Shibamata Taishakuten - a photographer's guide

One of my favorite temples in Tokyo is Shibamata Taishakuten. While it isn’t enormous, it has a beautiful garden and fantastic carvings! I don’t think you can find a place like it anywhere else in the city. It is another great place for photography. 

The carvings are on large panels around the walls of the temple. They depict scenes from the Lotus Sutra. A two-story-high glass enclosure protects them. And that means if it rains, you won’t get wet!

You will find carvings on walkways that extend to other buildings too. Like the ones around the main temple, they depict beautiful Buddhist scenes. Look at them, and you can imagine the amount of time artisans spent on them.

The carvings are all unpainted. They are brushed once a year to remove dust and cobwebs. Very little is done to them to preserve their longevity.

Shibamata Taishakuten is not only about the wall carvings. In front of the temple is “Zui-Ryu-no-Matsu” (which means “Pine tree of the Lucky Dragon”). One branch is over fourteen meters long, and the other over twelve. It’s like a bonsai on steroids.

Behind the temple is a small but exquisite garden, “Suikeien,” with a carp-filled pond. There is some Buddhist-themed stonework in it, like pagodas. It is said to be the last of its type from the Edo period.

There is also a guest house. Inside is quite luxurious, but only a shadow of what it must have been in its heyday. You can enjoy the garden from its verandah.

Last is the street that leads to the temple. It has many shops selling traditional sweets and food. Buy some Dango to eat as you walk, and you’ll feel you are in old Edo! 

Keep an eye out for Tora-san in the area. He’s a character from Japan’s longest-running movie series, “Otoko wa Tsuraiyo” (or “It’s tough being a guy”). Many of his stories took place around Shibamata. The actor (Kiyoshi Atsumi) who played Tora passed away in 1996, so you’ll see his double.

There are two things about Shibamata Taishakuten that some people mightn’t appreciate. One is that it is pretty far for people coming from the west side of Tokyo. From Shinjuku or Shibuya, it’s about an hour’s travel with some train changes. From Oshiage (Skytree), it is only twenty minutes or so.

The other point is that the temple isn’t very old. True, it was built over four hundred years ago, but it once fell into a dilapidated state. In the Meiji period, it was rebuilt. So what is on the current site is only about one hundred years old. Not a huge problem, of course, but some people might feel slightly miffed by this.

A brief history of Shibamata Taishakuten

  • Two Nichiren Buddhist monks founded Shibamata Taishakuten in 1629. They were Nichu Zenchuin and Niei Shikeiin.
  • In 1779, fire destroyed the main hall. It was rebuilt in the 1800s. The master builder Ryuichi Sakata built the Nitenmon, the main gate.
  • In 1996 the Ministry of the Environment designated the temple as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan. It was also on the 2009 100 Landscapes of Japan list.

What can you photograph at Shibamata Taishakuten?

  • guesthouse architecture
  • temple wall carvings
  • Buddhist-themed Suikeien (garden)
  • Zui-Ryu-no-Matsu (Pine tree of the Lucky Dragon)
  • It isn’t so crowded and has many interesting subjects. That makes it another excellent place for beginners who enjoy temple photography.

Photography tips

  • Photography is straightforward. Nothing is complicated. But, some areas inside the glass wall might get a little dark, depending on the time of day.  
  • Tripods are not allowed.

Other photo spots near Shibamata Taishakuten

And there are two I haven’t visited yet:

  • Tora-san Museum 
  • Yamato-Tei (museum with a garden and a traditional wooden boat on the river)

After most visits, people will probably leave the area quickly. Oshiage and Tokyo Skytree aren’t very far away and have much to offer.

Where is Shibamata Taishakuten?

Address: 7-10-3 Shibamata, Katsushika City, Tokyo

Here it is on a Google map:

Closest train station:

  • Shibamata on the Keisei Kanamachi Line

Opening hours

  • 9 am to 5 pm

Conclusion

Shibamata Taishakuten might be a little far for some, but it is worth the effort. It is so different from places like Meiji Shrine and Sensoji. This temple might be small, but it is lovely. Some great pictures are waiting for photographers. Please leave questions and comments below.

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