The Ladies’ Temple in Saga

By Jeff Robbins

(Thanks to Sydney Solis for providing feedback on this.)

In October, just before I left my home in Fukuoka to go to Kyoto, I discovered a Basho renku about the Nonomiya Shrine in Saga, west of Kyoto, and made time in my schedule to explore the verse in the place where it occurred – although it actually concerns the temple Gio-ji which is walking distance of Nonomiya. I had no idea of the odyssey ahead for me with this stanza-pair. Basho’s stanza is the doorway to a remarklably woman-centered section in the otherwise male-dominated Tale of the Heike: the Story of Gio, in Chapter One of the Tale, tells of four women making their own decisions and interacting with each other without male presence in much of the long detailed story. “The Story of Gio” by this title is available online.

Gio and her sister Gijo were shirabyoshi, “white rhythm” dancers who captivated men with their graceful movements, beauty and hair. Their mother Tashi had been a shirabyoshi as well. Gio became the favorite of the arrogant leader of Japan, Taira Kiyomori, who alloted large allowances to the family so they could live in luxury. But then a younger shirabyoshi appeared on the scene, attracting much attention. Kiyomori refused to hear her because he had Gio. Gio spoke out, “It would be cruel to turn her away with harsh words. Shame and distress would follow her out. I can so easily imagine myself in her place for I too once walked the same paths.” Out of kindness, Gio convinced Kiyomori to allow the younger girl to perform. She did and took Kiyomori’s heart. From that moment he abandoned Gio and her family, leaving them in poverty. Gio eventually shaved her head to become a nun and live in seclusion in Saga, then her sister and mother joined her.

One night came a knock on their door: it was the new favourite who realized that the same thing would happen to her, so she voluntarily gave up her position in Kiyomori’s service, and joined them. Gio said, “And what could bring greater happiness than for us to tread the same path together for the rest of this life?” She is known as Hotoke Gozen, Lady Buddha, because while the three others gave up the world from poverty, while Lady Buddha did so from wealth and comfort.

The four nuns lived and prayed together in solidarity, and it is said they all reached enlightenment. The temple became known as Gio-ji; visitors can see statues of the four ladies, and also their gravestones. From this story and its message of female solidarity, I translate “Gio dera” to “ladies’ temple” in a stanza by Basho taken from linked verse, known as renga.

Her hair gone,
chamberlain’s daughter
grown weary

Storm over Nonomiya
ladies’ temple bells

The Grand Chamberlain (Jijū) is a chief functionary of the Imperial court, and aide to the Emperor of Japan. He also keeps the Privy Seal and the State Seal, but his high rank does not prevent his daughter from experiencing the travails of life.  She cuts her hair and escapes to Saga, at the foot of Mount Arashi (Storm Mountain) where there are many temples. Because “Gio” sounds like “Gion,” the stanza in Japanese recalls the famous opening to the Tales of the Heike:

“The bells of the Gion Shōja echoes the impermanence of all things…. The proud do not endure, like a dream on a spring night, the mighty falls at last, as dust before the wind.”

The Gion Shōja (or Jetavana) temple in India is where the Buddha gave most of his discourses.  This passage is usually said to portray the fall of Kiyomori and his clan from power and wealth to exile and death – however the words well apply to the tale of the four dancers who became four nuns.

Basho sets up the opposition of storm and bells. The first is wild, violent, uncaring; the second deep, steady, and unifying. The storm represents the arrogance and intimidating behavior of men such as Kiyomori; the bells are the steady, focused energy of women. A bell, shaped like a uterus, is clearly female. Temple bells, with their reverberations of up to a full minute, are conducive to meditation, and have become a symbol for world peace. “Bells,” as final word of the verse, resounds through the weariness of the daughter as well as the violence of the storm. In “bells” there is resolution.

When I visited Gio-ji, I spoke to a priest who pointed out that the temple has no bell, so in Basho’s stanza we hear the bells of many temples in Saga combining their reverberations. While Gio-ji lacks a bell, it does have a beautiful moss garden which you can walk through but not touch. The temple is a twenty minute walk from Arashiyama Station which is a fifteen minute ride on the JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Station. There are statues of the four women, and their graves; they remained together for eternity. Maybe if you are there in the evening, you will be able to hear the kindness of Gio, the wisdom of Lady Buddha, the solidarity of the four women, in the temple bells of Saga. Furthermore, through this renku pair, we can explore the multi-faceted issue of gender politics, the ways men use their power to dominate women, the adaptations of women to survive, the chamberlain’s daughter who seems to be alone in her weariness, the ladies who found happiness in sharing their lives of devotion.


For more on Basho in Saga, please click here.