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Hozoji temple is another of Japan’s well kept secrets. It is said to have been founded in 701 by a priest named Gyoki, who enshrined a wooden statue of the Goddess of Mercy statue that he had carved by himself.

One of the reasons why the temple has such an old history is its location. Situated in the hills southeast of central Okazaki (the temple complex is a short walk from Motojuku station on the Meitetsu line), Hozoji is very close to the ancient highway route that linked the imperial capital of Nara (the capital of Japan at the time Hozoji was constructed) and then later Kyoto, with Okazaki and the steadily expanding eastern provinces of Japan. Travellers and pilgrims making their way along the Kamakura road and then later along the Tokaido would often pray and temporarily rest here, even though the temple was not located in a designated post town such as Okazaki or Goyu.

The current main hall dates from the 14th century, making it older than many of the current temples you can visit in Kyoto, Nara or Kamakura, as it was spared from the destruction caused by earthquakes, civil wars or poor maintenance. Although it is extremely old, the wooden hall is in excellent condition, a testimony to the skills involved both in the initial construction and the subsequent maintenance by many generations. If you have the chance, have a quick look underneath the main hall at the foundations, it is easy to see how the structure is designed to withstand earthquakes.

The main reason for the fame of the temple is its close connection with a young boy called Matsudaira Takechiyo. The young boy was educated here while he was a hostage of the powerful Imagawa family, a clan who dominated the regions covering what is now eastern Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures. Many of the cultural properties here are related to this time. For example the ancient pine trees where he hung the scrolls he used for calligraphy, the well he used and so forth. Some of his personal effects from this time are also kept here. Half a century later, Matsudaira Takchiyo was no hostage, but had become Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun and undisputed leader of Japan, who established a form of military government that would see power concentrated in the hands of the Tokugawa clans and their vassals for more than 250 years.

Although not receiving funds on the scale allocated to national projects such as the reconstruction in the 1640’s of the third version of Todaiji by the powerful shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (the grandson of Ieyasu), or the Tokugawa family temple of Daijuji, Hozoji received the enduring patronage of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ensured that the temple prospered and that the wooden buildings were well maintained. Tokugawa Iemitsu also built a beautiful Toshogu on the hillside just above the main hall. As with all of the Toshogu built by the Tokugawa, the architecture and artwork is of great interest to a keen eye, and it is worth comparing this Toshogu with some of the others Iemitsu built such as those at Takisanji and Horai if you have the opportunity. You can reach the Toshogu either via the stairs from the left of the main hall, or via the graveyard.

One of the other interesting features of Hozoji is located in the graveyard. Here there is a burial mound and a statue commemorating Kondo Isami. Kondo (1834-1868) was a samurai from the Kanto region (now the area around Tokyo) who with his band of samurai travelled down the Tokaido (visiting Hozoji enroute) to the imperial capital of Kyoto. From 1863 he became the charismatic leader of the celebrated Shinsengumi, an armed police/security team operating in Kyoto during the “bakumatsu” period – the years where the Tokugawa Shogunate stumbled before being toppled during the tumultuous events of 1868. The shinsengumi became famous/infamous for a number of incidents as they arrested or assassinated those who attempted to plot against the Tokugawa Shogunate, trying to prevent the armed rebellions that culminated in the Meiji Restoration. Not long after the defeat of the Tokugawa supporters at the battle of Toba-Fushimi in January 1868, Kondo Isami was captured by and taken in custody to Kyoto where he was beheaded. As was the custom at the time, his head was displayed on a spike for the edification of all and sundry.

The burial mound at Hozoji was for his head, though it is unclear why Hozoji was selected. In fact until recently, even the direct descendants of Kondo Isami apparently did not know of the existence of the grave here and assumed the head to be buried in the Kondo graves at Tennei-ji on the slopes of Mount Atago in the Kanto area. For many years, the legend was that the head was carried to Tennei-ji by Kondo’s illfated deputy Hijikata Toshizo. In reality, there was no way the ruthless Hijikata could or would have retrieved the head from Kyoto without having his own added to a spike – as he was the deputy leader of the disintegrating Shinsengumi and its tactician at the time. Apart from escaping the manhunt, Hijikata was busy gathering forces as supporters of the Tokugawa regime fought rearguard actions against the Meiji Restoration all the way to Hokkaido in northern Japan, where Hijikata was killed in action in Hakodate in May 1869.

From what can be pieced together, it appears that after the head was retrieved from Kyoto it was being brought back along the Tokaido when it’s carrier decided it should be buried – only some hair being taken to the distant Kondo family graves. As a result, Hozoji has connections to both a powerless child hostage in the midst of civil war who went on to establish Japan’s longest period of peace, and to the shattered dreams of a powerful warrior in that system’s death rattle more than 250 years later. It is an example of one of the many unlikely quirks of Japanese history.

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