by Dr Trouble
The reason why Jikoji temple is located where it’s located
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As always, first things first… When an Utsunomiyan (I guess that's what you call an inhabitant of Utsunomiya, right?) hears the words “Jikoji temple”, it immediately brings to his (or her) mind the Red Gate, which was renovated in 2008. 63 years ago, during WWII, the gate was totally destroyed thanks to the Utsunomiya city airstrikes.
This temple is also famous for one of the earliest cherry blossoms in Utsunomiya. Actually we went there this April, though the weather was not delightful. Not at all.
Jikoji temple is located to the northeast of Utsunomiya castle. In Ancient Japan, each direction was assigned one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (Earthly Branches). North corresponds to “mouse” (子: pronounced as “ne”), East to “rabbit” (卯 “u”), South to “horse” (午 “uma”) and West to “chicken” (酉: “tori”). Northeast has two animals - cow (丑 “ushi”) and tiger (寅 “tiger”).
And then, there’s the evil monster called Oni (鬼).
Oni is depicted as a macho guy with either red or blue skin. He also has horns - like a “COW”, and short pants made of “TIGER's” skin. Since Oni has features of both cow and tiger, Northeast is called “Kimon - (鬼門) - Entrance gate of Oni, and you should have something powerful to neutralize this evil creature with.
Obviously Jikoji temple (Red Gate included) is thought to act as a sacred barrier to stop this evil spirit from entering Utsunomiya's downtown. Now Jikoji temple is in Utsunomiya downtown, however, I am sure that back then, it was the periphery of the city.
Candles in the Temple during Obon season
Starting at 6PM on August 16 at Jikoji temple, members of the Danka system (檀家制度) get together for the veneration of their ancestors. Strictly speaking, today (the tail end of Obon) is the day to send the ancestral spirits back to their world.
The ceremony started with chanting – done by the Buddhist priest of the highest order, which I have no clue what it means. Then they marched to the Main Hall of the temple, and then headed to an Amitabha statue standing at the end of the stairs. The old priest prayed once again, but once again, I had no idea what he chanted. I was just standing too far away from him to hear.
Chanting in front of the statue at the top of the stairway to Heaven, or rather, since we're talking Buddhists here - Nirvana.
Members of the Danka sat in front of the Main Hall until the head priest finished his chanting. They suffered a lot from mosquitoes during this ever-lasting prayer…
We have a famous (well, sort of) and very dedicated musician in Utsunomiya, Daiju KURASAWA, who organized the music for this event. We saw him last year at a different festival. Last year he actually volunteered for the Oya festival in Utsunomiya. Maybe he did this time, too (I am not sure), or maybe he’s a devout Buddhist (I am not sure).
And finally, since this ceremony is mostly for the Danka members, you are supposed to contribute 500 JPY (approx. $5) to participate. And for your “donation”, you get an amulet to get rid of evil spirits coming from Northeast.