September 29, 2019

Backyard Tourism Vol. 2

A visit to Osaka's Senko-ji temple complex is like experiencing a journey and back again to the Buddhist interpretations heaven and hell.

Statues of Buddhist demons inside the jigokudo of Osaka's Senko-ji

Not too long ago, I found myself yet again in the vicinity of Osaka. Alas, this time, I was not traveling for pleasure as I usually do. Instead, I had made the trek down from Tokyo with a couple of coworkers to handle a series of media interviews for a world famous Japanese tennis player. While I’ll have to leave her unnamed due to an NDA clause, astute readers can likely guess the athlete’s identity with only the few clues I’ve mentioned here. Anyway, following the closure of the second day of media interviews, I found myself with a bit of free time on my hands. Not wanting to waste a rare opportunity to source content on someone else’s dime, I decided to hit up an obscure attraction that I had recently seen pop-up on social media.

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have an ongoing series that I’ve titled Backyard Tourism. In this collection of articles, I try to prove that just about anywhere in Japan can be attractive to overseas tourists if those in charge do due justice to their storytelling and marketing. While many locals fail to see it, this country is an endless reservoir when it comes to tourism. So, for the second installment, we’re going to be taking a look at a little known temple in Osaka known as Senko-ji. Located on the outskirts of the city in what can only be described as a homely residential area, this hidden gem is easy to miss unless you know exactly where to look. While I am certainly not the first foreigner to ever stop by Senko-ji, I’d wager than the sight of a non-Japanese face is rare in this neck of the woods.

So, given all the alternatives out there, what allures does Senko-ji present that would justify travelers schelping themselves all the way out to the boonies of Osaka? Well, what if I told you a sojourn to this temple represents a journey to heaven and hell? Within the tight confines of this complex, you’ll have the opportunity to sample the terrors of Buddhism’s hells. Thereafter, all those who brave the trials of perdition will be emblematically sent to heaven before being reborn anew into the world of the living. Frankly put, Senko-ji is quite the unique little attraction. While I wouldn’t recommend going completely out of your way for a visit, the temple is a quirky add-on that won’t suck up too much of your time in Osaka.

Getting to Osaka’s Senko-ji

The shopping arcade that leads up to Osaka’s Senko-ji

Compared to many of the attractions that I cover on this blog, the trek to Senko-ji is really not too difficult. All you’ll need to do is take the Tanimachi line to Hirano Station. From there, it’s only about a ten minute walk or so from Exit 4 to the complex. As always, please refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best routes for you. Note that if you’re coming from the Umeda or Shin-Osaka train hubs, the whole journey will likely take you approximately forty minutes each way. As such, I would budget for no more than three hours in total to enjoy Senko-ji.

Perhaps the hardest part of making the journey to Senko-ji is the plaguing self-doubt that you’ll encounter while walking from Hirano Station. You see, as the article that originally tipped me off to Senko-ji’s existence puts it, finding your way to the temple is like navigating your way through purgatory itself. En route to this metaphysical manifestation of heaven and hell, you’ll pass by many a nondescript domicile with few signs or markers to guide you. To make things simple, I’ll just have you refer to this Google Map as trying to write detailed instructions will likely only serve to confuse you.

Heaven & Hell at Osaka’s Senko-ji

The exterior of the jigokudo hall at Osaka’s Senko-ji

OK, let’s now cover what you can expect once you reach the site of Senko-ji. Though by no means expansive, this temple complex has a rather odd smorgasboard of things to check out. Immediately upon entering, you’ll first encounter the hellish portion of Senko-ji. Here, in addition to some rather macabre thrills (that include putting your head in a hollowed rock to hear the sounds of the accursed suffering), you’ll also find the Jigoku-do (lit. “Hall of Hell”) pictured above. Those who muster their courage and poke their heads inside will be met with the sight of a towering red demon. Directly to the cruel archfiend’s side, you’ll also find a cackling mountain hag that further contributes to one’s heightened terror.

