While walking in my neighborhood a few years ago, I came up a little temple with a lovely grove of ume trees lining the walk between the outer gate and the niomon (the guardian gate that acts as the “main gate” to the temple precincts).
In fact, the temple–called En’yū-ji–is over 1,200 years old, and home to the oldest wooden building in Tokyo.
En’yū-ji (圓融寺) was founded in 853 by the famous monk Ennin (794-864), known posthumously as Jikaku Daishi. The first character of Ennin’s name (円) is used in an alternate writing of “En’yū-ji” (円融寺).
En’yū-ji stands near the center of a quiet, residential neighborhood in Tokyo’s Meguro ward. The neighborhood has no tourist destinations, and several temples, so it took me almost two years to realize En’yū-ji was more than a local holy site. The discovery came in the spring of 2020, when I noticed the rows of ume (Japanese plum) trees blooming along the walk inside the outer gate, and decided to take a closer look.
I wandered up the walk, admiring the way the afternoon sun made the blossoms seem to glow. At the end of the walk, a flight of steps led up to an open yard. To the right, the large, bronze temple bell stood in a traditional tower.
Directly ahead, the niomon (仁王門) or “Gate of the Guardian Kings” (photo below) marked the way to the temple’s inner precincts. A sign to the right of the Niomon explained the date of the temple’s founding, and that the founder, Ennin, called it “Hofukuji” (法服寺). Later, in 1283, the younger brother of the Buddhist priest Nichiren, who founded the eponymous Nichiren sect, took control of the temple and changed it from a Tendai Buddhist holy site to a temple of the Nichiren sect. Along with its new affiliation, it got a new name: “Hokkei-ji” (法華寺).
By the late 1600s, the Nichiren sect fell out of favor with the Tokugawa shogunate (the samurai clan then ruling the government of Japan) and the temple was given back to the Tendai sect, who promptly renamed it: En’yū-ji. Today, it still goes by that name, and remains an active site of Buddhist worship.
Although it might appear a little, sleepy neighborhood temple–and in some ways, it is, En’yū-ji is also home to the oldest wooden building in Tokyo. The original worship hall, called the Shakado (shown below), dates to the 16th century.
An image of Gautama Buddha is enshrined within the hall. Although the original thatched roof was replaced with copper in 1952, the building is otherwise original. Given the extensive bombings Tokyo suffered during World War II, and the wholesale devastation that ensued, the building’s survival is nothing short of miraculous.
Behind the Shakado stands the larger, more modern Amidado (which, as the name suggests, enshrines an image of Amida Buddha) which has been the temple’s primary worship hall since its construction after World War II. Even so, many visitors still stop to bow and pray at the Shakado as well.
More ume bloom in the temple yard, where several benches offer a place to sit and meditate, pray, or simply reflect on history, spring, or whatever strikes your fancy. I’ve gone back regularly since that initial visit, and make a special trip every year when the ume bloom, to celebrate the return of spring and appreciate the living history right out my back door.
Have you ever stumbled upon an unexpected historical site? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!