Located just west of Matsue Castle, Gessho-ji Temple is referred to as the ‘Hydrangea Temple’ – flower that blooms from mid-June to mid-July. One of the main temples of Matsue, Gessho-ji serves as the family temple for the Matsudaira clan, the longest family of feudal lords who reigned over Matsue domain, between 1638 and 1871. It is also famous for its large stone sculpture of a tortoise, which was rumored to take nightly strolls about the town wreaking havoc. The temple offers great discounts for international visitors. There is also a tea room if you want to indulge in the tea and wagashi culture of Matsue while enjoying a view on a Japanese garden 🙂
The vast temple is home to nine graves of the Matsudaira Clan, one the most important clan of Matsue domain. The tombs and their gates remain as they were in feudal times.
In 1664, Matsudaira Naomasa (grandson of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu), then lord of Matsue, decided to bury her mother, Gesshoin, on the grounds of the temple, which was renamed after her. After Naomasa died, his son built in turn a tomb for him there, making it the family temple for the Matsudaira clan. Gessho-ji means the Temple of Moonlight (月照寺).
The picture above shows Naomasa’s grave, the largest of all and the only one surrounded with water. Even though it is a Buddhist place, there are also Shinto shrine gates (鳥居, torii) at each entrance. Each grave is also surrounded with hundreds of stone lanterns (灯篭, toro). The picture below shows its perfectly preserved gate, which features an architectural style called Karamon (唐門).
What is interesting is that each of the gates and graves of the nine generations of the Matsudaira clan represent a different period in the progression of Edo era architectural craftsmanship. It also reflects the financial state of Matsue domain at the time, and is thus an important place for understanding Matsue’s history.
The tomb that is located straight after the temple’s main entrance is the one of Matsudaira Harusato (1751-1818), commonly known by his tea-master name Fumai (不昧). During his reign, he managed to bring his domain back from the brink of bankruptcy and shaped Matsue as we know it today through revolutionizing the administrative system, and improving industry and trade. He is particularly known for his promotion of the tea and wagashi culture of Matsue. [Fumai is quite an important historical figure in Japan: See Wikipedia]
Gessho-ji is strongly associated with Fumai. Every year, to commemorate his death, a ritual called chasen-kuyô (茶筅供養) is held. In this ritual, all the old tea whisks (chasen) used for preparing Matcha green powdered tea are put on fire – a way of thanking them for their hard work! It takes place on the closest Sunday of April 24.
There is also a tea room where you can enjoy Matcha tea and wagashi (Japanese confectionery) while seated in front of a beautiful Japanese garden. Gessho-ji Temple is one of the three important places associated with Lord Fumai and the city’s tea culture, along with Meimei-an Tea House and Kangetsu-an Tea house, both located near Matsue Castle. BTW, Matsue Castle can be seen from Lord Fumai’s grave!
He thus patronized Raiden « Thunder bolt » Tameemon (雷電為右衛門), which is said to be the strongest wrestler in Japanese Sumo history. One can see the handprint of this massive Sumo wrestler in the commemorative stone located at the entrance of the temple. He was said to be 182cm tall at age 13. [More info in his Wikipedia article]
Another figure who was patronized by Fumai was Kobayashi Jodei 小林如泥 (1753-1813). Born in Matsue, Jodei was a woodcraft artist whose works can be seen all around Matsue. He made the openwork in the shape of his master’s favorite fruit – grapes – that can be seen on the gate of Lord Fumai.
With its 30,000 hydrangeas that blossom in June during the rainy season, Gessho-ji is referred to as the Hydrangea Temple of the San-in Region. It is not to be missed in June if you are around!
In Japanese, Hydrangea is written using the characters for purple, sunshine and flower (紫陽花). It is pronounced Ajisai, and Gessho-ji is sometime called Ajisai-dera, for Hydrangea Temple. Interesting fact: the hydrangea’s color ranges from white to blue to pink and purple, determined by the acidity level of the soil.
Please find more pictures of Gessho-ji Temple in our post here:
Gessho-ji, The Hydrangea Temple (June 2014)
Gessho-ji Temple is in fact blooming with wonderful colors all year long: sasanqua (山茶花) in January, camellia (椿) in February, cherry blossom (桜) in the end of March, azalea (ツツジ) in April, iris (杜若・花菖蒲), wisteria (藤), dogwood (花水木) and water lily (睡蓮) in May, hydrangea (紫陽花) in June, crape myrtle (百日紅) in late July, Momiji (紅葉) red and yellow leaves in Autumn.
One thing that you can’t miss when you visit Gessho-ji Temple is the large, stone obelisk bearing tortoise in front of the sixth Matsudaira’s tomb. The Giant Tortoise appears in a story mentioned in Lafcadio Hearn’s essay ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’.
According to the legend, the tortoise would take nightly strolls about the town wreaking havoc. The large stone pillar was then summoned on his back by a priest to bring a halt to its nightly rampages.
You can easily find this story thanks to Gutenberg’s Project: Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan First Series – Chap. 11, Notes on Kitzuki – Sec. 7.
The giant tortoise stands 5 meters and 10cm tall.
Tortoise is a symbol of longevity. It is said that if you rub its head, you can live a long life! 🙂
This statue is called Juzohi-no-Okame (寿蔵碑の大亀), or ‘Longevity Monument of the Giant Tortoise’.
Because it is a sacred site known for its architectural and decorative masterpieces and that it is closely associated with the history of one clan, it would be safe to say that Gessho-ji Temple is to the Matsudaira Clan what the shrines and temples of Nikko are to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Even though Gessho-ji is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site like Nikko and is smaller in scale, it still is designated as a National Historical Site and definitely worth a visit. Plus, it offers great discounts for international visitors 🙂
Gessho-ji is a peaceful and beautiful place with many wonderful sights to see, whatever the season you may visit it.
And the giant stone tortoise needs your love ❤
It just wants to be pet! So don’t be shy to come and say Hi!
– Useful info –
Gessho-ji Temple is located 1500m west of Matsue Castle, just north of Matsue Shinjiko Onsen. Check it out on Google Map.
If you use the Lakeline bus, please get off at stop #15, « Gessho-ji-mae ». See the map on Visit-Matsue.com
- Hours and admission fee
Open 7 days a week
April – October, 8:30am – 5:30pm
October – March, 8:30am – 5pm
Discounts for international visitors:
¥500 (50% OFF) →¥250
The matcha and wagashi serving is an additional ¥400.
- Useful links
>Gessho-ji Temple on Visit-Matsue.com
>A nice video introducing the Hydrangea Temple on You Tube.
>An article from JapanVisitor.com
>More info in Japanese on Shinbutsu.jp
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