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Ueno Park’s Hidden Giant Buddha, Ueno Daibutsu

/ / Ueno Park’s Hidden Giant Buddha, Ueno Daibutsu

In an ultimate Japan tourism guide, we have mentioned about the hidden daibutsu in Ueno park. We are taking you there in this article! Visitors to Tokyo will undoubtedly have heard of the Daibutsu of Kotoku-in Temple, the giant seated bronze Shakyamuni Buddha statue down the coast in Kamakura. Those who venture outside the capital often visit Nara to view the even larger wooden Buddha located in the main hall of the Toudai-ji complex. Tourists inclined to the monolithic might even make the trip to Ibaraki Prefecture to see the staggeringly tall Ushiku Daibutsu.

Daibutsu of Kotoku-in Temple
Daibutsu of Kotoku-in Temple in Kamakura

However, to catch a glimpse of a lesser-known giant Buddha statue, it is not even necessary to leave Tokyo! Ueno Daibutsu is located in Ueno Park, the quiet garden of Kanei-ji houses a unique giant Buddha.

How to get to Ueno Daibutsu

The nearest train station to Ueno Daibutsu is JR Uguisudani. Both the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines make stopes here. From the station’s north exit, visitors should walk northwest until they can cross the tracks. Once past the tracks, head southwest until Jomyoin temple is on the right. At that point take a left and proceed for until the entrance to Kanei-ji appears on the left. The entire walk from station to temple takes about ten minutes.

Best time to visit Ueno Daibutsu

Though Kanei-ji’s modern gardens are not especially lush, both Japanese maple as well as Sakura trees are planted on the precincts. As such, either early late March or late November may prove especially picturesque.

See below for detail about visitor information and tips for visiting Ueno Daibutsu

Interesting history of Ueno Daibutsu

In the 17th century, the monk Tenkai sought to create a vast and powerful temple complex in the young capital city (then known as Edo) and founded a Tendai Buddhist temple on a hillock in the area that is now the Taito district of central Tokyo.

At its height the temple precincts included dozens of worship halls, dormitories, and treasure houses.

A violent past

The lineage of Shogun lords that ruled japan from the 17th to 19th century frequently chose to have their remains entombed at Kanei-ji. In an effort to equal the fame and grandeur of other great temples of the age, the temple abbots built sprawling gardens and ponds, ornate pagodas, and as the central object of worship: an enormous, seated bronze Buddha. Kanei-ji had fulfilled the dreams of Tenkai. It throve and prospered, using its association with the Shogun and proximity to Edo Castle to become a locus of spiritual as well as material influence.

However, the history of the temple, and of the giant bronze Buddha at its center, was not one of tranquility.

By the middle of the 19th century, due to events such as the arrival of Commodore Perry’s flotilla and the ascendant power of imperial loyalists, a civil war was brewing in Japan. Forces loyal to the Shogun’s government and those that favored a return to direct rule by the Emperor with the implementation of a Western-style constitutional monarchy grew increasingly hostile until in 1868 at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi near Kyoto, they began to engage in open, armed conflict, initiating the Boshin War.

A series of skirmishes that stretched the length of the archipelago left destruction in their wake. The widespread use of modern artillery, breech-loading rifles, and Gatling guns made for high casualty rates and the destruction of the vicinity of the battlefields. In July of 1868 the fighting came to Edo.

The Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, set up his base at the site his family had helped build for generations: Kanei-ji Temple. This voluntary encloisterment at his hereditary holy site was superficially an indication of submission to the Emperor’s restoration.

However, in this last bastion, the Shogun surrounded himself with the Shougitai, an elite cadre of specially trained, fiercely loyal samurai. Skirmishes between the Imperial forces and the Shougitai escalated until, on the 15th the enclave of warriors at Kanei-ji found themselves surrounded.

Though outnumbered, an initially unable to breach the temple’s gates, the imperial forces brought their superior weaponry to bear on the complex and rained a devastating fusillade of cannon and rifle fire into the temple. This resulted in a slaughter and rout, ending the resistance of Shogunal forces in Edo.

