Unseen Hakone The magic of Choanji stonemen

I love to know things about the places I visit. Most of the time I do.

But what I did while I was in Japan was travel without context. I just knew (or thought I knew) a few things about Japanese culture, and these things are so cliché it might be better to forget about them for now. So many times I found myself awestruck in front of things which had a meaning I couldn’t grasp. And the information was oftenj lacking as well. I saw this as an opportunity to project my own explanation onto things as their meaning was lost to me anyway.

Not that ignorance is a virtue. But I guess sometimes it helps.

So instead of being frustrated by lack of understanding or much-needed signs translated into English, you’ve just to observe, postulate, and gather enough pieces of evidence to find a satisfactory explanation.

Located in the region of Hakone, Choanji Temple, with its myriads of stoned statues, is the perfect illustration. I’ll refrain from calling « Buddhas » since the term is already too restrictive and surely doesn’t help understanding the peculiarity of the place.


Located in the touristy region surrounding Mount Fuji, the temple isn’t so much an “off-the-beaten- track” location but doesn’t appeal to the majority of tourists. Which is a shame, considering it is

only minutes away from the beginning (or end) of the hiking trail to Mount Ashigara, which provides a spectacular view on Mount Fuji (or on the deep fog covering it, as was my experience). Our – not that I have several personalities but I thought it would be nice to acknowledge the presence of my partner at this point – visits there were always quiet and bother-free, except maybe for this conspicuously affectionate cat that was trying to lead us to the nearby graveyard (but we know the trick, we’ve read enough scary tales to know what would have happened).

Marking the entrance of a forest, the temple itself is pretty standard if you compare it with the more magnificient ones you’ll find in Kyoto or Nara. The stone statues, on the other hand, were demanding a narrative of their own.

Some look peaceful or enraged, or subtly calm even with an open-wound on their chest. They sit or lie on the mossy ground, hide behind the tall trees, stand as if moving. We wander in between the stones as if the time had paused suddenly. And what if it were so?

This old master was at the moment teaching bow shooting technique to a student whose perseverant look suggests he’s been too hard on himself lately.


“your arms should be more relaxed, as should be your heart” said he.

This individual was just waking up, enjoying the fresh morning air, recollecting a happy dream of a culinary nature.


There seemed to be so much to see between these odd scenes, as much as there was to read in between the lines of a poem. I came to think that most of these statues had been waiting for this long pause. Most of them welcomed it with prayers, or with poses suggesting they were freed from all their worries. From the most explicit… To the more reserved.


Remembering good moments, moments of peace that make them smile, or maybe just a dirty joke.


One of them thought he would send us a positive message.


But apparently no one told this grumpy guy who’d probably just woken up to a bad dream (with no particular culinary undertones)…


Looking back at all these pictures, I am of course inventing more of these stories as I recollect the ambiance of the place. I can make them as magical as they seemed more than they actually were.


Choanji Temple was a paradise for photographs and surely one of the highlights of our visit to


Hakone which, at the time, was a bit undermined by bad weather conditions and volcanic activities. Go there at night and the statues seem to vanish and reappear as you walk among them. Go in broad daylight and they still seem to withhold their secrets.

The context is still missing though. And if I am glad with the construct that came to my mind, which allowed me not to view the place solely as quaint or amusing, the time has come to investigate on the real nature of these monk statues. Or does it matter at all ?

Voltordu is a French freelance photographer and traveller. You can find his pictures of Japan and more on his Flickr webpage (https://www.flickr.com/photos/velvetjo/)

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