Senshuji: Nagoya Betsuin temple
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Never mind the glitzy proliferation of high-rise buildings in the Nagoya Station area (Meieki), I hear you say, is there any history left in this dynamic segment of central Nagoya? In a word, for those who’d really like to know, the answer is no. It’s all gone, sacrificed on the altar of twenty-first century urban planning, demolished in the name of progress. But before I start to sound like an architectural Luddite, the soon-to-be-completed Mode Gakuen “Spire”, just a short walk south of the charmless stump that is Toyota’s Midland Square, will surely be a sparkling addition to the city skyline and an inspiring, err, no pun intended, example of what daring creations Japanese architects can come up with (when given the opportunity). But to return to the past, for, with a little effort tiny pieces of history can still be found.
It will surely come as a surprise to many, that slightly to the east of Meieki, a short walk along Sakura-dori, and a few minutes north of the Nagoya International Center (NIC) building, stands a structure that this year is celebrating its 350th anniversary. Yes indeed, for the main gate (san-mon) of the Senshuji temple in Hijie-cho, 300m along the narrow backstreet behind NIC, was constructed in 1657, and whereas the main image hall has been burned down and rebuilt more than once, the gateway (and the bell tower) are from the original temple. At the same time as this wooden structure was being erected by Nagoya artisan, half a world away the painter Rembrandt was hard at work in Holland; a little closer to home an ailing Shah Jahan was gazing out at the marble tomb of his deceased wife, Mumtaz, in the Indian city of Agra, while 300km north of Nagoya in Edo, the Shogunate capital was suffering a devastating fire which, according to some historians, took the lives of up 100,000 inhabitants.
The temple of Senshuji, of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, is a tidy but rather sad precinct with no monks in attendance, and a head priest who is seldom seen. Monthly sutra chanting is held, but the congregation is pretty thin, and funerals are no longer held here. The only time the temple comes alive is during the April festival commemorating the Buddha’s birthday and the Osho-gatsu festivities around New Year, when the ancient bell is tolled the requisite 108 times. The gate itself is in dire need of buttressing, particularly the southern support which is sinking alarmingly. The impressively tiled roof is gradually forcing the elderly wooden frame into the ground so that the temple doors are almost impossible to fully close. The time is surely drawing near when drastic measures will have to be applied, almost literally, to stop the rot. But with the population in this locality dwindling at an ever-increasing rate, it is hard to imagine anyone from the district organizing fundraising events or soliciting donations for any renovation effort. Given the almost total lack of sensitivity for anything historic in this part of town, it is likely that ward office officials from Nishi-ku (in which the gateway stands), if alerted to the situation, would be more than likely tear the whole thing down and erect a concrete copy! (“Old buildings make us feel poor”, I heard one resident complain)
So, before it’s too late, and as a reminder that central Nagoya is not quite all skyscrapers, office blocks, and ungainly urban infrastructure, pop round to the Senshuji temple (also called Aichi Betsuin/Nagoya Betsuin) in Hijie-cho, and gaze at a structure that’s as old as the Taj Mahal.