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Special Feature on Press Trips

A Journey Through Ancient Japan by Teniwoha


Part 2: Going to see Sakanoue Tamuramaro ~Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo~


Sakanoue Tamuramaro was our country's first big general (Daishogun).
Tamuramaro conquered the Tohoku region and surrendered the Emishi chief Aterui and his ally Moreh. Some of you may have heard various legends about Tamuramaro.
He has long been renowned as a military commander.
On the other hand, there are many things we do not know about Tamuramaro. Much of it relates to his origins. Some believe that Tamuramaro may have been the descendant of a naturalized citizen or that he was actually from Emishi.
What kind of person was Sakanoue Tamuramaro, the greatest contributor to the conquest of the Tohoku region? This time, among the countless legends that have been handed down to posterity, I would like to visit the Takkoku no iwaya Bishamondō Hall, which is said to have been founded by Sakanoue Tamuramaro, and consider his life and the impact he had on posterity.

2.Who was Sakanoue Tamuramaro?


There are a vast number of books of research materials on Sakanoue Tamuramaro. However, as I am not a history specialist, I felt it would be a high threshold for me to get my hands on them. Then I thought of children's books. I thought that if the books were written for children, they would be easy to read, so I immediately went to the library to look for books related to Tamuramaro. Then, I found just the right book. It was a book titled "Sakanoue Tamuramaro Embracing a Child" by Etsuko Isshiki. I immediately started reading it, but halfway through, I began to feel uncomfortable. Why is that? Because in the children's book, Tamuramaro was depicted as a native of Fukushima Prefecture. To be honest, the image I had in my mind was that Tamuramaro was not from Fukushima Prefecture.
In the book, it seems that Tamuramaro was from Tamurasho, Oshu (Tamura-cho, Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture). However, I found it hard to believe.
This is because Tamuramaro was a man who rose through the ranks at an exceptionally fast pace. Would he have been able to rise to the top if he had been born and raised in a rural area and then moved to the center of the country when he was old enough? It was simply a coincidence that the name "Tamura" happened to coincide with the name of the city, so it must have been something that later generations came up with.
The children's book was interesting reading, and my curiosity was piqued. However, I was curious about the historical facts and eventually unraveled the specialized books as well.

Sakanoue Tamuramaro was born in 758. His father was Karitamaro, 31 years old at the time. However, nothing is known about his mother. The place of birth also did not seem to be clear. There is a long-standing theory that he was born in Tamura-sho, Oshu. It can be found in the "Tamura Zoshi" (The Tamura Paper) and the "Tamura Sandai Ki" (The Three Generations of Tamura), both of which are written in joruri (Japanese puppet plays). However, both of these are unreliable as evidence, and are not more than legends.

There is also another theory that he was actually from Emishi. According to this theory, Tamuramaro was from the northeastern part of Japan, so he understood the hearts of the Emishi and was able to pacify them.
However, considering the speed of his rise to power, I think it more natural to believe that he was born and raised in the Heijo-kyo Capital area.
If he was named after the place name "Tamura," then Tamura-ri, Heijo-kyo (near Amatsuji-cho, Nara City) is said to be the most likely candidate, and that theory seems more plausible to me.

(2)Appearance and Character

Of course, there are no photographs of ancient figures, so we have to rely on descriptions of what they were like. Fortunately, a description of Tamuramaro's appearance remains in the "Biography of Tamuramaro," written in Chinese, and I would like to introduce it here. The general was 5' 8" tall, with a chest 1' 2" thick. His eyes are the eyes of an azure hawk, and his sideburns are golden threads.
In other words, he was about 1 meter 80 centimeters tall and 36 centimeters thick at the chest. When viewed from the front, he appears to be leaning forward, and when viewed from the back, he appears to be prone. The description is very detailed, but we can see that she had a stout body.
The following description is also included in the book.
If you turn his eyes in anger, even the fiercest beasts will suddenly die; if he loosens his brow in anger, even young children will quickly fall in love with him.
In general, biographies are intended to be better than the actual person. Even if we take this into consideration, I feel that the description is a bit excessive. As one would expect, a raging beast will not fall simply by making its eyes angry. However, it is certain that his character has been handed down and accepted by later generations as a person who is strong against the strong and kind to the weak.

