A beautiful weekday in summer. Other than two women who were leaving just when I arrived at Untoan, there was no one around except some young monks cleaning the garden and a lady collecting entrance fees.
Untoan, and the other great temples of Minamiuonuma (including for instance Saifuku-ji) are all located within 10 to 15 minutes from either the Muikamachi or Shiozawa-Ishiuchi Interchanges on the Kanetsu expressway, making a temple visit for me an interesting interruption of an otherwise pretty boring drive on the way back from Tokyo or a target for an easy day-trip from Joetsu.
The history of Untoan goes back about 1200 years. It is a Soto Zen temple located at the foot of Mount Kinjo in Minamiuonuma and one of the most important temples in Niigata Prefecture. The main buildings are surrounded by a beautiful garden, lots of moss and tall sugi and other trees. Even if you are not a zen practitioner, it is a place that naturally invites reflection, being in every respect so totally removed from our daily pre-occupations.
During the Nara era, Soga no Shoshi (Masako), the mother of Fujwara no Fusaki (who was the grandson of Fujiwara no Kamatari, the clan’s founding father) established a care facility for sick people at the springs at the foot of Kinjosan, Minamiuonuma.
After the death of his mother, Fusaki joined the devotional cult Yakushi Nyorai and founded Kinjosan Untoan, in memory of his mother’s enlightenment.
Then, about 600 years ago, in the Muromachi era, Uesugi Norizane from Naoetsu, took over the temple and the care facility as a descendant of the Fujiwaras and founded the Untoan Gokoku Zen-an of the Soto sect, which has since flourished as one of the great Zen centers in Hokuriku.
In 1707 the temple underwent a major restoration. The Akamon and the main hall were rebuilt by Oguro Jinnai, a carpenter of Izumozaki, Niigata. The main hall has been designated as a Niigata prefectural cultural property.
According to tradition, at the bottom of each of the stones of the path leading to the Akamon (“sandou”), a character from the Lotus Sutra is written. You will acquire virtue by walking this path. If all things in life could be so easy …
Uesugi Norizane was not the ony link between the Uesugi clan and Untoan. 10-year-old Kihei Tsuji (later Uesugi Kagekatsu) together with 5-year-old Yohoku (later Naoe Kanetsugu) were put in the care of the chief priest of Untoan, Tsutenzen Tatsuhisa for their education. Kagekatsu was the adopted son of Uesugi Kenshin who became an Uesugi daimyo whereas Kanetsugu became an important retainer of the Uesugi clan.