The hike to Nageiredo is the main feature of a visit to Sanbutsuji Temple, nestled into the mountains of central Tottori. However, there is an array of statues and other little quirky things to keep an eye out for. One of my favorite things about visiting old rural temples throughout Japan is keeping an eye out for all these details.

Some are more or less obvious in subject matter, others are more interesting once you know what they mean. Some are hard not to notice, while others blend in the world around them either for subtlety or because they are such a common sight that you would hardly think to notice.




Jizo, a patron of children (in this case, likely deceased children), surrounded by the Seven Lucky Gods


For the people whose shoes were not appropriate for the hike, they had thick socks and waraji (straw sandals) available.


“Misfortune is something you recognize right away, but happiness is something you do not recognize until its gone.”



I love how much character Jizo statues can have.


The prayer beads make a loud clack when they fall as you pull the loop downwards. This wards off bad luck.


“Rather than the things you do for yourself, the things you do for others wind up being for your own sake.”


Pillars baring names of donors


Hey there, Daikokuten!


That was the main temple area rather than the hiking area, though. Beyond the red gates to hiking route, I only noticed one statue.


I liked his face.

My favorite interesting find was this tree, which was situated at a tight turn on the trail back down the mountain. I was puzzled about the shape until I ran my hand along it as I took the turn, and I noticed it perfectly followed the grooves in the tree trunk. Like the footsteps worn into the stone by thousands of pilgrims, I suspect that this tree has also been shaped by thousands and thousands of hands using it for support.

Just goes to show that dedicated effort, however slight each action might seem, clearly can change the world.

“You want to hike up that mountain in Misasa?” Y-chan asked me. I had, in fact, had Misasa–a little town in the middle of Tottori–on my list for a long time, after having seen photos like this around for a while:

Really, I just wanted to take that picture of Nageiredo, a National Treausure and one of the buildings of Sanbutsuji Temple. I wanted to take that picture, put it here on my blog, and say, “look, isn’t this cool? Its name is ‘the temple that was thrown into place,’ as you can see why.”

“throw” “enter” “temple”

Having already climbed Mt. Daisen a couple times I figured it would be a lot of stairs, but not as many stairs since Mt. Mitoku is only 900 meters high. What I found was, well, not stairs.

There’s a certain lack of stairs on this trail.

Actually, it simply did not occur to me until just now–weeks after the hike–that I was undergoing Shugendo. Certainly, I am aware of the ascetic practices of certain Buddhist monks that they put themselves through in order to gain spiritual prowess, and I have a certain image of them meditating under waterfalls on holy mountains where women were not even allowed to enter until recent history. And I was aware that upon entering the path and being granted a protective talisman and a white sash that I was being marked a pilgrim on holy ground, and yes, I thought that was interesting since I had never received such things while hiking elsewhere or visiting other temples. However, I never put all the pieces together to realize that I physically underwent Shugendo. Does it still count if you weren’t aware you were doing it?

Up I go. The path down is the one at the side by the fence.

I probably should have been tipped off that this was not a normal stroll through the woods when we had our shoes checked for traction twice upon entering, and when they were selling thick gloves for climbing. There were no walking sticks for sale, as apparently those are not allowed. I anticipated a 90 minute hike before we’d head in to town to find an onsen, but almost immediately I was taken back by how steep and somewhat slick it was. We regularly passed by people who were making a successful trek back down, but there were a few screams by started people as they lost their footing in a couple spots, and embarrassed laughter as they recovered seconds later. I took a mental note of those spots and continued up. For the most part, as long as you kept a rather even pace, you’d often find yourself stepping into grooves in the rocks warn away by thousands and thousands and thousands of footsteps of pilgrims over the course of the past 1000 years or so (no exaggeration—the temple itself was established in 709, and Nageiredo was somehow thrown into place in the 11th or 12th century).


Standing firm in the steps of those before me

My favorite surprise was all the katsura (Japanese Judas tree) roots we had to climb! I was reminded of our fun ninja adventures on the obstacle course in Adventure Forest in Gotsu, but these were completely unplanned by mankind. They were really fun and easy to climb, and they did not shutter a bit–you’d almost suspect that you were climbing concrete.

Far easier and more fun than it looks

I was less thrilled about the boulders to scale with our bare hands, and when I first encountered them, I wondered if I should have bought those gloves after all. They weren’t slick, but it took some caution and thought to decide the best course of action each way up and each way down. There were footholds worn into them like those footsteps left behind by thousands before you, but they were not as obviously. While the ascetic yamabushi (mountain monks) of years ago might have taken similar strides, their differences in height and reach made for a wider variety of lesser worn vertical paths.

This angle might be misleading, but long as you stayed on course there wouldn’t be any especially dangerous falls. You know, as long as you stayed on course, no sudden departures to the left or the right. Just stay on the beaten path, however little of a path it looks like sometimes.

Does it count as Shugendo if instead of strict mental training, I was instead incredulously exclaiming, “Wait, what? Seriously? We’re supposed to climb this? What???” It wasn’t until we got to the one boulder which required a chain to climb and an older couple passing by us on their way back down informed us that we were halfway to the top that I figured out that this was probably what I should have expected all along.