This event also demolished the grand complex of Kanei-ji. After standing for centuries, what had been the largest Buddhist halls in the political capital were reduced to rubble and ash in a single day. Yet the bronze Buddha survived.

Fifty-five years later, another nation-changing event shook the city.

The Great Kanto Earthquake

The Great Kanto Earthquake, a temblor that register at 7.9 on the Richter scale, decimated the Tokyo metropolitan area. Buildings and infrastructure collapsed, killing many instantly, and setting the city ablaze. Tens of thousands were dead by the day’s end. Another casualty was the Buddha of Kanei-ji. Its face fell from the body of the statue.

Tokyo Daibutsu after the earthquake
Daibutsu after the earthquake (

The temple that had been able to rebuild itself into only a modest shadow of its former self now had a faceless Buddha.

Though it disfigured the statue, this sacred visage’s absence from the statue proper was to be its salvation. Though Kanei-ji’s environs largely escaped damage from Allied bombing raids, it could not escape the military’s hunger for metal during the Second World War. Citing the Metal Acquisition Law, the government seized the faceless Buddha statue and had it melted down for its metal.

A modest present

Now only the face remains. Once one of the largest centers of Buddhist power in the country, and the site of a pivotal siege, the modern Kanei-ji sits on a quiet fringe of Ueno Park between a junior high school and a 7-11 convenience store.

It is not a popular tourist site, but a steady trickle of local congregants visits to pray, and to pay respect to the bronze face that has survived.

Those who visit the area’s many other cultural attractions such as the Metropolitan Art Museum and Japanese National Archeology Museum may do so without even knowing that they are on the grounds of what was once a vast Tendai complex.

Visitors with an interest in tracing the history of the temple and the statue may also consider visiting Shinobazu Pond on the other side of the park adjacent to the zoo.

Though no longer formally part of Kaneiji, following its restoration after WWII, it became one of the few features of the park that looks as it did centuries ago. Similarly, although lay visitors are not permitted within the tomb area, a walk along the wall that stretches to the southeast of the small modern temple allows glimpses into the graveyard where several of the Shoguns still rest.

Visitor information

The temple precincts are open to the public. The face of the bronze Daibutsu statue is permanently on display in an outside shelter. Admission is free of charge.

It is open every day of the year from 9:00 until 4:00.

Several varieties of Goshuin stamps are available for a nominal charge. An array of protective amulets is available for sale. Visitors may offer small monetary donations in the offering boxes but are neither expected nor required to do so.

Candles and incense, meant to be lit and placed at the temple in a designated spot as an offering, are both available for purchase for a nominal fee. Only cash is accepted.

Though it is in a public park, it is also a site of private worship for some, so visitors should refrain from boisterous activity.

Tips for visiting Ueno Daibutsu

The temple is located on the edge of Ueno Park, a hub of cultural and artistic activities and attractions. Visitors may wish to combine a stop at Kanei-ji with a visit to one of the park’s famous museums, galleries, gardens, or statues.

There are a variety of cafes and restaurants in the park. Like most of Tokyo, food in the park can be relatively expensive. Should visitors wish to bring their own lunch, the park is full of scenic shaded picnic spots. Al fresco diners should however be aware that Japan has relatively few public trash bins, and picnickers should plan to carry their own garbage home with them. Walking while eating, while not prohibited, is frowned upon.

Japan is strict with regards to public smoking. Public parks have designated smoking areas and lighting up elsewhere may result in a fine.

Ueno has a number of public bathrooms that are generally well-maintained. However Japanese public toilets are often not stocked with paper towels, rather users are expected to carry a small towel or handkerchief with them.

If you are going you use this article as a guide to your visit to the Ueno Daibutsu and don’t want to have a hard time searching for this article on Samurai Trip again, don’t forget to share it on your social media or send it to your mailbox.

Photo Credit: nesnad, wikimedia commons, wikipedia

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