3.Let`s go to Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo!

(1)The Legend of Tamuramaro

There are many legends circulating about Tamuramaro. One characteristic is that there are many temples that Tamuramaro is said to have been involved in the construction of.
The most common are Kannon-do temples, but there are also many shrines and Bishamondo temples. Many of these temples are located in the Tohoku region, including Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures, but the most famous is Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.
It is said that Tamuramaro built Kiyomizu-Dera Temple with the eleven-faced thousand-armed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva as its principal deity and named it "Kiyomizu-Dera Temple" because of the purity of Otowa no Taki.

(2)Around Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo

On this trip, we visited Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamon-do Temple, which is famous for having been involved in its construction by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro.
If you ask me why I chose Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo among the many shrines and temples, I heard that it has the oldest legend among the legends of the conquest of Emishi. Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo is located five to six kilometers west-southwest of Hiraizumi Station on the Tohoku Main Line. Although it is located at the foot of the Ou Mountains, it is located deep in the mountains, making it difficult to reach by public transportation. You can take a taxi from Hiraizumi Station, but I rented a car at Ichinoseki. This is because I felt that a car with a sharp turn was convenient for moving around this area.
The parking lot was large, probably because there were many people who actually went by car. There is also a small stream on the other side of the mountain, and the heart of the long journey was healed for a moment.
Standing at the entrance of Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo, the question arises, "Is this a temple or a shrine?" This is because a torii gate stands at the entrance. There seems to be a lot of questions about this, and it is posted on the official website, but it is probably a place of so-called syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism.

Taken from the front right, Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo
Taken from the front right, Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo
ColumnWhat is Shinbutsu shugo?

"Shinbutsu shugo" refers to the fusion of ancient Japanese belief in gods and Buddhism, which was introduced from the continent. Have you ever seen a Buddhist Hall within the precincts of a shrine or a shrine within the precincts of a temple? Exactly that scene is an example of Shinbutsu shugo. The origin of Shinbutsu shugo is around the 8th century. The area around the Usa-Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture is said to be the birthplace of this dish. After that, it spread all over the country.
However, the era of syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism, which lasted for more than a thousand years, came to an end with the anti-Buddhist movement of the Meiji era called Haibutsu Kishaku. This is because the Meiji government tried to make Shinto the state religion, and in the process, an ordinance to separate Shintoism and Buddhism was issued. However, this momentum will come to an end within a few years. The historical sites of Shinbutsu shugo are still alive today all over the country.

Below, I would like to introduce it along the route.

①1 Bishamondo Hall
As you proceed through the torii gate, you will see a graceful hall on a rugged cliff. The Bishamondō Hall is described in the Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondō Engi, as follows.

n the year 801, the Shogun defeated the Emishi holed up in the cave in a fierce battle, cutting off the heads of Curse King, Akagashira, and Takamaru, and finally pacifying the Emishi. In gratitude for the victory, he built a four-sided, nine-ken hall modeled after the Kiyomizu stage in Kyoto, enshrined one hundred and eight statues of Bishamonten, and named it bishamondō (also known as "cave hall") as a place of prayer for the protection and preservation of the nation. -From the official website of Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondō.

I had been thinking, "Bishamondō hall looks like something," but when I read the legend, I came to a conclusion. It is modeled after Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto.

