Skip to main content

Genkaku-ji, a temple for bad eyes

Quirky temple time!

This one is a gem: small but beautifully maintained, with dozens of interesting bits crammed into a small space near the Bunkyō Ward Office and Tokyo Dome. It's called Genkaku-ji (源覚寺), and this is where you go if you want to cure an eye problem. Or pile extra salt onto a precariously tilting salt tower. Or ring the Pacific Peace Bell.

Ema with Enma (that sounds funny)

Genkaku-ji was built in 1624. Soon afterwards a wooden statue of the god of hell, Enma-ō (閻魔王), was found in a nearby pond. It was placed in the temple and largely ignored, but then people started noticing an old woman who visited every day with an offering of konnyaku.

"Why are you giving konnyaku to Enma?" was the perfectly reasonable question everybody asked.

She told them that her eyes had become weak and all medicines had failed, so she asked Enma for help. One day, as she was praying before the statue, he said to her, "I will gouge out one eye and give it to you." She looked up and saw that one of his eyes was gone, and blood was running from the empty socket. When she glanced around her, she realized that she could see everything clearly.

She wanted to thank Enma, but she was so poor that she had nothing to give him. She decided to stop eating her favourite food, konnyaku, and offer that to him instead. To this day you can buy konnyaku at the temple and ask the god of hell for protection against eye disease.

Enma's statue was probably carved in the Kamakura period (1185–1333).

Photo credit:

Pacific Peace Bell

The temple's bell, called the Pacific Peace Bell, has an interesting history. It was cast in the Genroku period (1688–1704) and used at Genkakuji for a century and a half. When fire destroyed the temple in 1844, the bell was placed in storage until 1937, when it was loaned to a temple in Saipan. It stayed there throughout World War II, but when peace arrived, the bell had disappeared, apparently stolen by American soldiers. It was eventually found in Odessa, Texas, in 1974 and returned to Genkaku-ji.

Pacific Peace Bell


Genkaku-ji also has one – actually, two – of the most unusual Mizuko Jizō I've seen. I assume there are statues of Jizō hidden underneath, but two narrow columns of salt, tilting lopsidedly, reach upwards towards the roof of the small wooden structure. (Salt is believed to ward off evil.)

While I was there, a young woman arrived to pray. I noticed that she was crying, so I left her in peace and wandered through the cemetery at the back of the temple until she had left. I had to stay amongst the graves for quite a while.

Lopsided piles of salt

Fires of old Edo

If you look carefully, you'll spot a stone half-hidden behind plants. It's a special memorial to victims of the Great Fire of Meireki on 2 March 1657, in which 100 000 shitamachi residents lost their lives. It also commemorates the victims of various other fires as well as the American fire-bombing of World War II.

If you're wondering why there are so many fire memorials in Tokyo, may I suggest this Wikipedia post? Fire has wreaked havoc in my beloved city.

Sōseki's link to the temple

The temple features in Natsume Sōseki's famous novel Kokoro:

十一月の寒い雨の降る日の事でした。 私は外套を濡らして例の通り蒟蒻閻魔を抜けて細い坂道を上って宅へ帰りました。

"It was a cold, rainy day in November. I walked home as usual through the grounds of the temple of Konnyaku Enma and up the narrow lane that led to the house."


The temple is also known as Konnyaku Enma, and the street crossing in front of the temple is Konnyaku Enma Mae ("mae" means in front of).

The statue of Enma is inside this building. 

You can buy konnyaku at the temple and offer it to Enma.

The peace bell

The peace bell from the cemetery next to the temple

I spotted this in a remote corner behind the temple: an old part of the temple bell.

Bell detail

Ema with Jizō

The Jizō temple under a beautiful cherry tree

Detail at Jizō temple

Salt and sakura

Discarded sotoba? New ones? Who knows.

Dragon detail



Road sign in front of the temple

View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Dear Dad, this one's for you

Dear Dad,

You would've been 100 years old today. I didn't do anything lawyerly on your birthday, but ... I've never told you ... but three years ago, when I was on holiday in the United Kingdom, I spent a day in the Temple area of London, visiting the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts of Justice. It was so easy to imagine you there. I would've enjoyed your company, and I wish we could've popped into a pub to talk. Or argue. Probably. Happy century, Dad. I hope you still have tennis, and rugby, and books, and a veld for a walk.

Miss you!

The daughter who was born last

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)

Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.