The unfortunate history of the “Whiplash Kannon” and Heiwakannon-ji.

By Austin Smith.

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The view from the base of the kannon, Heiwakannon-ji.

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’.

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The giant kannon statue at Heiwakannon-ji, Awaji Island.

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.

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The ten-storey pagoda, Heiwakannon-ji.

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.

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The first floor, with empty plinths where the smaller kannon statues used to stand.

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.

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The view from the museum at the base of the great kannon statue.

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.

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A Snapshot of Sagicho Matsuri

By Austin Smith.

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This post aims to provide an impression of the traditions associated with Omihachiman’s Sagicho Matsuri by drawing on themes which emerge from the image above. It will look at how the floats are constructed and examine the participation of children in what is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most dangerous matsuri. Ultimately, all of the floats assembled, paraded and fought with by the people of Omihachiman succumb to the flames and fervour of the festival when darkness falls on the final day.

This photograph was taken at Sagicho Matsuri on March 17th 2013, the year of the snake. This zodiac symbol adorned one of the festival’s smaller floats, which are assembled and carried by elementary school students. Throughout the area children can be seen standing proudly by their floats complete with brightly coloured hair and makeup for the occasion, homage to flamboyant warlord Oda Nobunaga who wore make-up and danced while enjoying the new year’s festivities at Azuchi in the 16th century. Nobunaga’s followers are said to have established Omihachiman’s Sagicho Matsuri following their move from Azuchi to Hachimanyama Castle.

The snake, above, was painstakingly decorated with beans and seeds to create a lifelike texture and colouration. It is suspended in front of a floral-design backdrop. The thirteen neighbourhoods of the old castle town spend the long winter months designing and constructing zodiac themed floats. These designs are judged on the first day of the festival, flags are displayed proudly on the floats denoting how highly each effort ranks. Designers must consider both aesthetic and structural factors. During the fighting teams attempt to flip their rivals, so what is produced must be strong, sturdy and well weighted but also light enough for the people of the neighbourhood to carry it on their shoulders. Groups with fewer members tend to focus on smaller more aesthetic floats as a result.

Each float is required to include a two metre high tower woven from fresh straw and, a long bamboo pole decorated with strips of red paper and tokens of good luck. In total, these structures can weigh over a tonne. The year’s zodiac animal, which is mounted on the centre of the float, must be made from marine or agricultural produce in the hope of a fruitful harvest for the coming year – common materials include dried fish, kelp and tapioca.

The children of each neighbourhood are responsible for decorating their own small floats to be carried alongside the main one. By involving children in the construction process from an early age, techniques and commitment to this local culture can be passed from generation to generation. The children of the town are allowed to fully participate despite the obvious dangers. As the festival draws to a close, a mock fight is staged between the main float and the children’s float. The children theatrically come out on top against the exhausted adults and they celebrate their victory raucously. This event was described as “conditioning” by a festival veteran as the way of the matsuri becomes engrained in the child’s mindset.

By the time they reach junior high school children can be seen competing with adults on the main floats, boys as young as thirteen hang from the top of the floats as they attempt to gain leverage over their rival. As the floats fall the danger of injury is very real, blood can be seen running down the faces of competitors, some are even carried away on stretchers. Alcohol flows freely and tensions run high, fights often break out between competing groups. To the foreign observer it would seem that this is not a place for children.

As night falls, men, women and children dance around the burning pyre in celebration, beating the zodiac symbol with bundles of straw. It is said that after The Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011 the rabbit received a particularly vigorous beating for the misfortune the year had brought to the people of Japan. This shows that the participants remain acutely aware of the meaning behind the symbols of the festival and the rituals being performed.

Traditional festivals appear to be thriving across Japan, supporting local economies and attracting visitors from far and wide. This suggests that the policy of involving children from the preparation process onwards has ensured tradition survives. It is common for children to be introduced to their local culture and festivals from an early age – this enables them to gain an appreciation for the unique culture of the local community and creates a desire to preserve tradition. It is common for elementary students to prepare for local festivals at school and this strengthens community spirit and a sense of local identity. The time and effort invested in preparing for and participating in Omihachiman’s Sagicho Matsuri is reflected in the euphoria generated as the festival comes to a close.

More information about this festival which is staged over a full weekend each year in mid-March can be found here – http://www.omi8.com/maturi/sagicho.htm