The story before and after the Engi is briefly introduced as follows: "Daishogun Tamura defeated the Evil Road King who had been misbehaving with the people. Have you ever heard this kind of story somewhere?
If you recall it well, the storyline is similar to that of the extermination of demons.
As for the "bad road king" mentioned here, some people think it may be a corruption of the word for the Emishi chief Aterui, while others think it may be a deity enshrined in the name of an evil spirit. In any case, however, the story of Tamuramaro's extermination of some evil person is no different from the "extermination of demons" as we know it today. When was the conquest of Tohoku somehow adapted into an extermination of demons? My research revealed that the story of extermination of demons is told in the song "Tamura," said to have been written by Zeami, and that in "Tamura Zoshi," the demons are defeated. I digress a bit, but let's return to Bishamondo.
A steep staircase along the cliff leads up to the hall.
Unfortunately, no pictures of the interior of the hall can be posted, as photography was strictly prohibited, but the scene is still fresh in my mind's eye. First of all, the windows of the hall offer a panoramic view of the temple grounds. Inside the hall, the name "Founded by Shogun Tamura" is written on the right pillar, and the name of Emperor Kanmu is written on the left pillar, which clearly shows that the place is related to the temple. I took off my shoes at the back of the hall and were able to see Bishamonten in front.

Taken from the front left, Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo
Taken from the front left, Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo
ColumnLife work of Emperor Kanmu

What kind of person was Emperor Kanmu who appointed Sakanoue Tamuramaro as a barbarian general?
The name of Emperor Kanmu may remind some people of the saying, "A Japanese bush warbler cries in Heian-kyo. It is widely known that Emperor Kanmu's life's work was military affairs and land development. Military affairs refer to the pacification of the northeastern part of Japan, and construction refers to the construction of Heian-kyo.
Then, why did Emperor Kanmu put so much effort into military affairs and construction?
Emperor Kanmu was not originally intended to be an emperor. This is because Emperor Kanmu's mother was of the Baekje lineage. Emperor Kohnin, the father of Emperor Kanmu, had nine wives, but the empress was Emperor Shomu's daughter, Princess Inoue. Originally, Inoue's son, Prince Osabe, was to have succeeded to the throne.
However, Emperor Kanmu's father, Emperor Kohnin, came to the throne and became Crown Prince in 773. There is a reason why Emperor Kanmu, who was of relatively low status, became the Crown Prince. This was due to the deaths of Princess Inoue and Prince Osabe in a political dispute involving the Fujiwara clan.
In 785, after his accession to the throne, Emperor Kanmu abdicated his brother Prince Sawara, who had been the Crown Prince, for his involvement in the death of Fujiwara Tanetsugu. Prince Sawara was imprisoned and died in exile. Thereafter, a series of misfortunes befell Emperor Kanmu's relatives. Emperor Kanmu feared that they were possessed by the grudge spirit of Prince Sawara.
Emperor Kanmu decided to move the capital to a new location, as he feared that this would hinder the political situation.
Emperor Kanmu's imperial throne was established by the death of a relative. It was against this background that Emperor Kanmu focused his efforts on military affairs and land building. In particular, the conquest of the Tohoku region was a major undertaking that had not been realized by previous emperors. Emperor Kanmu needed to strengthen his foundation.

Great Buddha with a rock face
Great Buddha with a rock face
Column"Gouhoin," the most powerful talisman

Inside the hall, visitors can ask for "Gouhoin," which is known as the most powerful talisman. A certain travel magazine stated that this talisman, which had undergone blessing prayers from New Year's Day to the 8th, was available for sale from January 8 to November 22. Since it was the end of April when I visited the shrine, I had given up hope that they had already sold out, but they still had a stock of them! After all, it is said that if you put this tag on, it will drive away evil demons and bring good fortune.

"Gouhoin," the most powerful talisman

②Great Buddha with a rock face
After leaving Bishamondō Hall and descending the stairs, the right side of the temple is a series of cliffs. At the top of the cliff, there is a Buddha carved in the shape of a cliff.
The Great Buddha is 16.5 meters high, and its face alone is 3.6 meters long. It is one of the five largest statues in Japan and is said to be famous as the Northernmost Magaibutsu (Cliff Buddha).

③3 Gamagaike bentendo
There is a pond called "Gamagaike Pond" in front of the Bishamondō Hall, where Benten is enshrined. There is a signboard that says, "Men and women who are on good terms should not visit together. This pond is said to be the pond of the gods, and it is said that all living beings who live here are messengers of Benten-sama. It is said that the most precious thing is a snake, and it was also enshrined in Benten-do.