These days, visitors to Senko-ji may be able to giggle at these sights while experiencing a grim sense of schadenfreude. Nevertheless, Buddhism’s take on the underworld was certainly no laughing matter to devote adherents in the days of yore. Much like its better known Western counterpart, the horrific iconography of Buddhism’s hell aided in keeping those with weaker moral backbones on the straight and narrow. By the way, if you want to see whether or not you’re destined to end up in the bowels of hell, you’ll find an omikuji fortune machine on the exterior of the Jigoku-do. All you need to do is answer a series of questions (that are unfortunately only in Japanese) and out will come a piece of paper delivering your fate.

After taking in the infernal sights on the hell side of Senko-ji, you can redeem your soul by heading over to the heavenly side. In a stark contrast to the hellions back near the temple’s entrance this portion of Senko-ji is far less abominable. Here, you’ll encounter the friendly faces of lucky gods like Daruma, Saigyo, Jurojin, and Hotei. Honestly, as soon as you set foot inside this section, you can easily sense the contrast with the hellish portions of the complex. After looking around a bit, you’ll need to head down into the depths of a cave for your spiritual rebirth into the world of the light. That’s right, while the hell is above ground at Senko-ji, heaven is beneath it!

A mandala that’s surrounded by Buddhist statues at Osaka’s Senko-ji

Interestingly, the handrail leading you down the staircase to heaven is said to be filled with sand from the famous eighty-eight temple pilgrimage in Shikoku. Unfortunately, I was not able to find an official explanation as to why this is the case. Based on what I’ve seen at other sites, I’d wager that the answer has to do with Buddhist symbology. Put simply, by making the descent, you’re metaphorically completing the pilgrimage and thereby are able to reap some of the benefits. Anyway, once you’ve reached the bottom of the stairs, you’ll find a glass depicting the realm of the Buddhas. Here, I’ve read you’re supposed to meditate in the company of fifty Buddhist effigies.

Once you’ve completed your trip through heaven and hell, head on over to Senko-ji’s main hall to pay your respects. This portion of the compound is dedicated to the medicine Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai. The structure also seems to house an impressive statue of this important figure but unfortunately it’s only available for the public to see on January 8th and once again in the fall. Apparently, the autumn showing changes every year but typically occurs sometime between late September and the beginning of October. If you’re in the area during either of these times, I’d definitely urge you to check it out.

To wrap up your adventure at Senko-ji, head towards the temple’s rear gate. This exit will take you out to the rather lengthy Hirano shopping arcade pictured in the “Getting There” section. Before leaving the complex though, be sure to keep your eyes out for the statue of the Immovable King, Fudo Myoo. I’m totally postulating here but I presume his presence here is to terrorize you into getting your act together following your trip to hell and back again. To quell the king’s fiery wrath, fill the ladle that waits in front of his likeness and give the statue a good splash before leaving.

Attractions Near Senko-ji

The iconic and famous Shitenno-ji which is located near Osaka’s Senko-ji

As mentioned during the “Getting to Senko-ji” section, the temple is located nearby Hirano Station on the Tanimachi Line. This line also services the popular Tennoji area meaning that a trip to Senko-ji dovetails well with a visit to the famous Shitenno-ji temple pictured above. This sprawling complex is one of Japan’s oldest temples and the first ever to be built by the state. Assuming that the historical records can be trusted, Shitenno-ji was founded in 593 by none other the prominent Prince Shotoku himself. If that name bears no significance for you, know that this political leader was one of the key initial supporters of Buddhism’s entry into Japan.

The Shitenno-ji complex can be reached in only a few minutes on foot from the Shitennoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station. While most of the grounds are free to explore, entry into the inner sanctum will cost you a few hundred yen. Here, you can ascend a five-story pagoda as well as check out some amazing busts of the four heavenly kings. These prominent figures watch over the four cardinal directions and are actually the source of Shitenno-ji’s moniker. In addition to the innermost areas, there’s also another paid area to check out known as Gokuraku-Jodo garden. Purportedly, this oasis was said to be designed on descriptions of the Amida Buddha’s Western Paradise.

Note that tragically none of the current buildings that comprise Shitenno-ji are actually originals. Over the years, the temple has been plagued by fires and as a result, has been rebuilt time and time again. Still, regardless of the modern-day construction materials used, the silver lining here is that Shitenno-ji has always been carefully remade to reflect the original 6th century design commission by Prince Shotoku.