Abe Monju-in Temple: Academic Success & the Way of Yin & Yang
Looking to check out something a outside of the norm during your time in Japan? Well Nara Prefecture, with its ancient and highly diverse history is the perfect place to explore for you, and perhaps no place better exemplifies the area’s unique character better than Abe Monju-in Temple. Here you won’t just find a fascinating and old Buddhist institution, but also an astronomical observatory, ancient kofun tomb mounds, unexpectedly charming flower garden art, and more!
The Way of Yin & Yang or “Onmyodo” as it is known in Japan, is an ancient tradition based in China but whose influence also spread to other regions, including through the Korean Peninsula and Japanese archipelago. Throughout Japanese history, some of these practitioners of Onmyodo, (known as “Onmyoji), became renowned and influential figures for what was believed to be their depth of knowledge on a variety of topics from medicine to understanding the nature of the cosmos. Onmyoji sometimes even served as scholars and high ranking advisors in government, as they were believed to have the ability to predict future events, such as natural disasters, and perform rites that were believed to prevent such things from coming to pass.
One especially famous of Onmyoji was Abe no Semei (921-1005 CE), who became so renowned for his abilities that he is commonly referred to as Japan’s own Merlin and according to legend, was half kitsune (magical fox), on his mother’s side. It also just so happens that he was born in the modern day area of Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture on the grounds of what is now known as Abe Monju-in Temple.
Abe Monju-in is actually one of the oldest Buddhist temple’s in the country, predating the birth of Abe no Semei by around 300 years as it was founded in the year 645 CE (Asuka-dera, perhaps Japan’s earliest temple, was founded in 588). The temple’s central deity is Monju Bosatsu, the Buddha of Wisdom, who is depicted in the main hall in statue form riding a lion beside 4 attendants on foot. These statues are important Buddhist treasures that were created by the Kamakura period artist Kaikei and are well worth paying the small fee to see for yourself.
You may also notice hundreds, if not thousands of small wooden prayer plaques, known as “ema,” surrounding the main hall. Ema are a common sight at shrines and temples throughout Japan, but it is rare to see as many as you commonly do here. This is because Abe Monju-in is associated with the idea of “gokaku” or “exam passing,” making it a very popular place to pray for those with a important test approaching (students, job-seekers, etc) or perhaps the friends and family who support them.
One of the most visually appealing structures of the temple grounds is the Umkimi-do Hall, which stands on top of a small pond. This hall was built to worship the deity Benzaiten, who is revered at both Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines as a one who brings luck and is a patron god of artistic performance, among other things. Worshipers circle around the pavilion 7 times as a form of prayer to to remove one’s hardships.
Circling back to Abe no Semei, it is said that he used to make astronomical observations from a small hill east of the main hall called “Hakusan.” Up on the top of Hakusan is the astronomical observatory point once used by Abe no Semei that now offers views over the grounds of the temple, including a yearly flower design that is updated for each sign of the Chinese zodiac calendar.
There is also a memorial here dedicated to Langdon Warner, the American archeologist who is credited with working to convince the American military leadership during World War 2 to not target Japanese cultural centers like Nara and Kyoto.
As you can see, Abe Monju-in Temple offers a surprising variety of fascinating sights for sightseers to explore. For more information or guiding services for visiting the temple, please feel free to contact us here anytime at the Nara Visitors Bureau.
Abe-Monju-in Temple can be reached from Sakurai Station either by bus, or about 25-30 minutes on foot.
After graduating from university and moving to the Republic of Korea for a brief period, I came to Nara Prefecture to pursue my interest of learning more about the country of Japan and its history.
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