Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (Toto no Meisho): The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, Oban. 1834.
This lovely, lovely print by Hiroshige is of a strange place indeed… one that no longer exists in fact and one that was once not only a favourite of the artist’s but also one of the most extraordinary places in Edo Japan. The ‘Spiral Hall’ is a mystery… a slow helical ramp rising several floors to the viewing platform visible on the outside of the temple in the Hiroshige print above. The print below also by Hiroshige shows another view of the same place…
The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats from the series Famous Places in Edo – Hiroshige
There are lots of unusual and unfamiliar words that are used to describe this unique and enigmatic place. ‘Turbo’, describes the stair and is a western word that must have been imported by the Dutch traders, who also made a gift of a number of still life oil paintings by the Dutch artist van Royen that hung in the temple. An ‘Arhat’ is a Buddhist phrase that describes one of the 500 disciples of the Buddha… the most faithful and pious of all Buddhists, these men were commemorated in carved wooden statues that surrounded the altar. These statues occur in many temple contexts in China and Japan. The writer and Academic, Timon Screech describes the place from contemporary accounts:
The Turbo Hall of the Arhat Temple was three floors, the stair was so gentle as to be almost a slope. It allowed easy progress up to seventeen meters… . This would have been the greatest architectural elevation in Edo and twice as high as the city’s fire watchtowers. Intended for the encircling walk of the goddess Kannon, the Edo Turbo Hall was also prized for a gantry built out above the roof of the second floor, affording views over the city.
It was hugely popular among residents because of the views and the five hundred statues which were carved from wood by the priest Shoun Genkei (1648 – 1710). Ascending the helical stair, past 500 life sized figures must have made people feel like they themselves were achieving enlightenment. The temple was destroyed in the cataclysmic earthquake of 1855 and was not rebuilt. After two moves to different parts of the city, it fell into disrepair and was replaced in 1981 with a modern building. Luckily, 300 of the original statues still survive. Hiroshige’s views are pretty much the only visual record of what was frequently described as the strangest place in Edo. Below is one of the few photographs of the surviving statues. Each one is different and visitors are encouraged to see the image of a loved one in one of the wooden carvings and to feel that their relatives have achieved peace and enlightenment.