Untoan is a famous Zen temple at the base of one of Minami Uonuma’s mountains. It is everything you want a temple to be: ancient, beautiful, and peaceful. (It is one of the most well-known tourism spots in the area so that contemplative calm can get a bit of a rude awakening if you happen to be there at the same time as a bus tour. Most of the time though you will have the whole place to yourself.)
The setting is impressive. The mountains rear up behind the temple and all around are huge cedar trees. The grounds must be well cared for but blend in well with the surrounding nature. Once you buy your ticket (a very reasonable 300 yen) you take a slight detour to enter via the main gate. It is a large wooden structure guarded by two large deities and has a couple of massive straw sandals covered in little prayer plaques. Untoan is an important spot for pilgrims.
A visit here is supposed to guarantee you prosperity as the words of a famous sutra are carved into the stones of the path up to the temple. (There is also a spring of long life inside, so that 300 yen entry ticket turns out to be a pretty sound investment for visiting Buddhists.) The walk up is lovely, no matter what the season, with plenty to catch your eye. The odd shaped building you catch sight of through the trees is the reliquary. There are several important relics here and it also houses some important itinerant pieces that rotate around several famous temples.
Inside is cool in summer but drafty in winter. It is "shoes off" so make sure you don’t walk past the box of slippers if you are there in colder months (A mistake I learned the hard way.) The temple has played an important part in local history and was entrusted with the education of the local samurai children including a famous retainer, the subject of the NHK drama “Tenchijin” which aired a few years ago and gave a big kick to all the historical tourist sites in the region.
The temple isn’t particularly big but there is plenty to see. There are lots of different rooms with intricate decorations, but keep you eyes up as some of the best bits are the carvings on the lintels and beams. Even the simple rooms for seated Zen meditation are interesting to look at even though they have none of the gilt of the main rooms. The tatami spaces at the end that look over the gardens are also a great place to sit down and enjoy the peaceful view.
Back by the entrance is the Treasure Room. Set out by period there are some really old pieces here some of which belonged to the big names from Echigo’s history.
Untoan is stunning. Even if you don’t understand the history and provenance of every item, you can still stroll around here and soak up the atmosphere. It would definitely be on my top list of places to visit in the region.