In the devotional arms race that is Buddha building, Japan has mostly been outshined by the Chinese, if only when it comes to sheer height… When it comes down to personality, the massive Buddhas of Japan are the clear winners. The otherworldly hulk that is the Ushiku Daibutsu is probably the best known, looming over Ibaraki Prefecture, or perhaps it’s the serene bronze Great Buddha of Kamakura. Although the Echizen Daibutsu at Seidaiji in Fukui is virtually unknown, it is in fact the tallest seated Buddha in the country. The giant Buddha anchors a charming temple in a beautiful setting in Fukui.
The Great Buddha of Echizen, as well as the temple itself, Seidaiji, have an interesting history. The project was financed by a local boy, Tada Kiyoshi, who hoped to make merit by building a Buddhist temple. Tada’s family had lived comfortably in the Katsuyama area for centuries, making a living as merchants and sake brewers, but the business collapsed and the Second World War came and the family fled to Osaka. Tada Kiyoshi became a taxi driver after the war and, starting with a single car, slowly built an empire.
As Tada grew older, he hoped to give back to the Katsuyama area and, presumably, make sure his next life would be even smoother than his present life. The temple at Seidaiji, and its mighty Great Buddha of Echizen were made to the old man’s specifications. The temple is a gaudy monstrosity that looks more like a luxury hotel than a place to contemplate ko’an. The temple is as much a product of religious devotion as it is a product of the glory days of Bubble Era Japan. But the story behind it and its setting in stunning thick forest makes up for its garishness.
When Tada’s family went bankrupt and were forced to go into business in Osaka, they could never have imagined that they would return to Katsuyama with bags of cash to build a mighty temple and a record-breaking statue. That dream would go on to cost the taxi magnate hundreds of millions of dollars; it took years to complete—but he lived to see it: the Buddha was unveiled the year Tada Kiyoshi turned 82. The Echizen Buddha is a handsome statue, modeled on a seated Vairocana that can still be found at the Longmen Grottoes in China’s Henan Province. It is perhaps only the statue’s young age and its rather distant location that keep the Echizen Buddha from being more well-known.
The temple which also features the tallest concrete pagoda in the country has, over the years, drifted further off the radar of tourists and pilgrims, meaning that, today, it is virtually deserted. Originally intended to keep municipal finances in the black with its tax revenues, the dying taxi magnate’s project became something of a white elephant. In recent years, management and ownership of the temple has changed, and it became a tax-free religious corporation. Various sections of the sprawling complex, as well as portions of its extensive landholdings have been put up for auction, with not much success. If you build it, they may not come. The temple deserves more pilgrims and sightseers, but its desolation is part of its appeal.
The temple crouches in the foothills of Daishiyama, up the road a piece from Katsuyama Castle. The Echizentetsudo-Katsuyama-Eiheiji Line that runs from Fukui City is the easiest way to get there, and it’s a nice ride, whether or not the Great Buddha lives up to its name; alight at Katsuyama Station, cross the Kuzuryu River and head toward the hills.