By Isla Phillips for Fukuoka Now
Fukuoka Prefecture is slightly off the tourist track yet it has so many hidden treasures, and Nanzoin Temple (南蔵院) is definitely one of the biggest. In fact, it is said to have the world’s biggest bronze statue—well, the world’s largest bronze reclining Buddha statue. At 41 m long and 11 m high, its size is similar to the famous Buddhas at Kamakura and Nara.
I made the trip to Sasaguri to see the famously large bronze on a sunny Sunday in May. My friend Marie and I took a rapid express to Sasaguri from Hakata, and in 22 short minutes, we arrived at Kidonanzoin-mae Station. Sasaguri is embedded in the beautiful Japanese countryside and their train station is fittingly quaint.
I bought ice cream from just outside the station and we started to walk in the direction of the temple, which is less than five minutes from the station on foot. Before we got there though, we first had to cross a little bridge. It wasn’t just any bridge however, it was a xylophone bridge (technically a metallophone because it’s not made of wood), which is definitely quirky, if not amusing. The keys are along the handrail and passers-by can borrow a little mallet from the little shelf built into the bridge. As you cross the river you can strike up a tune and then leave the little mallet on the shelf at the other end. Lovely!
After crossing the musical bridge you get to the main road, turn right and then arrive at the entrance to the temple. Two happy buddhas smile at you with big shiny bellies. From there you can follow the temple’s signs to the reclining Buddha. You walk through a tunnel decorated with temple offerings, past some little shrines and ponds, go along wooded paths, and soon arrive at the statue’s head.
Beautifully smooth and with its color contrasted against a backdrop of the forest and skies, it’s definitely worth making the trip to see.
Over the past year, I’ve learned a little about Buddhist sculptures, so I knew that the statue isn’t just special because of its size. In Japan, the most common pose for Buddha statues is sitting, which represents Buddha meditating. The reclining pose, however, is fairly rare in Japan, and it represents Buddha about to enter Nirvana. Reclining Buddhas are more often seen in Southeast Asia and, in fact, it was the Myanmar Buddhist council that gave Nanzoin some of Buddha’s ashes in gratitude for Nanzoin’s donations of medical supplies to Myanmar and Nepal. The statue was built in worship to these ashes and 1,300 monks from Myanmar and Nepal came to Nanzoin for the unveiling of the statue in 1995!
There may not have been 1,300 Myanmar monks when we visited the statue, but there were a fair few local tourists respectfully taking pictures and, in front of the reclining Buddha, 500 small statues of Buddha’s disciples. The mini statues are really delightful, each with a different posture and facial expression.
According to temple legend, a chief priest once laid his lottery ticket beside the statue and won. Before visiting the temple I had read that people still take lottery tickets there. We didn’t see any signs of this, but there was a space where people could buy feathered darts to throw into pots to get good fortune. People stood around, laughing and enjoying themselves, as others tried their luck, so to speak.
After appreciating Buddha’s intricately designed feet and taking one last look at the statue in its enormous entirety, we then made our way to explore a few other paths that we’d seen along the way. It’s a fairly big temple and there are a few different spots you can enjoy. There is even a little waterfall and a small cave.
Nanzoin gets a lot of visitors not just because of its famous statue, but also because it is one of the main locations of the Sasaguri pilgrimage, which is a course of 88 temples around Kyushu – in fact, sand from each of the temples on the pilgrimage is stored within the reclining Buddha. Due to a large number of visitors, the temple has a lot of signs up asking tourists to respect it as a place of prayer (for example, one sign specifically states that you should not play Pokemon Go!) and similarly, the temple asks that you only visit in a small group. There’s also one part that is only for members of the temple, where a large Fudo Myo-o statue and waterfall are located. So, if you do make the trip for some light sightseeing, please do respect these rules and their intentions.
All in all, it was a lovely place to visit and a very gentle trip out of the city. On the way home, I bought some candied sweet potato from the shop just outside the station, which was a sweet end to a very sweet afternoon.