small shop specializing in homemade blueberry jam and ice cream with blueberry preserves.
Their blueberry field has some 300 blueberry plants, which they’ve been growing for around 15 years.
I bought a small jar of blueberry jam for ¥450 (US$5.86) and an ice cream with blueberry preserves for ¥250 (US$3.26).
From here we continued on to search for a forested area in which 1000 Jizo statues line a walking path. We had a hard time, though, since few of the areas here are marked, and while we never managed to find the specific Jizo area, we did come across numerous Buddha and Jizo statues that were scattered around overgrown paths and small hills. The area is said to have special Shinto significance, and it’s not hard to see signs of its sacredness.
There were a couple of small parks nearby, too, which we walked through, and lookouts with gorgeous views of the valley below us. There were also snakes, huge spiders in webs we nearly walked into several times, and the odd lizard. Oh, and tons of dragonflies.
On our way back we decided to stop in a Yuri-Honjo ramen shop called Oji, which advertises Hokkaido-style ramen.
I ordered a shoyu ramen (¥650, or US$8.47) and split a plate of gyoza (¥300, or US$3.91) with my friend. It was a fairly fancy ramen shop, and it didn’t disappoint.
From there it was mostly a race against time to get back home before the afternoon rain started. We made it back in time, but I did eventually get caught in the rain while shopping in the evening for groceries near my house...