During a day wandering among temples, I realized that I came to Osaka with a false impression. In the early 1970s, the writer Sawaki Kotaro traveled by train and bus from Bangkok to Singapore. In every city, he felt something was missing. The excitement he’d found in Hong Kong wasn’t to be found in Thailand or Malaysia. On the eve of leaving Singapore, he realized, Singapore isn’t Hong Kong. It seemed too silly to say out loud, but he’d been looking for a copy of Hong Kong everywhere he went. Certainly, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok must have their individual charms.
I assumed Osaka was a loud and crowded place, on flat ground, without much that would carry me away. I was wrong. Shin-sekai, around the now 100-year old Tsutenkaku tower is indeed a place of boisterous bars, and not a boring place to visit. Shitennoji is a world apart.
Shitennoji District (四天王寺)
I happened to be staying next to Tennoji station so I took the subway past it on a whim to make my 200 yen go farther. I alighted at Shitennoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station, which means “In front of Shitennoji (and) Sunset Hill.” It turns out, the Shitennoji area is full of temples, leading south to Shitennoji Temple itself. I learned a lot about Japanese Buddhism by reading the signs. I turned a prayer wheel carved with scripture in Chinese. I met a group of high school students near Yuhigaoka Academy. On a stele was carved in Chinese the exploits of the writer’s father, Date Munehiro 伊達宗広, according to the nearby explanatory board. He loved the songs of a songwriter Fujiwara Ietaka 藤原家隆 who lived many generations before him, so he made his home in the same place, and named it “Sunset Hill” after one of Fujiwara’s poems. They are both buried nearby. While reading the sign, a man working on his 600cc shiny black Honda came over, and we talked about my travels, my brother Pace’s travels in America, and the history of Osaka. His name was Kishino, and he told me to go on to Shitennoji, past the tower we could see over a parking lot.
The tower turned out to be a 400-year-old national treasure, a pagoda to store the treasures in Aisen-san 愛染さん temple. It was the model for a temple once erected at the Japanese pavilion at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Aisen-san itself was bright red.
The Seven Slopes (七坂)
There are seven slopes among the temples. I came up Kuchinawa Slope, which a writer once climbed and thought, “I won’t be climbing this slope for a while, I suppose,” whereupon he came to feel that the sweetness of youth was over, and a new reality had come to face him. I stopped for ramen, and ate “Osaka Black” salt-broth ramen with thick noodles (you could choose thick or thin). The dark broth had an edged flavor. I walked down Aisen Slope to a temple that holds Kinryu and Ginryu Ido, or the “Golden and Silver Dragon Wells.” Alas, they dried up when the subway was built, and Ginryu is buried in concrete. However, a woman from the temple named Asano showed me to Kinryu Well, in which we could see our reflections! The water has come back, little by little, though we can’t yet drink it again to get the sweet taste that was once favored in the tea ceremony.
Kiyomizu Temple and the deadly fault line
I climbed Kiyomizu Slope to Kiyomizu Temple, which shares a name with an illustrious temple in Kyoto. From the hill at the Kiyomizu graveyard (which was packed with a tour group for a few minutes), a vast stretch of Osaka can be seen, including a tower still unfinished at Tennoji Station. I went down to see the waterfall at Kiyomizu, and a man was chanting sutras before the statues behind the water. As I left, a man named Satoshi spoke to me in perfect English. In what was quite likely the first all-English conversation I’ve had with a Japanese person this trip, he told me he worked for the IT department at Stanford and lived in California. He was surprised I came to Kiyomizu, which he visits often, because he seldom sees tourists there. He asked had I noticed the slopes and varied elevation in the area? I had, but he informed me that the slopes are due to a dangerous fault that runs under the area. The line of temples and shrines are built on the fault to prevent disaster with their power.
Isshin Temple and modern decor
I went through a shrine with cats and a man behind the counter who explained the Warring States history of the area. Across the street was a temple far busier than the sleepy ones I had visited. Isshin Temple (一心寺) lost its gate, so a very modern gate was built to replace what had been called the “Black Gate” or Osaka. Indeed, the gate is made of a honeycomb of black metal, and two utterly fearsome guardians wave green fists over heavenly ladies embossed in dark steel. The temple grounds were packed. I prayed in the main hall and offered incense, and a very old couple encouraged me to go to Sapporo.
Shitennoji and the story of the Buddha
Up the street, I walked down the arcade to Shitennoji, the biggest and busiest of all. The red five-story pagoda indeed towered over the hall at Aisen, and every building in Shitennoji was painted red and white. Inside the main hall, wall paintings told the story of the Buddha, from his miraculous birth under the right armpit of Maya, to his death and entrance into nirvana at the age of 81. Most impressive was the scene of the Buddha returning, enlightened, to speak at the Deer Garden. He wore simple clothes and his face was calm and pure, and a light emanated from his brow. In the forest, those who had known him before fell to the ground and reached out their hands in awe to see Gautama so transformed. (According to the explanations written below.) The Buddha had also been attacked by a host of demons, but their arrows turned to floating lotus blossoms and the beautiful women sent to seduce him suddenly grew old. The story was mostly new to me, so I am keen to read more. Another hall told the story of Xuanzang 玄奘, who spent 17 years on a journey from Chang’an to India and back. Upon his return, he and a team of scholars translated hundreds of scriptures, which were stored in the Great Goose Pagoda that I visited last year in Xi’an.
If only I could tell you everything I learned today. I’d never get any sleep. I walked among the bars around Tsutenkaku tower and spent a mostly fruitless and expensive hour in a net cafe trying to copy photos.
Osaka is alive!