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Shinryō-ji, Shinagawa's elephant temple

There's a running joke about elephants in my life: I follow them, and they follow me. If you don't believe me, I have evidence here, here and here.

It all started when I kept getting lost, especially in stations and underground passages. "It's not my fault!" I defended myself. "How do I know where I am if I can't follow the Southern Cross in the sky and the elephant droppings in the veldt?"

I'm only semi-joking. If you're a good tracker, you can identify animal dung (link). This scoop on poop is a rather important survival technique in the bush: elephant dung can tell you a lot about the animal and its environment (link), and if you follow the trail, you'll eventually get to water.

Whenever I get lost in Tokyo, which is often, I blame the lack of elephant droppings; and when somebody asks me how to get to a certain location, I order him to follow the elephant dung.

Elephant statue at Shinryō-ji

Sarah, who's in on this joke, recently sent me an email. "I found a temple for you! I saw a photo of the gate and knew you'd like it ... have you been?" She included this link. I took one look and fell in love with the elephants standing guard as well as the unusual shape of the temple gate. I went hunting. I didn't use Google Maps; I followed the elephant droppings.

It's a Nichiren temple called Shinryō-ji (真了寺) that was built in 1673 as a sub-temple of neighbouring Tenmyōkoku-ji (天妙国寺), which in turn was linked to Suwa Taisha (諏訪大明), one of the oldest and mostly highly revered shrines in Japan. (Never mind the blending of Buddhism and Shinto; it's common practice in Japan.)

The unusual gate is very Indian/Hindu. The elephant with the tusks (on the right in the photo below) represents Brahmā, the Hindu god of creation; and the elephant on the left is a symbol of Queen Mayadevi, the mother of Buddha Shakyamuni (or, as he might be better known, Siddhārtha Guatama).

Shinryō-ji's unusual elephant gate


When I started researching Buddha's birth, I was startled by the imagery:

"One day during a midsummer festival, Mayadevi retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream. Four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her."

Bull elephant strikes her with his trunk, vanishes into her and a child is born? Hmm.

The back of the gate, in other words inside the temple complex itself, is decorated with paintings and lotus motifs. The lotus, too, is a symbol of divine birth.

The gate seen from the temple

The unusual gate is counted as a Tangible Cultural Property (link) of Shinagawa Ward. The temple also happens to be a crematorium and charnel house for pets.

So, there you go, the elephant spirit stalked me via Sarah and I succumbed to its lure.

I visited this temple after I went shrine-hunting in Chiba, but the Chiba post will take a long time to write. I'll do it tomorrow when I'll be stuck at home while Tropical Storm Man-yi attacks.



Detail of carvings on the gate


Approaching the temple

Standing on the temple's veranda, looking down at the gate


Sketches on the gate



Lotus symbolism


Shinryō-ji

Statue of Buddha and elephant in front of the temple building




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