Muroji (Muroo temple) is perhaps 15 miles southeast of Nara City, in the "mountains" of Nara Prefecture (mountains similar to the American Catskills or the foothills of the Appalachians). One takes a train from Nara station into the countryside, then transfers to a local train to reach the station near Muroji. From that station, one takes a bus that runs hourly to travel the several miles along a winding, two lane road to the small village of Muro. Muro village shares with the road a narrow strip of flat land between the Muro River and the steep hillside that rises perhaps 100 yards from the river embankment. It is a small rural village and retains something of the feel of the Japan of decades past. Whether because of its relative inaccessibility or because it is not listed in tour books, the temple of Muroji does not attract the crowds that daily visit the temples of Kyoto and Nara, and few of the visitors to Muroji are not Japanese. [During the summer and fall of 2000, the road was being straightened out some and widened. It will be interesting to see whether this brings more visitors and more commerce to Muro village, and changes the feel of the community.] The road from the train station to the village of Muro parallels the Muro River for most of the way. -- Perhaps a mile or two from Muro village, one comes upon this surprising sight on the opposite side of the river. Carved into the stone of the bluff on the bank of the river is a shallow relief carving of the Miroku Buddha and, to the lower left of the Miroku figure, a mandala carved in stone. The carving is almost flat, and is more in the nature of a linear engraving on the stone than it is a 3-dimensional sculptural work. The carving dates from the very early Kamakura period, around 1207 or 1208. Image ecasia000002 is an enlarged version of this image and it shows detail of some of the lines in the engraved image. The carving was asssociated with Onodera, another temple, besides Muroji, associated with Kofukuji in Nara. Along with the construction of the Miroku Hall at Muroji, the stone Miroku is an expression of Kofukuji's devotion to the Miroku.
On one's left as one walks along the path just inside the Nio gate at Muroji, is a small pond with lilly pads and koi .
On the right side of the image, above the woman walking on the path, may be seen the bridge that crosses the Muro River. On the far side of the river (a stream at this point) is Muro village. In the foreground is the path that leads from the bridge to the entrance gate at Muroji (to the left, out of the photo).
At Muroji, from the village, one crosses a foot bridge over the narrow Muro River to enter the grounds of the temple compound. Having crossed the bridge, the abbot's quarters and residence halls for the monks are straight ahead and to one's left. To the right is a walk leading to the Nio Gate, the entrance to the temple compound, proper, with its guardian figures on both sides of the gate. Also of interest at the gate is the stone stele, which is from the Edo period and which proclaims that Muroji is the "woman's Mt. Koya." At the great Mt.Koya center of Shingon Buddhism, founded by Kukai, women were forbidden from entering the precincts, while at Muroji they were welcomed and remain, today, important in their presence at Muroji. Passing through the gate, on one's right is the steep embankment of the river and, on one's left is a small pond with koi . The path ends straight ahead and at that point one turns left and ascends a set of stone steps to the next level of the compound, where the kondo and Mirokudo are located. This latter feature, the location of the kondo and Mirokudo to the left and on another level from the gate, is an important feature of Muroji. Until this time, Buddhist compounds in Japan followed more or less closely the classic scheme of Chinese Buddhist temples, in which the buildings were laid out symmetrically along a central axis, facing south. The variation at Muroji was a result, no doubt, of the topography of the site, that the compound is on the side of a mountain, rather than on a level site. The choice of that site, however, and the resulting rejection of a symmetrical axis, was significant and some say that this is an aspect of Muroji that represents an early Heian period "Japanization" of a Chinese model.
As described with the image of the Nio gate at Muroji (image ecasia000004.jpg), one of the disctinctive features of the compound at Muroji is the fact that it is not laid out on a symmetrical axis, oriented along a north-south axis, and all on a level plot (for comparison, e.g., look at the plan of Yakushiji, Nara). From the level of the Nio gate at Muroji, one turns to one's left and ascends this set of stone steps to reach the next level of the compound, where there is a modest sized, open level area that is used for ceremonies. On that level, the kondo is directly ahead of one across from the top of the steps, the Mirokudo is directly to one's left, and the Haiden, an early 20th century addition, is to one's right.