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Things to See in Japan (Kansai Area)


Otokuni Temple

Last update October 13, 2022


Temple of Stories and Peonies
A Temple Related to Historical Big Names: Prince Shōtoku, Master Kūkai, and Others
Click photos to enlarge
Click photos to enlarge

“Younger Brother County” Temple

Sometimes reading kanji is a tricky business, even among Japanese. If you ask some Japanese people how to read “乙訓”, I'll bet most of them would say “Otsu-kun”, which is a wrong answer. (But don't do this in Kyoto, they all know!) Of course, the correct answer is “Oto-kuni”, the name of this temple. But the designation is also used to refer to a region comprising parts of Kyoto and present Nagaoka-kyo and Muko Cities in the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912).

Does this name have a specific meaning? There are several theories. The most popular one says it’s from “Otōto Kuni”, namely, “Young Brother County”. Probably shortened a bit to become “Oto-kuni”. And naturally, “a young bro” has “a bigger sibling” and this one has its big bro or “Ani Kuni”, and history supports this connection. The County of Otokuni (younger bro) became independent from the County of Kadono (compared as the big bro).

So much for the origin of the name, the temple belongs to the Buzan School of the Shingon Denomination. Renowned for its magnificent peonies in spring, it has the alias of “the Temple of Peonies”.

Once Upon a Time...

Ohodo was a grandson of Emperor Ōjin and born in Ohmi Province (present Shiga Prefecture). After his father Hiko Ushi No Oh died when he was small, his mother Furu Hime took him and returned to her native home in Echizen Province (presently Fukui Prefecture). Decades passed since then. One day, an envoy of the Supreme Governor Ohtomo Kanamura visited Ohodo and said he had been appointed as the new emperor.

What a bold offer! He quickly sent his messenger to check its veracity. Now proven true, he accepted the proposal and departed for Yamato Province (presently Sakurai City, Nara), the then capital of the nation. But it was a long journey. First, he entered Kawachi Province (present Hirakata City), where he completed his coronation to become the 26th Emperor Keitai. He was 58 years old. Then, he proceeded to the County of Otokuni in 518 and built his palace at this location of the present Otokuni Temple. It was after twenty years since he left his home in Echizen that he arrived at his final destination.

After almost a century, it was the Period of Asuka (592 - 708) and reign of the 33rd Emperor Suiko (the first female emperor in Japan). The next figure appearing in the temple’s history is Prince Shōtoku, a nephew and the regent of Suiko. Following her order, he built this Otokuni Temple in 603. Buddhism had come to Japan in 538, and Shōtoku protected the teachings and built many Buddhist temples. The principal Buddha image of Otokuni Temple in those days was the Avalokitesvara (Eleven-faced Bodhisattva).

Grand Enhancement

Time flew, and it was the end of the Nara Period (710 - 784). The 50th Emperor Kammu was thinking of moving the capital from Nara and Fujiwara Tanetsugu, his closest aid proposed Yamashiro Province, (Tanetsugu’s homeland) where the County of Otokuni was located. The emperor approved the proposal. When building the new capital of Nagaoka in 784, he enlarged Otokuni Temple valuing it as one of the seven most magnificent temples in Kyoto. The temple premises in those days were more extensive than today, measuring more than 180 meters from the north to south.

Series of Tragedies

After the capital transfer, a terrible incident happened. Kammu’s most trusted aid, Fujiwara Tanetsugu was assassinated. He was shot with an arrow when he was on duty supervising a construction site, during the emperor was away to Yamato Province. Suspects were arrested, and the culprits were beheaded. But the tragedy didn’t end there. Suspicion grew even more comprehensive and eventually came to include Prince Sawara, Kammu’s half-brother and the Crown Prince. Kammu decided to deprive him of the title and confined him at Otokuni Temple.

Trying to plead for innocence and protesting against the charge, Sawara desperately continued his fasting. But despite his effort, he was sentenced to an exile to Awaji Island. Out of fury and despair, he died on his way to the island.

After his death, unfortunate incidents began to happen one after another. Both the emperor’s mother and empress died. The new Crown Prince became ill, and epidemics and natural disasters hit the capital. All these misfortunes were attributed to Sawara’s resentment. To pacify his soul, the emperor endowed him with the posthumous name of “Emperor Sudō” and moved his tomb to Nara from the exiled place.

The Two Great Buddhist Masters

In October 812, two prominent Buddhist masters in the Heian Era (794 - 1192) met here at Otokuni Temple: Saichō or Master Denkyō and the founder of the Tendai Denomination and Kūkai or Master Kōbō, the founder of the Shingon Denomination. The former visited the latter, who had just become the Head Priest of the temple in 811. Both had the experience of studying Buddhism in China.

