Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Bell Tolls for Myomanji

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

During my research trip to Japan last summer I visited Kyoto Seika University, an art college in the northern part of Kyoto (most of us would consider it "just north of Kyoto" but given Japanese city lines, it's technically within the boundaries of Kyoto-shi). When I arrived in Japan, my son had just completed a 15-week study abroad program at Kyoto Seika, and wanted to show me both the school and some of his favorite nearby sites.

One of the places he wanted to visit was "this really cool little temple and monastery" about a fifteen-minute walk from the university campus. He said "it's not really crowded, or famous, but it's special to me"--and given my love for Japanese shrine and temple architecture, I gladly went along.

The temple measures about the size of a small city block, and has no English-language signage. The entrance identifies it as "Myotzan Myomanji" - a name that initially rang no bells for me. (Pun'll understand when we get there.)

"Myotozan Myomanji"

On first impression, Myomanji is a lovely, quiet temple approached along a wide stone bridge that spans an enormous, decorative koi pond:

It's even more idyllic in person.

Directly inside the gates, I noticed a beautiful--and very large--bronze bell, which reminded me of the famous bell in a Japanese Noh play called Dōjōji.

The bell itself is almost ten feet high.

In the play, a monk named Anchin goes on a pilgrimage and meets an innkeeper's daughter, Kiyohime, who falls in love with him. Although Anchin promises to marry the girl, he tricks her and returns to his monastery via a different route. Enraged, the girl transforms herself into a giant snake, and pursues Anchin to the temple, where he has hidden himself inside the temple's giant bronze bell. Kiyohime wraps her body around the bell, and the scorching heat of her anger burns Anchin to death inside the bell - after which, Kiyohime flung herself into a nearby river and drowned...and her spirit possessed the bell. In the final act of the play, the monks exorcise Kiyohime's spirit from the bell, restoring order to the temple.

Remember's going to be relevant later.  

Inside the temple grounds, a large, Indian-style stupa rose up near the center of the temple, directly in front of the worship hall.

One of these things is not like the others.

It seemed out of place in a Japanese temple, and also strangely familiar, though I didn't place it immediately. In fact, it was weeks later that I remembered where I'd seen it: the stupa is a replica of the one a Bodh Gaya (in India) where Buddha originally attained enlightenment.

Myomanji Stupa

After paying respects before the altar, my son and I paid the small admission fee (300 yen - about $3) that allowed us to tour the monastery, including the abbott's hall (filled with art) and the lovely monastery garden, called Yukinoniwa.

This is where I'd normally put a photo of Yukinoniwa; however, it felt like a very sacred space, and I respected it far too much to take any photographs. 
(Sorry / Not Sorry )

While we sat and appreciated the garden (and waited out a light summer rain that started falling while we toured the monastery) one of the monks came running through the hall with a paper in his hand. This was rare, and unusual, because most of the Buddhist monks I saw in Japan moved peacefully about their business. When he saw us, the monk lit up with delight, bowed, and presented the paper to my son (who thanked him in Japanese).

To our surprise, the paper contained an English-language print out telling the history of the temple. The monk had printed it out because he worried we wouldn't understand the temple's history based on the Japanese-language signage. (He was correct...most of the Japanese was technical enough that neither my son nor I could read it well.) 

Here's what we learned:

Looking through the entrance gate toward the main hall.

Myomanji was established in 1389 by the founder of the Nichiren school of Buddhism--a monk named Nichiju.

Myomanji's greatest treasure is a bronze bell, originally dating to 828, under which the monks of Dōjōji Temple sheltered a monk named Anchin when he attempted to hide from the wrath of an innkeeper's daughter whose love for him transformed her into a dragon. According to legend, the dragon's wrath made the bell so hot that it burned poor Anchin to death, and melted the bell.

In 1359 the bell was re-cast (from the melted bronze of the original). During the inauguration ceremony for the new bell, a beautiful but unknown woman appeared among the dancers, circled the bell, and disappeared beneath it. Thereafter, disasters occurred every time the bell was rung, and the monks became so terrified of the haunted bell that they buried it in the mountains.

In 1585, a samurai dug up the bell and brought it to the monks of Myomanji, appointing them to act as its guardians. Since that date, the monks have guarded the bell and held an annual ceremony for the souls of Anchin and Kiyohime.

Please Do Not Ring Bell.

And no...they still don't ring it.

The bell at the monastery gates is a bronze replica, cast from a mold of the original bell, which is kept away from public view in the heart of the monastery.

I had so many takeaway lessons from this "cool little temple" my son wanted me to see.

-- Don't turn up your nose at humble things - they're often more important than they seem.

-- Be kind to strangers - your actions may transform their understanding.

And, finally,

-- Don't ring strange bells. You might accidentally summon a really angry dragon from the lake.


  1. Lovely story, Susan, thanks! I'd like to say that I've heard it before, but it just doesn't ring a bell...

    1. LOL. The bell doesn't toll for thee...

  2. What a lovely, elegant story, Susan. About a lovely, elegant place. Thank you for taking me there.

    1. Thank you - and thank you for coming along on the journey.

  3. It's always a special feeling when you visit a place and unexpectedly discover something that links you to past knowledge or stories. Thanks for sharing that feeling with us.

    1. Isn't it? It seems to happen a lot when I travel, and it never gets old. It's a magical moment, every time.

  4. Not at all how I thought the story would turn out when it began with, a farmer's daughter, traveling monk, and a stupa.

    Absolutely fascinating!

    1. A traveling monk and his mom walk into a temple...and therein lies a tale...

  5. So special. Thank you for sharing this with us!