- 2 min read

Worth a Michelangelo

Hidden treasures from the master carver of Japan

Nikko's Toshogu Shrine and other Toshogu shrines around Japan are not the only place where you can find fascinating wood carvings. There are many more temples, shrines and other buildings that were richly decorated with wood carvings but are not so famous at all.

Some temples in the Echigo area of Niigata Prefecture, for example, are a real treasure trove for beautiful frescos, statues and carved ceilings crafted by Ishikawa Uncho (1814-1883) who is also known as the "Michelangelo of Echigo".

While alive, the maestro was rather infamous for his habit of joining gambling and drinking parties that also involved beautiful local girls. Now he is famous for having depicted scenes from exactly these parties. As his clients were priests and his works would decorate temples, one wonders how he got away with his mostly rather realistic scenes and illustrations of this-worldly creatures.

His superior carving skills must have enabled him to get a special status of sort and to became a local VIP. Although the comparison with the real Michelangelo seems a little stretched, the two masters had a trait in common, namely their artistic skills.

If you love wood carvings but you don't like the crowds in Nikko, then make your way to Echigo's Eirin-ji Temple, known as the "gambling temple", and to Saifuku-ji Temple located in Uonuma City. Whether Eirin-ji was called the "gambling temple" before the arrival of the wood carver there or only after he began to visit the temple frequently is not clear. He stayed at the temple for 13 years and produced more than 100 carvings and paintings, presumably while under the influence of alcohol.

And if you want to visit yet more temples, then check out Kankou-ji Temple, Enpuku-ji Temple and Untoan Temple. These temples are also located in Uonuma but there is no connection to the wood carving master.

Uonuma City is a stop on the Joetsu Shinkansen that takes you from Tokyo you to Niigata City. You can combine your visit to Uonuma with a visit to Echigo-Yuzawa and Nagaoka or Tsubame-Sanjo before making your way to Niigata, or even further afield to Sado Island.

Getting there

Uonuma City is a stop on the Joetsu Shinkansen.

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