So what was the meeting about? That is Saichō asked Kūkai to initiate him into esoteric teachings he didn’t have the chance to master. Kūkai agreed and did what he could, but his offer was not enough for Saichō. He also tried to borrow Rishukyō (Prajnaparamita-naya-sutra) scriptures from Kūkai, but the request was denied, on the basis that only literal understanding of the sutra would bring a dangerous outcome. To him, Saichō had insolently very little knowledge of the esoteric Buddhism, which values practice and experience as well as master-to-disciple interaction rather than intellectual learning and solo training. And that was the end of relationship between the two.

Emperor Uda’s Provisional Palace

In 897, Emperor Uda suddenly decided to retire. He had his heir to go through Genpuku (coming-of-age ceremony) and abdicated the throne to him (Emperor Daigo). Some records say he wanted to focus on learning Buddha teachings, while others say he wanted to distance himself from the influence of the Fujiwara clan. Either way, Otokuni Temple was the right place for the retired emperor to stay during his excursion away from his residence. As he became a Dharma Emperor (ordained into priesthood), the temple began to be called the “Dharma Emperor Temple”.

Destroyed in a War

In the Muromachi Period (1334 - 1573), the temple became a property of the Zen Denomination. But a war fire caused by Oda Nobunaga, a warrior lord in the era, destroyed the temple.

Reconstruction in the Edo Period

The restoration of the temple had to wait until the Edo Period (1603 to 1867) when a priest named Ryūkō engaged in the effort. He was a Shingi School priest of the Shingon Denomination and had become the head priest of a Buzan School temple (now called Goji-in) by order of the then shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. When he finally rebuilt Otokuni Temple in 1693 and assumed the role of its administrator, the shogun gave the temple preferential status. Registered again as a Shingon temple, a special law regarding the temple was enacted.

By the way, did you know the alias of Shogun Tsunayoshi? The “Dog Shogun”. Why? Was he born in the Year of the Dog? —Yes. Was he cute like a dog? —Unknown. But the reason was that he made a law to prohibit killing animals including small creatures such as fish, shellfish and even insects! And a record says this was recommended by Ryūkō, his and his mother's favourite monk. Again, some document says offenders of the law were severely punished usually by death, but other records say all of such episodes are rootless and the rule was never actually applied to commoners.

After the Edo Period ended, came the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), in which the temple went through a harsh time due to a violent anti-Buddhism movement, surviving to become as it is today.

A Secret Statue of Union

The principal image of Otokuni Temple is a combined image of Hachiman and Master Kōbō. Hachiman is a deified entity of Emperor Ōjin (Yes, Emperor Keitai’s grandpa!). So, how these two figures are incorporated in one? Hard to imagine. You may think, then, let’s go to the temple and check it out! But sorry! This image is secret, namely, usually not open to the public. Some say it’s open every after 33 years, and the previous opening was in 1997.

Here’s a legend like this. One day, Kōbō was carving his own image. Then, the deity Hachiman appeared in a figure of an old man and said, “Hey, how about collaboration? I’ll carve your lower half (down from the shoulders), and you’ll carve my upper half (up from the shoulders), and let’s put them together when we are done.” So they did and voilà! Their works matched entirely into a single statue without a millimetre gap, as if they had been carved as a single body. Indeed, worth treated as the holy of holies.

Another image carved by Kōbō is Vaishravana, which is listed as a National Important Cultural Heritage item. Who is Vaishravana, then? It's a.k.a. “the Big Hearer”, and one of the Four Heavenly Kings, namely, Dharma protectors of Buddhism guarding the four cardinal directions. Vaishravana is the protector of the north.

Temple of Peonies

Talking about the flower, another temple famous for peonies in Kansai is Hasedera Temple in Nara Prefecture. The temple belongs to the same school as Otokuni Temple, and the peonies of both temples share the same roots. The 68th Head Priest of Hasedera Temple donated the flower to Otokuni Temple in 1934. About 30 species and 2000 roots of peonies are planted here, and in full bloom around late April to early May.

Extra Plus

If you have a little more time to stroll in the garden, just check the belfry with a bamboo-made bell striker. As the bell hammer is usually made of wood, it’s just rare! But why bamboo? Imagine, there are so many bamboo forests near the temple, and you can make almost anything from the plant. Then, oil paper umbrellas placed in the peony fields are also cool! Sheltering from summer heat and protecting from rain, this shows flower keepers’ love and care.

Now, after intensive wandering and flower viewing, a cup of cold Amazake (sweet fermented rice drink) might be a good idea! When I visited the temple, a set of Amazake, bamboo shoots a la Japonaise (namely, boiled with soy sauce and sugar) and hot tea was served at the shop. Again, as a home of the bamboo plant, the bamboo shoot is a particular product of this region and sold here and there, even beside the temple gate, as a souvenir.

Click photos to enlarge
Click photos to enlarge


 Hankyu Kyoto Line --> Nagaoka Tenjin Station. A 20 minutes’ walk from the West Exit. Bus service is available both from Hankyu Nagaoka Tenjin Station and Nagaoka Kyo Station of the JR Kyoto Line (Get off at Yakushi-do (薬師堂) Stop).