The tahoto on the grounds of Mitaki Temple
Like all gaijin in Japan, I’ve seen my share of temples, and after two years here I admit the luster of Japan’s ancient temples has dulled a bit for me. Temples tend to all look the same after a while. There is one temple, however, that has moved me in a way the others have not.
No other temple, not even the treasures of Kyoto and Nara, has inspired such wonder in me as Mitaki Temple in Hiroshima city. It is well worth a day trip even if you live outside the city, and if you go just once, I recommend going this month. It is during autumn, when the temple’s 500 maple trees light up in fiery displays, that Mitaki’s beauty truly shines.
There are many aspects of this wooded temple complex that make it exceptional. As the name Mitaki 三滝 implies, there are three waterfalls, one of which tumbles in a slim stream over a towering cliff. The soothing sound of flowing water fills the complex. Each year, water from these falls is used as an offering to the victims of the atomic bomb during the annual Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony.
Another jewel is the red two-story tahoto (treasure pagoda) nestled in some maple trees near the entrance. The tohoto houses an ancient wooden statue of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. This statue, as well as the tahoto, have been designated Important National Cultural Assets. Originally, this picturesque tahoto was built 1,200 years ago in Wakayama prefecture, but it was moved to Mitaki in 1951 to console the souls of the victims who died in the atomic bombing.
Grave markers of atomic bomb victims. (Photo by Gail Meadows)
Deeper into the complex is a cluster of old tombstones. After the atomic bombing, victims flocked to Mitaki because a military hospital was located there. Many of the victims who died were unidentified, and the temple’s monks buried them there. These time-worn tombstones – which look straight out of a spooky film – now mark the resting places of those unknown victims, and nearby stand four large bronze statues of monks, not far from one of the complex’s waterfalls. If you follow the steps leading up a slope behind the grave markers, you will find a large stone crucifix, not a sight one typically sees in the middle of the grounds of a Buddhist temple.
Further up the path, past the peace bell where visitors offer their prayers, lays a memorial to the victims of Auschwitz during World War II. An inscription chiseled into an old stone marker pledges the heartfelt hope that such atrocities as the world saw in Auschwitz and Hiroshima will never be repeated.
Jizo statue. (Photo by Gail Meadows)
To me, the most striking thing about Mitaki is the countless stone jizo statues and monuments scattered throughout the complex. Ojizo-sama is a deity known as the guardian of children, particularly children who died before their parents. Wearing bright red caps and bibs, many of these jizo look startlingly life-like, some gazing solemnly and others glaring menacingly. There are so many of these statues tucked into the hillsides that you are sure to discover new ones each time you go.
With all the statues occupying the hillside, the spirit of this place seems palpably alive. Walking through Mitaki’s towering trees, inhaling the incense drifting through the air, listening to the flowing water and low bonging of the peace bell — I felt a peaceful calm flow through me.
Shitenno statue. (Photo by Gail Meadows)
Mitaki Temple itself, which is dedicated to Kannon, goddess of mercy, actually looks a lot like many other temples in Japan, but I was very impressed by the graphic wooden statues standing guard around the doorways. One, a horrifying statue of one of the Shitenno (guardians of the four directions) depicts an enraged, spiky-headed, muscular demon holding a baby above his head as though he were about to dash its brains out on the ground. (This fact I learned from one of my favorite Japan bloggers, OjisanJake.)
Rows of statues and carved stone tablets cover the cliff-side next to the temple, while around back the entire rear wall of the temple is covered in kanji calligraphy.
Bamboo forest at Mitaki. (Photo by Gail Meadows)
Follow the trail further and you will find yourself in the midst of an absolutely beautiful bamboo forest. It’s an easy hike from here the rest of the way to the peak of Mt. Mitaki at 356 meters, and if the weather is clear you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous sweeping view of the city and the Seto Inland Sea. You can read more about the two hiking trails at Mt. Mitaki (also known as Mt. Soko) at this page on GetHiroshima.
I heartily encourage you to take the trip to Mitaki and experience it for yourself. Bring a bento lunch and take time to explore. Be warned though, that Mitaki is not exactly a well-guarded secret in Hiroshima — large crowds flock there to enjoy the fall foliage this time of year. If you’re hoping to avoid crowds and you’ve got nenkyuu or daikyuu to burn, you might consider visiting during the week rather than the weekend.
I last visited Mitaki on Nov. 3 and the leaves were just barely beginning to change. I imagine colors will be at their peak the last couple weeks of November.
Mitaki Station is just two stops from JR Hiroshima Station on the Kabe line (an 8-minute ride). The temple grounds are a 15-minute walk from the station. After exiting the station, turn left. Take the first right (at the railroad crossing) and walk up the hill. When the road forks at a temple, stay to the right. Follow the road around past the playground and continue up the hill. After passing some tea houses, you’ll see a parking lot and the entrance.
For more photos of Mitaki Temple, visit my blog, Lost in Transition.