Gankoji of Gifu: Unique Corroding Temple Housing 24 Buddhist Statues
In 794, the capital of Japan was moved from Nara to Kyoto by the Emperor Kanmu. A priest named Saicho, the founder of Tendai school of Buddhism, supported the emperor who had suffered a lot of stress and became exhausted in the process. Saicho, determined to disseminate the teachings of his Buddhism, went out on a tour from Kyoto and ended up settling in the Mino Area (the present southern area of Gifu Prefecture) in 815. There he founded “Fuseya,” the government-run poverty relief facility. This facility later became Gankoji Temple we are introducing in this article.
The Mino Area has a historically important highway, which was once called “Tosando” and later “Nakasendo” and has been tread by many important cultural missionaries such as Saicho. The areas around the highway are still scattered with many old temples from around the time. Especially notable among them is Gankoji Temple. It is often referred to by the nickname “*Shosoin of eastern Mino” because the temple’s treasury hall houses many important cultural artefacts whose importance is comparable to those housed by Shosoin, the famous treasury hall in Nara.
*Shosoin: The treasury hall in Todaiji Temple, Nara. Registered as a World Heritage site as one of Japan’s largest facilities storing many culturally important properties.
Main Temple Hall
Gankoji Temple lost a large portion of the building and many of its Buddhist statues in the several fires it suffered. The present temple building was reconstructed in 1581.
There are many unique features that separate Gankoji from other temples. One of them is that the temple was reconstructed by the initiative of local residents and not by some man of power as is the case for many other temples. That explains why the roofs of the main temple hall, though designated as a national important cultural property, have been left to become rusty as seen in the photo. But that’s actually what gives a nice atmosphere to the building.
Once you step in the main platform, the dignified atmosphere of the temple with long years of history will impress you deeply. You will fully realize how this building is aged well beyond its durable years and has been mended and repaired over and over again. But that doesn’t mean the temple is dirty. You will actually find not even a speck of dust here.
If you look at the temple hall from the side, you will find another unique feature of the temple. That is, each of the many pillars is different in size and shape to one another. This resulted from the fact that the temple was reconstructed by congeries of local workers. You can tell that they had to use any wooden material they could obtain from places around the area.
Look at those winding and crooked pillars in the photo (especially the second one from the right). These are the pillars that have stood against wind and snow for 430 years and even survived the great earthquake that took place in the Mino Area in 1891 (magnitude of 8.4 / the largest inland crustal earthquake Japan has ever experienced).
Yet another unique feature of this temple is the style of its wooden framework called “*Iroha Zukuri.” The structure was devised so that the altar can be worshipped from all sides, which cannot be found at any other temple.
*Iroha Zukuri (Style): The building framework composed of 6 by 8 = 48 pillars (the number of the characters used in the ancient poem called “iroha song,” in which each character of the Japanese syllabary is used only once)
And Reihoden Hall, the annex located west to the main temple hall. 24 buddhist statues, which are said to have been created around the 12th century during Kamakura period and all designated as national important cultural properties, rest here. Unlike the main hall with its rusty roof, this is a brand new building placed under strict security. The nickname “Shosoin of the Eastern Mino” comes from this treasury hall.
Unfortunately, we cannot show you the interior here because photographs are not allowed inside the hall. But if you ever have a chance to visit here, you will be instantly captivated by the solemn atmosphere. Many of the Buddhist statues here have rather manly expressions compared to those with more feminine and graceful expressions you can typically find in Kyoto and Nara.
Among all the Buddhist statues found in Japan, about 5,000 are designated as national important cultural properties and 24 of them rest here at this treasury hall.
Gankoji Temple is definitely a must-visit spot for Buddhist statue fans. The Buddhist statues here are of such great quality that you can rarely find at other temples around Japan. But the main temple hall itself is in such a devastating condition, to put it frankly, that it may collapse anytime soon, so if you are interested, an early visit is recommended.
Access: By Meitetsu Train Nagoya –> Inuyama –> Shinkani –> Mitake / Adjacent to Mitake Station, Map
Admission Fee: 500 Yen
TEL 0574-67-0386 (Reservation required)