Raizan Sennyoji and early Buddhism in Japan. Itoshima, Fukuoka

A couple of weeks ago I visited Raizan Sennyoji in Itoshima. Itoshima is a nice little country suburb a little to the west of where I live in Fukuoka. It is famous for beautiful beaches, mountains and the countryside. Many people also farm and produce a lot of great produce. It’s a nice place to visit if you ever have the chance.

Raizan temple sits in the mountains in southern part of Itoshima. Sounds far, but Itoshima is quite compact so from the small city centre it is only about 10 minutes to drive there.

When I go to different places I always ask for English information. About 50% of the places I visit have English information. My Japanese is alright but reading kanji is a chore. Anyway, luckily the man behind the counter had an information sheet.

The temple was founded way back in the year 178AD, the 48th year of Emperor Seimu.  Which off the top of my head has to one of the oldest temples in Japan. Although, it is probably a Japanese mythical date of foundation, as the ‘official’ influence of Buddhism did not occur in Japan until the 6th century when a couple of Japanese monks returned from Korea after studying Buddhism.  Seems this information raises more questions that need to be researched later!

The mythical 13th Emperor at that time was Seimu. I say mythical as emperors and empresses before Jimmu in 660AD are found in the mythical scrolls called the Kojiki which contains the very early accounts of Japan but were not written until about the 8th century. So, on with the story.  Apparently an Indian Buddhist monk named Seiga Hojisei (which sounds very Japanese to me) came to Kyushu on the request from the local lord named Ikazuchi Daigongen. It also say that Seiga Hojisei hand carved the main Buddha statue by hand which stands 16ft tall in the main hall.
This story again raises more questions. First, Japan had just progressed from the Jomon into the Yayoi period. There were not yet any social nobility class. The Yayoi brought agriculture from Korea including rice farming. The system of nobility didn’t start until at least the end of the Yayoi period in around 300AD. Second, China had only been introduced to Buddhism around the same time, how could an Indian Buddhist possibly know about the existence of Japan when there is only limited knowledge about Japan in China? Finally, how could a local lord know of the existence of an Indian monk when interaction between the Chinese nobility and the Yamato ruling class was also very limited?

Now we move forward a few years. During the reign of Emperor Shomu in 741 the temple is recognised as an Imperial Institute or Kokubunji strengthening Buddhism throughout provincial Japan. It is around this same time famous temple such as Todaiji in Nara and Miyajima in Hiroshima were built.

During the attempted Mongol invasions in 1274 AD and 1281 AD Sennyoji played an important role. Many samurai and lords involved in the defence of Kyushu were accommodated at the temple. Warriors also prayed to the 16ft Kannon for their health and victory against the invaders. Of course their prayers were answered with a typhoon destroying the invaders ships and ending the invasion. Not just once but twice!

Over time many feudal lords such as Ashikaga, Toyotomi, Shimazu and Otomo have donated land for farming and gifts to the temple. In 1752 Lord of Fukuoka Kuroda Tsugukata built the Daihiouin to accommodate over 300 monks who were studying at the temple. This structure still stands today.

The temple is nice to visit all year round, but the busiest seasons are autumn and spring when the foliage begins to change colour. There are over 500 archives kept at the temple which are designated as Fukuoka Prefectural cultural assets.

Text and photos by Stuart.