- 4 min read

A Tale of Two Temples

A Visit to Oita’s Fuki-ji Temple

Even aficionados of the architectural delights of Kamakura – and if you love Japan, you probably are – might not be acquainted with Sugimoto-dera. This venerable Tendai-sect fane, situated on the road between Hokoku-ji and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, is easily missed. But if you happen by its gate, and recognize its name, forsake it at your peril. Legend has it that any rider who passes by without dismounting his horse will take a bad fall. Better to pay ¥500 at the wooden kiosk, ascend the mossy steps, and meditate a moment on one of Kamakura’s rustic gems.

But why am I talking about a temple an hour from Tokyo if my intention is to discuss one in distant Kyushu? I’ll explain that in a moment.

Fuki-ji, possibly Kyushu’s oldest wooden structure

On a visit to Oita prefecture this past Fall I had the good fortune to join two old friends for a drive around Kyushu’s idyllic Kunizaki peninsula. As the centerpiece of our day of scenic motoring we planned a stop at Fuki-ji, which is said to be one of the oldest temples in Kyushu. None of us had ever seen it.

Through a Wonderland of Buddhist Art

There are fascinating religious artifacts to be found along the winding peninsula roads, including many outdoor stone reliefs, eroded by time and weather, carved into the volcanic tuft during Japan’s Middle Ages by artists unknown. Yet centuries earlier, in the more distant times when Buddhism was first being transmitted to Japan from Pekche, Scilla and Great Thang, traveling monks, possibly Kyushu’s quasi legendary Ninmo himself, built places of worship and hermitage in these same lush valleys. One of the earliest of these, dating from the 700s, is Fuki-ji.

Far From the Madding Droves

Coming from Tokyo, Kyoto, or some other famous destination in Japan, what a strange and pleasant surprise to arrive at this bucolic spot and find – dare I say it? – not a single other foreign tourist. The tour companies, busing their clamorous groups straight from Oita Airport to Beppu, Yufuin or Usa Hachimangu Shrine, just aren’t selling it (yet.) There are no trains, no souvenir shops, no honeymooner attractions - nothing but the tranquility of a small crossroads far out in the countryside.

If you should ever have the good luck to arrive here and stand in awe of the enormous cedar and gingko trees, home to birds who have never chirped back at English, Korean or Chinese voices, you will enjoy the ambient tones of primordial life, possibly punctuated by the peal of a brass temple bell. On a cool day not so different from this, thirteen centuries ago, under the direction of a peripatetic monk, local men laid the groundwork for this sanctuary to a new deity and philosophy of life.

For Fans of Fanes

Now, to answer the question I posed above: As you can discern from the photos, Sugimoto-dera, in Kamakura, and Fuki-ji, in Kyushu, bear a striking resemblance in architectural design. I would venture to assert that their footprints are nearly congruous, their curved roofbeams, corbels and encircling verandas of almost identical design. Is this only because both were at some point rebuilt by the Tendai sect, which simply economized by using the same blueprint? Or was this the preferred style of a Buddhist temple in the early eighth century, with both instances faithfully preserved to this day?

Don’t ask me, I’m not an expert on the subject – just a fan of fanes, in search of enlightenment.

Getting there

In your rented car, enter Fuki-ji in your GPS. Begin driving.

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