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Baisouin, the temple of glass and bamboo

It's an old temple. It was established in 1643. This is what it looks like:

Baisōin (or Basouin) in Aoyama, designed by Kengo Kuma

Seriously. Or, in South African English, seriaas!

Baisōin originated 371 years ago, but it was reconstructed in 2003, based on a design by Kengo Kuma*, the same architect who designed the ultra-modern Akagi Jinja in Kagurazaka.

I read about his temple when I researched his shrine, and finally got a chance to visit it last Sunday. I promise – word of honour as fact-obsessed information junkie – that I did consult my books and Google this temple, but don't fix what ain't broke and don't reinvent the wheel. Unless, of course, you replace wheels with this.

I digress.

This shot was taken from the cemetery next to the temple

Point is, the best information about this temple is in its brochure: concise and written in faultless English. I'm therefore going to commit shameless plagiarism, with full credit to Baisōin in Minami-Aoyama. The temple's name can also be transcribed as Baisouin, and you can find more information here, here and here.

Its full name is Chōseizan Hōjuji Baisōin (長青寶樹梅窓). It belongs to the Jōdo-shū (浄土宗) or Pure Land School of Buddhism, and was originally sponsored by Aoyama Yoshinari, a senior statesman in the Tokugawa era. It's served as the Aoyama family's ancestral temple, and thirteen generations of family heads are enshrined here. (Yes, same family that lends its name to the district in which the temple is located.)

It was redesigned by Kuma, a professor at the University of Tokyo, one of Japan's best-known architects and a winner of numerous international awards (link, link).

His design is a beautiful, simple glass-and-steel structure that allows soft light to filter through unhindered. It's approached through an avenue of bamboo that leads to the original temple gate, left intact. 

Simplicity, clean lines, lots of natural light

Stone garden under the steps

This is what he says in the temple's brochure:
My aim was to create a temple with the feeling of an oasis in the middle of the city. To achieve this, the approach from Aoyama-dori, which is heavily trafficked, was important. As one approaches the main gate, the design incorporates bamboo on either side to create a feeling of serenity appropriate for communication with the Buddha … Particular attention was paid to the colour of the bamboo. Using yellow rather than green bamboo created a feeling of quiet, elegant simplicity.
The bamboo-lined entrance of the temple

The original gate still stands. The small structure on the right is a pet cemetery.

The temple's main image is Amida Buddha, referred to as the Buddha of infinite light. It also includes an image of Kannon Bodhisattva, and is one of the temples that form the Edo 33 Kannon Pilgrimage (also called the Tokyo 33 Kannon Pilgrimage in English sources).

The temple … OK, this is now my own commentary, not taken from the brochure … the temple also has a surprisingly large cemetery that's probably the newest and best-maintained I've ever seen in central Tokyo, with a small brook and several shady spots under copses of trees. It's beautiful, but if left me with the same awkward restlessness that I experienced in the very wealthy, very upmarket Tsutaya Books in Daikenyama: lots of style, not so much atmosphere.

(Scribbles note to self: You're such a poverty-stricken barbarian, Ru, that you have no appreciation for the upper echelons of refined society. Or "snotty stuff", as you call it so eruditely. Best shut up.)

(Scribbles second note to self: Three years ago you promised yourself a second visit to Tsutaya. You haven't done it yet. Go.)

Autumn colours in the cemetery

However, let it be stated categorically that the cemetery is lovely and offers a tranquil escape after the crowds in Ichō Namiki. The staff in the information office is graceful and helpful, the brochure is in English, the bamboo is beautiful. Well worth a visit.

* I write his name in the Western way, with his family name last, since he's so well-known in English-speaking countries.

** I dedicate this post to the two architects I know, Du and Cocomino. I have endless admiration for a brain that can combine art and maths.

Added Friday 28 November

Du has shared extra information with us. If you're interested in Kengo Kuma, here's a lecture in which he describes his work and philosophy (it's a video on Vimeo). You can also read more about his designs in Anti-Object, available on Thanks, Du!

The entrance on Aoyama-dori

Two tiny Jizō statues guard the entrance.

Standing in the old gate, looking towards Aoyama-dori


Cemetery detail above and below

This is the kind of thing that amuses my small mind: it may be a tranquil cemetery
in an upmarket suburb, but there's still a vending machine tucked into an impossible corner.

The temple's brochure was my main source of information.

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