By Austin Smith.
Heiwakannon-ji temple is situated on the north-east coast of Awaji Island. The temple, which ostensibly promotes world peace, boasts a replica of the statue of liberty, a peace bell and a giant kannon statue – a symbol of compassion and mercy. The complex also includes a ten-storey pagoda, a museum and a rusting D51 steam locomotive (a pre-war Japanese model, some of which remained in service until the 1970s). There were even plans to open an onsen. However, Heiwakannon-ji is not marked on tourist maps of the island and the attractions have now fallen into a state of disrepair.
The temple was founded in 1977 by Toyokichi Okuuchi, a wealthy real-estate developer from Awaji who made his fortune constructing office buildings, apartments and hotels in nearby Osaka. Somewhat ironically, the city can still be seen from the statue on a clear day. Heiwakannon-ji is a typical example of the multitude of ambitious projects that struggled to stay afloat in the difficult financial climate that followed Japan’s ‘bubble economy’.
When driving along the picturesque ‘28’ coastal road, towards Higashiura, the giant white kannon statue is visible from some distance. The statue was completed in 1982 and at approximately 100m tall (328ft), including the base, it is one of the world’s tallest statues. However, unlike most other statues of this scale the observation deck was constructed outside of the statue rather than inside. Locals soon noted that this feature made it appear that the kannon was wearing a neck brace, which resulted in an unfortunate nickname for the monument – ‘Whiplash Kannon’. It is said that on windy days the statue would sway, testament to its poor construction. This was seen as an added ‘attraction’ for thrill seekers.
The base of the statue contained a number of features to lure potential visitors. The first floor served as a temple which appears to have included a gallery of kannon statues, these have since been removed. The upper floors once housed a museum of Okuuchi’s private collection including art, armour and automobiles. Yet, even at its peak, the temple failed to attract more than 2,000 visitors a day and the business was near closure in the late 1990s. The souvenir shops and restaurants closed down and the upkeep rapidly deteriorated. The tatami mats in the room that once contained Okuuchi’s armour are now rotten. It is clear from images taken just before the closure that the condition of the property has declined considerably in recent years.
When Mr. Okuuchi died in 1988 control of the complex passed to his widow, who tried to keep the development afloat until her death in 2006. Attempts to sell the site at auction failed and control has since passed between potential developers – including a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers which was badly hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Heiwakannon-ji has been closed to the public since 2006 and, in 2011, was cordoned off due to fears the derelict statue, museum and pagoda were a danger to public safety.
External factors have not helped the plight, the completion of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge and the Kobe-Awaji-Naruto Expressway in 1998 gave the people of Awaji access to Shikoku, Kansai and beyond. The Akashi Kaikyo National Park was opened nearby at the expense of Heiwakannon-ji, which was not advertised to tourists visiting the area.
Crucially, Heiwankannon-ji was never legally recognised as a temple and therefore did not benefit from tax exemptions that could have made the business model viable. During the bubble economy, big companies would fund the construction of large religious icons, such as kannon statues, to exploit tax loopholes. As a result of this, twinned with the poor quality of construction, the temple was held in poor esteem by locals and tourists alike. However, due to the uncertainty surrounding the ownership of the site, it cannot be demolished – despite the wishes of the local government. In recent years, Heiwakannon-ji has gained a cult following amongst unusual temple fanatics and haikyo enthusiasts, who enjoy exploring unique abandoned buildings.