Japan is often praised for its ability to preserve traditional customs and architecture while still functioning as a modern society. There are few other places in the world where you can be in the middle of a buzzing metropolis, only to turn a corner and be face-to-face with a shrine that has stood for centuries. But did you know that there are actually entire prefectures that do not contain a single old temple?
Join us after the jump as we explore two such places and explain exactly why architecture that was hundreds of years old disappeared.
The first place we’ll take a look at is Kagoshima Prefecture. There is plenty of evidence that Buddhist temples existed in the area, as numerous ruins are protected to this day. Let’s take a look at a few:
As you can see, there are lots of ruins, but no ancient temples to be found. In fact, Japan has an average of 1,600 Buddhist temples per prefecture, but Kagoshima only has 485, all of which have been built within the last 200 years. What’s even more surprising is that at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), there were exactly 1,066 temples and 2,964 Buddhist monks, by 1874 there were none.
A similar story unfolded in Kochi Prefecture. Aside from also having a disproportionately low number of temples, Kochi is the only prefectural capital in Japan without a Pure Land sect Buddhist temple.
Of course, Kochi is a part of Shikoku, the site of the most well-known temple pilgrimage in Japan, the Shikoku Junrei. However, taking a look at a map detailing the locations of all 88 temples on the pilgrimage trail shows something surprising:
Kochi (the southernmost area on the map) is the largest prefecture in Shikoku, but has the least amount of temples along the pilgrimage route. So what happened?
The answer is haibutsu kishaku, an anti-Buddhist movement during the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912). Triggered by the new government’s official policy of separating Shinto and Buddhism, and heightened by lingering anti-Buddhist sentiment, violence, rioting, and the destruction of Buddhist temples was common during this time.
▼ Here we see temple bells being smelted for bronze during the haibutsu kishaku.
▼ Here we see the burning of sūtras during the haibutsu kishaku.
Hardest hit, as you may have guessed, were Kagoshima and Kochi, where haibutsu kishaku was most fierce, leading to the eventual destruction of all temples in the area.
However, as Japan continued to modernize and Buddhism became widely accepted and treasured, reconstruction efforts began. For example, Daiji-ji in Kagoshima was built in 1340, destroyed in 1869, and reconstructed in 1879.
▼ Daiji-ji in Kagoshima
Zenraku-ji in Kochi was destroyed at the beginning of the Meiji period, and was reconstructed in 1929.
▼ Zenraku-ji in Kochi
The fate of Kochi and Kagoshima’s temples is unfortunate. Although centuries of historical architecture was lost during the period of haibutsu kishaku, we’re fortunate to still have many fully preserved temples to visit throughout other parts of Japan.