Shibamata is known for its Taishakuten. Taishakuten is only a guardian of Buddha's teachings and not Buddha, therefore not important in the Buddhist faith. However, according to the tradition of the temple, its Taishakuten statue was engraved by Nichiren (1222-1282), the charismatic founder of the Nichiren Sect. The Taishakuten statue, which was believed to have been lost, was rediscovered during the restoration of the main hall on the day of koshin (1) in 1779. During the great famine of Tenmei (1782-1788), the Taishakuten statue succeeded in creating a belief among the people that it had miraculous blessing, maybe thanks to the efforts of wise priests. Then, Taishakuten (2) and the visit to Taishakuten on koshin days became more and more popular and a town developed along the approach to Taishakuten .
Having said this, I must add that the popularity of Shibamata owes these days much more to "Tora-san", the hero of a long lasting film series "Otoko wa tsurai yo" (It's tough being a man). The series started in 1969 and after 48 installments ended when the principal star Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928-1996) passed away. For years Tora-san, a traveling merchant, was the national hero and a memorial hall was built for Tora-san in 1997. The story of Tora-san film is always the same; Tora-san comes back after a long absence to his parents' house, a Japanese confectionery, in Shibamata. He is taken care of by his brave sister Sakura, relatives and neighbors in Shibamata. He then falls in love with an attractive woman. But his love does not lead to a happy end and Tora-san embarks on another journey.
I do not know why so many Japanese people were moved by such a simple and endlessly repeated story. I guess that they felt at home with the warm and intimate relations among the people in Shibamata, when mental bond between the people had been lost during the Japanese economic miracle in the 1950s and 60s. They also yearned for the nonchalant way of Tora-san’s life style, while they were bound by their duties to the company and society, I believe.
There are interesting discoveries in the ancient history of Shibamata in relation to Tora-san, though Tora-san is a fictional figure.
The first discovery says that there were Tora and Sakura in the eighth century in the Shibamata area. The names Tora and Sakura were found in the official family register which was compiled in 721. The names Tora and Sakura were picked up for the two main roles in the movie by their director Yoji Yamada (1931- ), but even he did not expect that there were Tora-san and Sakura-san in Shibamata some 1300 years ago. The document served as the basis to collect tax and has been kept centuries in the Shosoin in Nara. Among 1,191 people who were registered in the Oshima county which consisted of three villages including "Shimamata" - obviously the present Shibamata - there were nine Tora, ranging from 10 to 37 years old and two Sakura of the age 29 and 32.
Another interesting discovery was a terracotta figure. Terracotta figures were made in conjunction with funeral and grave of influential people between the late 3rd century and the early 7th century. In 2004 a male figure wearing a hut was unearthed near Taishakuten. Terracotta figures with hut are rarity and together with its features, it reminded us of Tora-san, who always wore hut. Here is a comparison of the terracotta figure and Tora-san with hut.
For most of the 45 Tora-san films Takagiya was used as the location of Tora-san's family shop. There are several sweets shops along the approach road of Taishakuten and their common specialty is kusadango: green colored dumpling using wheat and grated green herb with sweet red bean jam. The shops along the street are either food shops or souvenir shops. Food shops are specialized in sweets, rice cracker, pickles, tsukudani (3) or candy. Sweet shops manage also restaurants, while there are specialty restaurants for soba or sweet water fish. All souvenir shops are tradition oriented and most of them handle also Buddhist equipment including talismans and praying beads. Of course, in the court of Taishakuten, there is a shop selling talismans and written oracles.
Taishakuten is built according to the traditional style using timber. However, they are not much old and mostly made in the 20th century. Though people become less and less religious, Nichiren-shu, the sect to which Taishakuten belongs, has many active laymen and strong financial base. Of course, Taishakuten must have profited much from the long lasting boom of Tora-san.
Shibamata is adjacent to Edo-gawa River. An old style ferry boat still connects both banks of the river, of course for the tourism purpose, and I wanted to experience it. Unfortunately, the service was suspended when I went there due to strong wind, because the ferry is indeed very small and fragile against wind. Regrettable.