Hirokawa Temple: The Poet Saigyo and Sakura

Hidden on the outskirts of Osaka Prefecture is little known Hirokawa Temple [弘川寺]. Many tourists have never heard of this temple, but not only was this Hirokawa Temple home to one of Japan’s greatest poets, Saigyo [西行], who is also known as the “Sakura Poet”, it is also one of the best spots if the prefecture to enjoy sakura in Osaka. 

 

Who was Saigyo?

Saigyo was born in 1118 to rich samurai family. In his youth, Saigyo was so good at mounted combat that he was selected to join the Hokumen no Bushi [北面の武士], an elite samurai group directly controlled by the emperor, at the age of 18. Though he was a very talented samurai, Saigyo was also exceptionally talented poet.

 Despite having an ideal life, at 22 Saigyo abandoned his status and became a monk. It is not clear what motivated Saigyo to become a monk, though historians debate whether it was the love of his life rejecting him, the death of close friends, or if he simply got tired of politics.

ink painting of saigyo by kukuchi yosai
Saigyo Hoshi [西行法師] by Kikuchi Yosai [菊池容斎] via Wikki Commons
 After Saigyo became a monk, he never pursued any specific rank or belonged to any particular temple. Instead, he walked all over Japan occasionally taking up hermitage in a remote location. Specifically, he went to Kurama in Kyoto, Mt. Koya and Yoshino. Saigyo went as far north as Tohoku in order to get gold to rebuild the Daibutsu in Todai-ji Temple. On the way to Tohoku, Saigyo met Minamoto no Yoritomo [源頼朝](who would later begin the Kamakura Period) and taught him martial arts, swordsmanship, and archery among others.

The Poetry of Sakura

 Throughout his journeys, Saigyo wrote many poems. What seemed to move Saigyo in particular however, were cherry blossoms. He wrote as many as 230 poems either about sakura or featuring sakura. His profound appreciation for sakura would go on to influence poets for centuries after. You could even say that Saigyo’s poerty is a part of why Japanese people romanticize cherry blossoms so much today.  

 One of Saigyo’s most famous poems reads:

「願わくは 花の下にて 春死なん その如月の 望月のころ」

“May I pass away in the springtime, under the cherry blossoms when the February moon is full, as Buddha died.”

woodblock print of the cherry tree of priest saigyo by Yashima Gakutei
“The Cherry Tree of Priest Saigyo” by Yashima Gakutei via Wikki Commons

 In 1190, just as it had been penned years before, Saigyo died during peak sakura season in Hirokawa Temple in Osaka.

Saigyo’s poems have lived on after his death, and he is among the most famous poets in Japanese literature. One of the most prominent poetry anthologies in Japan, the Shin Kokin Wakashu [新古今和歌集] compiled by the retired emperor Gotoba in 1205, contains 94 poems by Saigyo’s; more than any other author in the entire anthology.  

 

A Brief History of Hirokawa Temple

Hirokawa Temple [弘川寺] dates back to 665 C.E when it was built by En no Gyojya. Over the years, the temple has been home to several famous monks and then of course, Saigyo also came to practice in Hirokawa in 1189. Unfortunately, during Sengoku Era, the temple was destroyed in a fire.

Even hundreds of years after his death, Saigyo’s works continued to attract a loyal following, including a monk called Jiun [似雲]. Jiun was so deeply moved by Saigyo’s poetry that he moved to Hirokawa Temple just to be closer to the memory of the Sakura Poet. He planted over a thousand sakura trees near Saigyo’s grave to commemorate the deceased poet.

 

Getting to Hirokawa Temple

Hirokawa Temple is located in Kanan town, which sits on the southeast border of Nara and Osaka. Though Osaka prefecture has a very nice, efficient rail system, Kanan is one of the few towns that does not have any rails running through it. The only way to access to Kanan is to take a 30 minute ride on a Kongo Bus from Tondabayashi StaTo get to Hirokawa Temple specifically, you will take a Kongo Bus from Terminal 3 at Tondabayashi Sta. and get off at the Kawachi bus stop.

Once you get off at the Kawachi bus stop follow this sign in the direction it is pointing, and the temple will be on your left.

direction sign for hirokawa temple and child crossing sign
Road to Hirokawa Temple

Temple Grounds

Most temples in Japan have a large gate at their entrance, however Hirokawa does not.

stone steps leading to the entrance of hirokawa temple
Main Gate

Hirokawa is a pretty small temple today, but hundreds of years ago, it was likely much bigger.

main temple grounds of hirokawa temple and blooming sakura tree
Hirokawa Temple grounds. The temple’s hodo is the in background. Make note of the stone path to the right of the hodo.

The most iconic sakura tree at Hirokawa Temple bares the name “Suyazakura” and is just past the temple’s entrance.

blooming Suyazakura tree at hirokawa temple
Suyazakura, on left

Saigyo Museum

Hirokawa Temple also has a small museum dedicated to Saigyo and his works. It is a small fee to get in, but if you are curious you should take a look.

entrance to small museum about saigyo
The entrance is located down a small path to the left of the hodo.

Inside the museum is small garden that has a very special kind of sakura tree, called kaido. This particular kaido at Hirokawa is over 350 years old! Kaidou bloom a little later than the more common kinds of sakura, so sadly it wasn’t ready when we visited.

350 year old kaidou sakura tree
Kaidou

The collection of Saigyo’s works is in the building pictured below.

Grave of the Sakura Poet 

To get to Saigyo’s grave, as well as the sakura tress planted to commemorate him, follow the path (below) just to the right of the hodo. The path will take you on a short hike up the mountain.

If you scroll up to the picture of the temple grounds, you will actually see this path on the right-hand side.

On the way up the mountain you will see a small hut. Jiun built the hut during the Edo Period to commemorate Saigyo. The hut supposedly contains a small statue of Saigyo, but it is closed to the public.

Saigyo’s Hut

Saigyo’s remains are inside a small burial mound on the mountain. Even though it is a small mound, it is unusual for someone who was not a member of the royal family to have a burial mound.

The grave of famous poet and monk saigyo at hirokawa temple
Saigyo’s grave.

 Forever close to the memory of Saigyo, is his devoted admirer Jiun. Jiun also has a burial mound, but it is noticeably smaller.

Jiun’s grave

Saigyo no Sakurayama

Once you have paid your respects to these great figures of Japanese literature, pay a visit to “Saigyo no Sakurayama

Saigyo no Sakurayama

We visited Saigyo no sakurayama during a weekday, so there was hardly anyone around, making our hike very peaceful. To completely hike all the way up the mountain and down should take about an hour. While it is not a very long hike, it is immensely pretty when the sakura are in bloom. It seems that when Jiun planted the sakura trees, his aim was not to create a dense overwhelming forest of sakura, but rather to allow the pink of the sakura to compliment the other trees on the mountain. The colors of the trees and the outline of Osaka City way off in the distance creates a really breathtaking view.

Hirokawa Temple

Address 4-3Hirokawa, Kanan, Minamikawachi-ku,Osaka Prefecture, 〒585-0022 
Phone Number 0721-93-2814
Hours of Operation Mon-Sun:
9:00-17:00
Admission Fee Temple: Free
Museum:
Adults: 500 yen
Children: 200 yen

Coming next time,
Another traditional Osaka food!

The adventure continues…

 

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