Photo: Vicki L Beyer
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Rakuhoji and the Amabiki Kannon

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By Vicki L Beyer

Rakuhoji, home of the Amabiki (Rain pulling) Kannon, has sat on the flanks of Mt Amabiki in northern Ibaraki Prefecture for nearly 1,500 years, looking southwest over the vast plain below.

The environment of this pretty temple offers a fascinating respite from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Ascending the hill from the lowest gate, one encounters castle-like stone retaining walls, making the temple feel like a mountain fortress. Yet, once inside, it is a complex of beautiful and well-maintained structures where peacocks roam the central courtyard and a hillside garden has wooded trails, streams, ponds, and always something in bloom. Soak up the relaxing atmosphere or use the temple as a jumping off spot for hikes on Mt Amabiki.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

One distinctive feature of Rakuhoji is its historical associations with the Japanese imperial house. It was founded in 587AD with the endorsement of then-emperor Yomei (540-587). This seems to have been the heyday of remote mountain temples and Buddhist asceticism in Japan (although development of the surrounding area over the centuries has rendered Rakuhoji’s location not as remote as some of its sister temples).

A few years after the temple was founded, Yomei’s sister, Suiko (554-628), Japan’s 33rd emperor and the first verifiable female to hold the position, became ill and requested that prayers be offered on her behalf to the Kannon at Rakuhoji. She attributed her recovery to those prayers, popularizing the mountain temple’s Kannon as having special powers.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The legend of these special powers and the temple’s relationship with the imperial line was further strengthened when Empress Komyo (701-760), consort of Emperor Shomu (701-755), offered prayers for a safe delivery at Rakuhoji around 730. As part of her prayers the empress wrote out the Lotus Sutra in gold paint on dark blue paper, a document that the temple maintains as one of its treasures. Based on this historical incident, Rakuhoji is, even today, a popular place for would-be parents to pray to conceive or deliver safely, and new parents to give thanks for a child.

Any temple associated with childbirth is also associated with those babies who don’t get to grow up; that is, lost pregnancies, stillbirths or infant deaths. Rakuhoji is no exception. The trails of a part of the wooded hillside above the temple are lined with statues of Jizo, the St. Christopher-like bodhisattva known to act as a guardian of children. Many parents who lose pregnancies or babies install Jizo statues at temples as memorials, including here at Rakuhoji. It is often touching to wander among the statues and observe the flowers and other objects loving parents have placed on them.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The Amabiki (rain pulling) name also comes from another of the temple’s imperial connections. In 821 while traveling around the entire country, Emperor Saga (784-842) visited Rakuhoji and while there copied out Empress Komyo’s Lotus Sutra, also enshrining it at the temple. The drought-breaking rains that followed were attributed to the emperor’s actions and the Rakuhoji Kannon became the “rain pulling” Kannon.

For a hillside temple, there is a surprising amount of water at Rakuhoji, perhaps another legacy of Emperor Saga. A small stream tumbles down the hill, filling two separate ponds. One of the ponds surrounds a small shrine to the goddess Benten, one of Japan’s seven lucky gods and often conflated with Kannon. The colorful shrine is adorned with ornate carvings; she is clearly well cared for here!

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

While most of the temple’s structures are from the 18th and 19th centuries, there are some with even longer histories. The more one explores the nooks and crannies of the temple (and being on a hillside, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore!), the more one finds. Enjoy!

Getting there by public transportation: Take a taxi (about 10 min.) or the Yamazakura-go bus from Iwase station on the JR Mito line. On weekdays, the bus only stops at Motogi, at the bottom of the mountain, from where it is about a 30minute walk. On weekends, it goes all the way to the Amabiki Kannon parking lot.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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