Earthly Sweet Potatoes Served in Support of Heavenly Mission

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A baked sweet potato offered at Jokyoji temple

WAKAYAMA — Baked sweet potatoes are being used to support the protection of a cultural property at a temple in Aridagawa, Wakayama Prefecture.

Jokyoji temple has been raising funds to repair its twelve heavenly devas scrolls, which are designated as Aridagawa’s cultural property, by giving temple visitors baked sweet potatoes in return for their donations. The temple hopes visitors will feel like they are participating in a fun event while offering prayers. The temple also hopes it will become known as “the baked sweet potato temple.”

Why sweet potato?

Jokyoji temple was established in 1472 and is part of the Seizan school of the Jodo sect. The temple owns several cultural assets, including a seated statue of Dainichi Nyorai and an image of the death of the historical Buddha (Nehan-zu), both national important cultural properties from the Kamakura period (late 12th century-1333). The items were given by the Saishoji temple where the holy Buddhist priest Myoe, who was from Aridagawa and was active in the Kamakura period, had trained.

The twelve devas scrolls, which are badly damaged and will cost about ¥6 million to repair, are among the cultural properties owned by the temple.

Crowdfunding has become a common way to finance the preservation of cultural properties.

“I wanted to make something that would be synonymous with Jokyoji, to get people to come to the temple,” said the temple’s chief priest, Shuho Wakamiya, 48.

Much like how Fukui Prefecture’s Gotanjoji temple is known as “the cat temple” and Hyogo Prefecture’s Sukyoji temple is known as “the takuan temple” due to its link to Buddhist priest Takuan, Wakamiya wanted to create a memorable nickname for the temple. Then, an image of baked sweet potatoes popped into his mind when thought of how his temple burns fallen leaves quite often.

Wakamiya had started cooking more often as a result of the pandemic and owned a commercial oven. Since February 2022, he had purchased various sweet potatoes from across the country. After baking and comparing all his purchases, he decided on Silk Sweet sweet potatoes from Kumamoto Prefecture and Beniharuka sweet potatoes from Chiba Prefecture.

In December, the temple started to give a baked sweet potato to everyone who made a donation of at least ¥500 at the entrance to the temple office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. The offerings of these gifts spread through word of mouth among Buddhist parishioners, as they posted comments on the temple website and social media. Now, about an average of 40 to 50 baked sweet potatoes are given out a day.

Many young families with children visit the temple as they want their children to eat baked sweet potatoes as a snack.

“I’m glad that young people now come to the temple, which used to only receive older people visiting the graves [of their friends and family],” said Kayo, 48, Wakamiya’s wife and vice chief priest.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Temple chief priest Shuho Wakamiya, left, offers candy to a child who is holding a baked sweet potato in a paper bag at the entrance of Jokyoji temple’s office in Aridagawa, Wakayama Prefecture.

Many temples around the country are struggling as a result of a decline in Buddhist parishioners.

“I strongly believe that we must do something to survive,” Wakamiya said. “I want to use baked sweet potatoes to get people all over Japan to become interested in helping maintain cultural assets in the future.”

Baked sweet potatoes are only offered on weekends until around May. For more information, call the temple at (0737) 52-2469.