By HIROSHI MATSUBARA/ Staff Writer
June 13, 2019 at 08:00 JST
The kanji for the Buddhist word "semui" on a simple sign that hangs outside Tokyo's Sensoji temple's main hall proclaim the power of its main deity to free visitors of fear and anxiety.
But some priests at Sensoji fear the framed motto bearing the characters "se," "mu" and "i" in calligraphy lacks gravitas.
“Since it's only a replica, we've been feeling uneasy about it as so many people, including those from overseas, are visiting,” said chief priest Yujun Moriyama, 65. The historic landmark is located in the Asakusa district of Taito Ward.
The original, dedicated to the temple in 1727, was incinerated along with the main hall in the Great Tokyo Air Raid by U.S. forces on March 10, 1945, that claimed about 100,000 lives.
The replica, measuring 3.35 meters by 1.28 meters, was copied from a photograph of the original. It has hung at the temple since 1958.
When the main hall was being rebuilt that year, the temple considered creating a sign with carvings that was similar to the original. But the idea was abandoned due to a shortage of funds.
But Moriyama said a recent chance meeting with a rare practitioner of the traditional art of Inami wood carving was the catalyst for the temple's decision to replace the sign with something closer to the original, which featured carvings.
“A few nice predestined encounters have worked to return an authentic artwork to us. I hope society will continue to be peaceful so that the new sign will last a hundred years or even a thousand years," he said.
The temple engaged a wood carver from Toyama Prefecture to create a work to replace the copy of the original traditional framed motto of the temple.
Toyama Inami artisan Nanbu Hakuun III is now at work on sketches for the sign. He plans to sculpt lotus flowers beneath the calligraphy, which bloom in muddy swamps and are believed to have the power to purify everything. Lotus flowers, he thinks, are a perfect match to convey the meaning of “semui.”
The new sign is scheduled to be erected at the main hall of the temple by the end of this year.
In July 2018, Moriyama visited Tonami in western Toyama Prefecture, as legend has it that the city is the birthplace of statues of the Goddess of Kannon. Sensoji enshrines the Goddess of Kannon.
He also traveled to Nanto, where the techniques of famed Inami wood carving have survived, and met carver Nanbu in the city adjacent to Tonami.
Moriyama was deeply moved by the art of Inami wood carving, saying, “I was impressed not only with its techniques but also with a deep spiritual connection to the carving culture in the area."
After thinking things over for a week, Moriyama decided to ask Nanbu, 67, to redo the sign at Sensoji.
Nanbu eagerly accepted, saying, “This will be an opportunity for people around the world to see Japanese religious devotion expressed in carvings.”
After scouring lumber dealers nationwide for a board from a keyaki tree (Japanese zelkova) free of scars or knots, he finally found an appropriate piece in Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, early this year.
When it is finished, the sign will be 1.35 meters high, 3.95 meters wide and about 15 centimeters thick. It will weigh between 500 and 600 kilograms.
The Inami wood carving tradition originated in the mid-Edo Period (1603-1867) when local carpenters learned the sculpting technique from a famed engraver dispatched from Kyoto. They intended to rebuild the Zuisenji temple in today’s Nanto after it was destroyed by fire in 1762.
The tradition and technique have been applied to sculptures at temples, shrines and other historical properties nationwide, including transoms installed in Nagoya castle’s “honmaru goten,” the residence and political office of the domain head, which was restored in 2018.
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