Of all of the local temples and shrines in the Tsukuba area, perhaps the most picturesque is the Rakuhoji Temple, commonly known as "Amabiki Kannon" (http://www.amabiki.or.jp), in Yamato-mura (now part of Sakuragawa-shi) to the north of Tsukuba. "Amabiki Kannon" literally means "Rain Pulling Goddess of Mercy", which presumably is associated with bringing about ample rain for the crops. Medieval Europeans apparently believed that firing cannons into the sky could cause it to rain, but this is a different "cannon". "Kannon" refers to the Buddhist statue that is considered the "personification of infinite compassion." Unlike the "Amida" Buddha statues, which portray a male figure, the "Kannon" figure is normally female. Prayers to the "Amabiki Kannon" are not limited to requests for rain, of course, as Buddhist adherents come seeking all manner of benefits.
The temple dates back to 588 AD, though, of course, none of the present buildings are that old. There is a quaint, 2-story pagoda in the center and an ornate temple next to it. The setting is very picturesque, as it is located half way up the side of the ridge of mountains running north of Mt. Tsukuba. It is surrounded by cherry trees, and so in April, it is quite a sight indeed. It's probably most famous, however, for hydrangea (ajisai), which are at their peak in late June and July.
Another attraction is the numerous peacocks roaming around the grounds. The colors of their plumage are spectacular, and as they are quite used to people, you can approach them quite closely. If you take some pieces of bread along with you, you might be able to coax one into a location where you can get a great picture. Another strategy is to just take your time and enjoy the serenity while you wait for one to wander into a nice location. Every time I've been there, a peacock or two has posed very nicely for me.
|From Amabiki Kannon|
Another photographic opportunity is when the monks in their brightly colored robes walk along the elevated wooden pathway from their living quarters to the main temple. As they have wooden clogs on their feet, it is easy to hear them coming. They really add to the scene as they walk in front of the pagoda and then along the balcony of the bright red temple. They then proceed into the temple and take their appointed places for the 10 or 15 minutes service, which consists of rhythmic drums and chanting. After their performance, they return along the balcony and elevated walkway back to their quarters. This procedure is repeated every hour between 10 am and 4 pm, provided there are paying customers for their services.
When it comes to getting good photos of the monks' procession, later in the day is better, as the lighting is coming from the side. When I took pictures around noon, the contrast between the brightly lit foreground of flowers and the somewhat dark shadows that the monks are walking in makes it difficult to get good pictures. The lighting at 3 and 4 pm is much better, though the probability of them making an appearance then appears to be less. The times I've been there around noon, the monks have done their thing, while the time I went later in the afternoon, they were a no-show. If you get there just before the hour changes and stay a bit more than an hour, then your chances are that much higher. I recommend getting there a bit before 3.
It takes about 45 minutes to get there from downtown Tsukuba by car. First, drive up Higashi Odori until it dead-ends at Route 125. Turn right and then left at the next light to go up towards Mt. Tsukuba. This road (#41) runs parallel to the mountain range running north from Mt. Tsukuba and takes you through the town of Makabe-machi. The next town up is Yamato-mura, and even before you leave Makabe, you can easily see the temple complex up on the mountainside. It's pretty easy to figure out which road to take to get up to the temple even if you can't read the signs. Most any road going towards the temple will lead into the one you want. There is a lower parking lot at the main entrance that lead up quite a long flight of stairs (surrounded by a hundreds of hydrangea bushes), and an upper parking lot that involves a lot less climbing.
Makabe is famous for its stone works, and so you will see hundreds of stone lanterns, pagodas, etc. in numerous factories along the way. The most impressive that I saw was as you get fairly close to "Amabiki Kannon" itself. You'll see a Jomo gas station on the left as you go up, and 600 meters north of that on the right is a stoneware shop well worth stopping to see. It's like an outdoor art gallery of fascinating stoneware.
One other particularly interesting shop is right in the center of Makabe and is a "naniwa" pottery statue store. These almost life-sized statues are quite unique, and the store that sells them is really quite beautiful, with flower pots hanging everywhere on the sides of the ivy covered buildings. Even if you don't go in, you can just pull over for a few minutes and view the outside decorations. Bon Voyage!
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