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牛久大仏 - The Great Buddha at Ushiku

I was riding the subway in Tokyo in March of 1997, and hanging from the ceiling of the car I saw an advertisement for the Ushiku Daibutsu, or Great Buddha at Ushiku. At that time I had kind of a thing for Great Buddhas. In February I had gone to Nara and seen the Great Buddha at Tōdai-ji temple there. The summer before that, on my trip to Thailand in 1996, I made a point of going to see the Reclining Buddha at Wat Po. And in May of 1996 I had made my second trip to see the Great Buddha at Kamakura. So when I saw this advertisement for another one at Ushiku, I immediately wanted to go.

To get there, I had to take the Jōban line from Ueno station and got off at Ushiku station. I then got on the bus for the Ushiku Daibutsu. The bus ride from the station to the Great Buddha took about 30 minutes. About five or ten minutes before we got there, I began to see the Great Buddha peeking out Godzilla-style from behind the tree-covered hills. The closer we got, the more I realized how big it was. It was so huge it looked like it was going to start stepping on the power lines that ran nearby.

At 120 meters tall, the Ushiku Daibutsu is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. According to the Ushiku Daibutsu website, the Great Buddha of Tōdai-ji in Nara could rest comfortably on the palm of the Ushiku Daibutsu's hand. In 1995, It was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest statue.

Inside the statue itself is a four story building, which serves as a kind of museum. The first floor lobby is dark, and as you enter new age music floats toward you from the darkness. In the center of the room a single shaft of light shines from above onto a cauldron of smoking incense. If you walk past that you'll find the elevator to the other floors.

On the second floor is the "Lotus Paradise". Hundreds of miniature statues of the buddha line the walls in golden alcoves. Beneath many of these buddhas are plaques bearing someone's name. It seems that families can pay to have a loved one memorialized here.

On the third floor, several writing stations are set up with paper, brushes and ink so that visitors can write some calligraphy setting down their impressions, or leaving a message.

On the fourth floor, there is an exhibit on the life of the buddha. Among the exhibits is a closed box, which, according to the placard next to it, contains one of the buddha's finger bones.

Also on the fourth floor are windows which look out from the buddha's chest on to the adjacent flower garden and small animal park. I didn't get a chance to see it, but apparently there are laser light shows on some evenings.

Ushiku Daibutsu was built about 9 years ago. Its height is impressive, but the thing I found most interesting is the way that it mixes sanctity, tourism, and an amusement park atmosphere. Perhaps with a monument so historically recent it's impossible to know what atmosphere it will eventually settle into. When I visited the Great Buddha in Nara, I was struck primarily by the feeling that it was a holy place. But I wonder how people viewed it when it was new?

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