In Chapter 6 of Kokoro (1896), Lafcadio Hearn writes of some of Kyoto’s sights, an unusual topic for a man who normally looked to folklore and tradition for insight into the culture of his adopted land. However, his belief that religion reveals the heart of the people comes across in the final part of the description below, where he writes of Hongan-ji (representing Jodo Shinshu) as a true expression of the common folk. Anyone who has seen the amazing ropes there made of women’s hair will know just how much the faith meant to the people of the 1890s. (Elsewhere in his writing, Hearn waxes lyrical about the grace and elegance of the Japanese female, and how vital a role their hair played in their attractiveness.)
But the gift of the people to Kyoto is still grander. It is represented by the glorious Higashi Hongwanji, – or eastern Hongwan temple (Shinshu). Western readers may form some idea of its character from the simple statement that it cost eight millions of dollars and required seventeen years to build. In mere dimension it is largely exceeded by other Japanese buildings of cheaper construction; but anybody familiar with the Buddhist temple architecture of Japan can readily perceive the difficulty of building a temple one hundred and, twenty-seven feet high, one hundred and ninety-two feet deep, and more than two hundred feet long.
Because of its peculiar form, and especially because of the vast sweeping lines of its roof, the Hongwanji looks even far larger than it is, – looks mountainous. But in any country it would be deemed a wonderful structure. There are beams forty-two feet long and four feet thick; and there are pillars nine feet in circumference. One may guess the character of the interior decoration from the statement that the mere painting of the lotus-flowers on the screens behind the main altar cost ten thousand dollars. Nearly all this wonderful work was done with the money contributed in coppers by hard-working peasants. And yet there are people who think that Buddhism is dying!
More than one hundred thousand peasants came to see the grand inauguration. They seated themselves by myriads on matting laid down by the acre in the great court. I saw them waiting thus at three in the afternoon. The court was a living sea. Yet all that host was to wait till seven o’clock for the beginning of the ceremony, without refreshment, in the hot sun. I saw at one corner of the court a band of about twenty young girls,– all in white, and wearing peculiar white caps,– and I asked who they were. A bystander replied: “As all these people must wait here many hours, it is to be feared that some may become ill. Therefore professional nurses have been stationed here to take care of any who may be sick. There are likewise stretchers in waiting, and carriers. And there are many physicians.” I admired the patience and the faith. But those peasants might well love the magnificent temple, – their own creation in very truth, both directly and indirectly. For no small part of the actual labor of building was done for love only; and the mighty beams for the roof had been hauled to Kyoto from far-away mountain-slopes, with cables made of the hair of Buddhist wives and daughters. One such cable, preserved in the temple, is more than three hundred and sixty feet long, and nearly three inches in diameter.