Gamagaike bentendo
Gamagaike bentendo

④Himemachi Fudo hall
The following is a description of Himemachi Fudo Hall its official website

The Princess was kidnapped from Kyoto and locked up in "Kagohime" in the upper stream of the cave and enjoyed cherry blossom viewing at "Sakuraya" for a while.
The waterfall that ambushed the princess as she tried to escape was called "Himemachi," and the stone on which the princess's black hair was cut to make an example of her so that she could not escape again was called "Katsura-ishi," or the stone on which her hair was hung.
Himemachi Fudo was enshrined by Chisho Daishi as the principal image of Himemachi Falls in the enclave precincts of Takkoku Saikoji Temple and was rebuilt by Lord Fujiwara no Motohira. ―Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamon-do Betto Takkoku Saikoji Temple official website.

The bad road king was killed by Tamuramaro due to such arrogant behavior, and I felt that such episodes were sprinkled throughout the precincts.

Bad road king statue in the Oshu City Buried Cultural Property Research Center
Bad road king statue in the Oshu City Buried Cultural Property Research Center

⑤Kondo Hall
Luckily, when I visited in late April, there was a special exhibition of hidden Buddha statues in the Kondo Hall as the Fudo-do Hall was being renovated. Therefore, I was able to take off my shoes in the main hall and face the hidden Buddha. The hidden Buddhas were the eleven-faced Kanzeon Bodhisattva statue and the holy Kanzeon Bodhisattva statue from the end of the Heian period.

Kondo hall
Kondo hall

4.Summary - Visiting the Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo Hall

Although there are many legends related to Sakanoue Tamuramaro, it was found that there are two types of legends. One is a legend about the founding of temples and shrines, and the other is a story about the conquest of the Tohoku region and its transformation into the extermination of demons. The Takkoku no Iwaya is considered to be a place that encompasses both types of legends.

The legendary site is located in various parts of Japan. However, I think that for areas such as Akita and Yamagata prefectures, Sakanoue Tamuramaro may not have visited them during his conquest of the Tōhoku region. And if we start thinking that way, even the extent to which Tamuramaro actually visited temples and shrines to pray for victory in the war seems doubtful. On the other hand, the legend itself is true and has been passed down from generation to generation. Why is this so? One reason, I think, is that people were looking for a strong hero. When we think of Sakanoue Tamuramaro, we are reminded of Michizane Sugawara as a contrast. As a god of learning, Sugawara no Michizane later became associated with the Tenjin faith. Legends may become stronger when they are combined with faith.

In the midst of repeated fierce battles, the significance of the existence of temples and shrines where Tamuramaro is said to have visited to pray for victory may have been rather postwar. After the war was over, people may have wanted to make the temples and shrines a spiritual center for a peaceful world. After so much killing and bloodshed, people may have sought salvation. Of course, the view of life and death may differ from that of today. However, I can see people looking for a strong leader and praying for a peaceful world. By visiting the legendary site and examining the legend, I have reflected on the character of Sakanoue Tamuramaro and ancient Japan.
However, I cannot deny that I left out a bit the greatest achievement of Sakanoue Tamuramaro, the conquest of the Tohoku region.
In the next part of this journey, I would like to trace the real image of Aterui and Moreh, rivals in the life of Sakanoue Tamuramaro, and consider the battles that took place in the ancient Tohoku region.


The Mystery of the Taga Castle Burnt Tiles" by Akihiko Ishimori, illustrated by Masaki Kudo, supervised by Bungeishunju.
Sakanoue Tamuramaro embracing a child" by Etsuko Isshiki (History Shunju Publishing Co., Ltd.)
Sakanoue Tamuramaro" Takashi Takahashi (Yoshikawa Kobunkan)
Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamon-do Hall|Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamon-do Temple Takkoku Saikoji Temple (iwabetto.com)