Wooden structures and the Japanese lifestyle
The Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) at Todaiji Temple (Eastern Great Temple) of the ancient city Nara is famous for the Daibutsu, or “Great Buddha”, and was the largest wooden structure in the world. Nearby is the ancient treasure house Shosoin; a wooden structure that was built some 1,300 years ago. The main shrine of the Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) dedicated to the worship of the representative Japanese deity Amaterasu-Omikami is built using Japanese cypress and is constructed in the oldest architecture style in Japan. This traditional architecture style is passed on when this shrine is rebuilt every 20 years. These show that the Japanese people have been living together with a “wood culture”.
It is well known that Japanese style homes are made mostly from wood and paper, which allows people to live comfortably despite hot temperatures and high humidity. Currently, these types of homes are disappearing, but the lifestyle of Japanese people remains largely unchanged. When entering a Japanese home, you must remove your footwear. Rooms with tatami floors are still at the center of Japanese life. And, there is also the “engawa”, veranda-like porch which is the neutral zone where the outside world, nature, and the home coexist. This epitomizes the Japanese lifestyle of wanting to be as open to nature and people as possible.
Just outside of Tokyo, there is the Nihon Minka-en (Open-Air Folk House Museum). This is a theme park where traditional Japanese homes have been relocated in the woods, making it difficult to believe that you are so close to Tokyo. You will find old samurai residences and “gassho” style homes from Shirakawa-Go. You can actually tour the insides of some homes, and some are actually cafés. Here, you can experience the Japanese lifestyle of coexistence with nature.
How to get to Nihon Minka-en:
From Shinjuku Station, take the Odakyu Odawara Line (Local Express train) and get off at Mukogaoka-yuen Station (30 minutes). Nihon Minka-en is 13 minutes on foot from the south exit of Mukogaoka-yuen Station.
Address: 7-1-1 Masugata, Tama-ku, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture
Japanese people love wooden baths
Japanese people want to enjoy nature as part of their daily life. This is why Japanese cypress baths are popular. These bathtubs are made from solid cypress, and when hot water is poured in, these tubs produce a strong aroma of cypress. This is the same smell that you can experience in a forest. This provides physical and mental relaxation. For Japanese people, taking a bath is not just about washing one’s body; it’s about enjoying life and relaxing. There are many hot springs throughout Japan, so people enjoy getting away from everyday life, taking a hot spring bath in nature, and enjoying delicious food to recharge their batteries so to speak. That is the Japanese idea of a resort.
A treasure carved from Japanese red pine – the wooden image of Bodhisattva Maitreya at Koryuji Temple
At Japanese Buddhist temples, statues of Buddha are enshrined. Statues of Buddha are symbols for teaching the spirit of Buddhism. These statues are crafted by a Busshi – a highly skilled Buddhist artisan. One famous Busshi explained, “I simply help to reveal Buddha from the tree where Buddha already existed.” One representative wooden statute of Buddha is the first national treasure registered in Japan known as the wooden image of Bodhisattva Maitreya at Koryuji Temple. It is a beautiful statue made from Japanese red pine. There are various kinds of Buddhas. Bodhisattva Maitreya has the role of graciously teaching about the future. Wood is the perfect material for expressing graciousness and simplicity.
How to get to Koryuji Temple
At Kyoto Station, take the JR Sanin Line (Sagano Line), and get off at Uzumasa Station (13 minutes). Koryuji Temple is 13 minutes on foot from the Uzumasa Station.
Address: 32 Uzumasahachioka-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
Trees as art – bonsai
People are amazed when standing in front of a large tree that is hundreds of years old. Miniature versions of such giant trees are bonsais. You may be surprised to learn that some small pine trees, plumb trees, and maple trees are actually a hundred years old. Look closely! The details resemble perfectly huge ancient trees. If they are placed with a mountain or the sky as a background, these small bonsais will seem to transform into a giant tree. Bonsais are an art form where the “canvas” is a living tree. It has an aestheticism similar to other traditional arts such as Japanese gardening and ikebana (flower arrangement). Today, there is an increasing number of people from overseas interested in bonsai, especially in Europe. If this interests you, you should visit the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Omiya City just outside of Tokyo where you can see many beautiful bonsai trees. You will come to understand the charm of bonsai.
How to get to the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum:
At Tokyo Station, take the Yamanote Line (Ueno / Ikebukuro Direction), and get off at Ueno (7 minutes). Take the Tohoku Main Line (Utsunomiya Line) and get off at Toro Station (29 minutes). The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum is 5 minutes on foot from the east exist of Toro Station.
Address: 2-24-3 Toro-cho, Kita-ku, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture
Deities inhabit the trees: Goshinboku – sacred tree
It is believed that Japanese deities inhabit certain natural objects such as rocks and trees. Most shrines in Japan are located in forests known as “Chinju-no-mori” (guardian trees). Because they are sacred, these wooded areas have been preserved, so there are many such trees that are hundreds of years old. These include cedars, camphor trees, and Japanese tabunoki trees. A giant sacred tree is called a “Goshinboku” and is marked by a shimenawa or sacred rope. Regardless of where you are from, when you stand in front of such giant trees, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe. In Japan, it is believed that deities use these Goshiboku as landmarks when visiting on festival days.