Monday, October 24th, 2022

Suma-dera, an important Buddhist temple in Kobe, Japan

Photograph of a Buddhist pagoda

According to legend, an epidemic spread across Japan in the late 700s. To contain it, shrines to the plague gods were erected in 10 locations across Kansai. Taibata Yakuyoke Hachiman Shrine is the oldest surviving of these and located in Suma, Kobe.

The Shingon-shu sect built a temple complex around the shrine a century later. Suma-dera is home to some beautiful art, including a dramatic statue of Buddha and statues depicting a famous duel between two samurai.

Photograph of a statue of the Monkey God from Buddhist mythology
A statue of the Buddhist Monkey god. His spirit is irrepressible.

My favourite is a small statue of the Monkey god riding his magic cloud. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s might remember the badly dubbed Japanese TV show “Monkey” that told some of the folklore.

Photograph of someone walking up the steps to Suma-Dera
The temple complex at Suma-Dera
Photograph of several buddhist statues

The duel between Kumagi Naozane and Taira No Atsumori

Photograph of a statue of Taira no Atsumori
Statue of Taira no Atsumori , a famed Samurai from the Genpei Wars

Taira no Atsumori was a samurai during the Genpei War of the 1180s. During the nearby battle at Ichinotani, his clan were scattered and fled. As he swam to his navy’s ships, he was summoned back by famed warrior Kumagai Naozane, and they duelled. Atsumori’s helmet was knocked off, revealing the pale powdered face of a 17 year-old. Naozane, reminded of his own son, didn’t want to kill him, but with more samurai from his own clan coming, he knew there was no “honourable” option. The older man recited prayers as he beheaded Atsumori, and this duel entered Japanese legend.

Already questioning the violence of the samurai, Kumagai went on to become a Buddhist monk.

Modern festivals and worship

The temple still plays a role in modern Japanese life. There are numerous festival throughout the year, including the “Evil Festival” for which it is most famed. This is to help ward off evil, misfortune and other misdeeds. It’s particularly important for those who are of an “unlucky age”.

And if you have bought a new car, you can ask the monks to perform an exorcism. Although I still prefer Insurance.

Photograph of Kobe seen through trees from Suma-Dera temple
View of Osaka Bay and Kobe from the top of Suma-Dera

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.