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Since ancient times Nakayamadera Temple has been known as a place where you can pray for the safe birth of a healthy child. It’s also had a devout following among members of the Imperial family and samurai clan leaders such as Minamoto no Yoritomo (in the 12th century) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (in the 16th century). Nakayamadera is thought to have been founded in the 6th century by Prince Shōtoku, an influential regent and statesman. It’s said to be the first sacred site in Japan dedicated to the Kannon bodhisattva (the goddess of mercy). It’s also the 24th of 33 temples on the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage, the route of which travels throughout the Kansai region of Japan. Many visitors come to the temple to pray for fertility and a healthy newborn child, often returning to give thanks when their prayers have been answered. Other child-related rites are also performed here—a baby’s first temple visit, for example, or the Shichi-go-san rite of passage. The temple grounds are full of interesting sights, such as the newly reconstructed five-story pagoda.
Nakayamadera is easily accessible, being a mere stone’s throw from Nakayama-kannon Station on the Hankyu line. Escalators and elevators on the temple grounds offer easy access for pregnant women, parents with babies, and the elderly.
The honzon (principal object of worship) and the two flanking sculptures are all 11-headed Jyūichimen Kannon. The combined 33 heads of these sculptures are believed to represent all 33 sites on the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
These images are usually concealed from public view. But on the 18th of each month—a date observed here as en-nichi in connection with a particular Shintō or Buddhist deity—a door is opened so that visitors can admire the statues. So you might want to time your visit for the 18th of the month.
After praying here, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi is said to have been blessed with the birth of his son Hideyori. Later, in the mid-19th century, Nakayama Yoshiko prayed here and was rewarded with the safe birth of the baby boy who would grow up to be Emperor Meiji. The temple thus became closely associated with Emperor Meiji.
Ancient tradition dictates that the best day to start wearing a hara-obi (maternity belt) is on inuno-hi (“dog day”). Many mothers-to-be visit on this day to be given a blessed hara-obi. Check the Inuno-hi Calendar on the Nakayamadera website for the dates of inuno-hi. And for those who can’t come to the temple in person, Nakayamadera offers prayers to an ofuda (talisman) instead, which can be sent to you in the mail after it has been blessed.
When your prayers have been answered, don’t forget to make a thank-you visit to the temple and pray for the healthy growth of your child.
・Click 「＊戌の日カレンダー＊」(Inuno-hi Calendar) on the menu of the Nakayamadera website
A specialty dish at Nakayamadera is the hasu-gohan, a ball of sticky rice wrapped in a hasu (lotus) leaf. The lotus flower is an important symbol in Buddhism. Tasty hasu-gohan contain ginnan (gingko seeds) along with thin slices of deep-fried tofu, pickled yukina leaves, and wolfberries. They’re served at the Bonten café on the temple grounds, or you can order them to take away.
On August 9, the temple hosts the Hoshikudari (“falling star”) Festival. This celebration, which has its roots in the Hoshimatsuri (“star festival”) of the Heian Period (794–1185), came to be known by its current name in the early Edo Period (early 17th century). The festival’s name reflects the belief that, on the night of August 9, all the Kannon of the 33 Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage sites descend from the heavens riding on stars and gather here at Nakayamadera. A visit to the temple on this day—also called shimanrokusen-nichi (“46,000 days”)—is said to bring the same benefit as visiting all 33 sites on the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage and visiting Nakayamadera on 46,000 separate days. That would equate to 126 years of continuous daily visits! Perhaps one visit on August 9 will be enough to bring you a lifetime of peace and wellbeing. From nine in the evening, there’s also a lively parade of temple followers carrying bonten (a ball of white strips of paper or cloth believed to house the spirit of the Buddha).
Setsubun is a festival that falls on February 3 or 4—the eve of spring, according to the Japanese lunar calendar. At Nakayamadera, members of the Takarazuka Revue, a renowned all-female musical theater company, take part in Setsubun rituals. The traditional tsuinashiki ritual—the purpose of which is to ward off a year’s worth of evil—has been transformed into a musical show in which a Takarazuka starlet dressed up as Kannon converts three oni (demons) into good deities.
Following the tsuinashiki is the mamemaki bean-throwing ritual. Other actresses dressed as fukumusume (“maidens of fortune”) join with high-profile Kansai industrialists dressed as fukuotoko (“men of fortune”) to toss roasted soybeans into the crowd, thereby warding off evil and bringing good luck.
Nakayamadera is a lovely spot for enjoying seasonal flowers. In the western part of the temple grounds lies Nakayama Kannon Park. If you come here in early March, you’ll see a profusion of ume plum trees in full bloom. Among the 1,000 or so trees, you’ll find a number of different varieties. Admission is free of charge.
Other flowers you can enjoy here are sakura cherry blossoms, white Japanese wisterias, and lotus flowers. The autumn foliage in the area around the Okuno-in inner sanctum is also a sight to behold.
Gohyaku-rakandō (“hall of 500 rakan”) is a sub-temple that houses not just 500 statues of rakan Buddha disciples, but more than 700. An ancient Japanese poem celebrating the statuary promises that if you search among the Gohyaku-rakandō statues, you’ll be able to find faces resembling those of your own family members. The current structure was rebuilt in 1997 as part of the temple’s 1,400-year anniversary celebrations. The rakan are arranged around the Buddha statue, perhaps protecting him or listening to one of his sermons. Each rakan has a different face, some with wonderfully unique features. Look closely and you might even find one that looks like you or your parents!
After sunset, the symbolic Daigantō and the five-story pagoda are illuminated so that they’re visible even from the streets of Takarazuka city. The Daigantō pagoda was rebuilt in 2007. On the basement floor is a special room where Buddhist mortuary tablets are enshrined. The place is suffused with a dream-like ambience.
This 28-meter-high pagoda was reconstructed in 2016 for the first time in 400 years. Like the pagoda at Kaijyūsenji Temple in Kizugawa, Kyoto, it features a mokoshi, a decorative pent roof under the first real roof. The pagoda is beautifully proportioned, from the mokoshi at the lowest tier to the golden finial atop the highest roof. What’s more, the deep blue color of the pagoda is visible even from afar and gives it a fresh charm. The pagoda’s rafters and brackets are painted a deep blue. If you stand close by and look upwards at the pagoda on a sunny day, it’s almost as if it merges into the blue sky. Blue in Buddhism represents the wisdom of the Buddha. The name of this pagoda is Seiryūtō or “blue dragon pagoda”. A wise blue dragon serves to protect the precepts of Buddhism in the form of a pagoda. Along with the Daigantō, this blue pagoda is a symbol of Nakayamadera.
The Hakuchōzuka tumulus incorporates a passage-style stone chamber, inside of which rests a stone coffin. Legend has it that this is the final resting place of Princess Ōnakatsu, the first empress consort to Emperor Chūai. After she passed away, her two sons died tragically in the throes of a succession feud. According to a local legend, Prince Shōtoku established Nakayamadera in commemoration of Ōnakatsu and her two sons and to soothe the spirit of Mononobe no Moriya, a political enemy of Shōtoku.