It was around that spot that I had been embracing the hope that as we neared the sounds of the enormous bell that we would near the top circle of temple buildings soon. However, unlike some other mountains of Buddhist significance that I was climbed, there were no particularly busy gathering of buildings, instead only a series of buildings along the way and a steady stream of hikers/pilgrims/Shugenja/unsuspecting tourists on their way up or down proving that people of a wide range of ages and physiques were capable of accomplishing these feats. The 2-ton bell itself is from the Kamakura period and no one is quite sure how it got there (Benkei, was that you? After all, he supposedly carried a bell from Mt. Daisen to Gakuenji Temple because was as yamabushi as yamabushi come). Ringing it is said to cleanse you of your sins, and the whole time, I had been pressed on by the sounds of people polishing up their souls–or at least announcing with audible graffiti, “Taro Tanaka was here.”

It wasn’t all grueling hard work, just a lot of caution and bursts of brain power. We were also able to enjoy the refreshing sights and sounds and fresh air of nature.


wild fuji (wisteria)


sugi (Japanese cedar)


After about an hour of hiking, we reached as close as you can get to Nageiredo.

It was only on the way back that I finally heard that it was called the most dangerous national treasure in Japan. It’s probably more dangerous for the people who keep that Heian era architecture in such pristine condition, and I can see why the trails would not be open in rainy or snowy weather, but with a pace you feel comfortable with, it’s certainly not impossible. Just make sure to hike with a buddy (as is required) and bring good shoes (as is always required). And maybe go into it with the expectation that you were undergoing Shugendo!

Even if you don’t feel like undergoing the hike, however, there were a number of other interesting things to observe in the temple buildings at the base of the mountain. I’ll post those photos next time.

It’s the season to better oneself with New Year’s resolutions and ask for a little divine help in doing by visiting shrines and temples for Hatsumode, squeezing in your prayers along those of all the other visitors and trading in the old good luck charms for freshly powered new ones. Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Shrine, located in southeastern Matsue, is especially popular with people who are seeking longevity, trying to avoid bad luck, seeking prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and especially traffic safety. Though they may have the specialties they are known for, no shrine is limited to their specialities, and many general wishes are made at any given place as well.

The primary deity at Hachimangu shrines is Hachiman-jin, considered a god of war in Shinto and in Buddhism. Historically he has been popularly worshipped by the samurai class, along peasants have worshiped him as a harvest god (though Inari is usually the more notable harvest god, and samurai like local hero Matsudaira Naomasa had a notable devotion to the fox deity). Seeing as success in war is a not a common wish for many people in Japan nowadays, the “safe return from war” seems to now translate as “a safe commute home with no traffic accidents.” Furthermore, although Hachiman-jin is not readily associated with success in passing one’s exams (Tenjin’s the obvious choice there), one could consider exams a sort of battle in and of itself.

With that in mind, these statues seem right at home in the most well-known Hachimangu shrine of Matsue.

First, we have a frog.

Frogs are frequently used for good-luck puns, since they are called kaeru in Japanese. This is synonymous with “to return,” such as in “many returns of good fortune.” In this case, it more blatantly refers to the safe return home of both people and their cars. The statue is called “Buji Kaeru.” This phrase means “return home safely” (無事帰る) but in this case, you could call it the “No Mishap Frog.”

It makes sense to have something like at a shrine well-known for its good graces it is supposed to provide in avoiding traffic accidents (among many other special intentions you could also select ema (prayer boards) for).

Then there’s the Daruma next to it. The Yaruki Daruma.

Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, a monk said to have transmitted Chan/Zen Buddhism to Japan. In Japan, it is popularly said that he meditated so long that his legs fell off due to atrophy, and cute, round, and humorously serious Daruma dolls are a popular symbol for the merit of hard work (though if your legs fall off, I’m not sure how fortuitous that can really be). They are found at Shinto shrines throughout the country, with many shrines putting their own spin on how to use the simple and recognizable doll. A common practice is to purchase a Daruma when you have a goal in mind, and to paint on one eye. It is after you attain the goal that you needed to work hard for that you paint on the other eye. You can put any kind of spin on accomplishing any kind of goal, such as Yaegaki Shrine‘s blue and pink En-musubi dolls for couples.

The Yaruki Daruma provides willpower (yaruki) for studying. We all need a little help with this sometimes, right? I know I do. The sign next to the Yaruki Daruma says:

Willpower Daruma
冷頭静修: Cool your head and study quietly.
Pour some cold water on Daruma-san’s head and then say your prayers.

Pouring water on statues when saying prayers is a pretty common practice throughout Japan, such as pouring hot water on the Oyukake Jizo at Matsue Shinjiko Onsen (and yes, his name is literally “the Jizou to pour hot water on”). I like how stark the advice is on this statue. It’s not just a blanket “study, study, study!” command, it’s “hey, COOL IT and sit down and be quiet and DO THE THING.”

The advice seems even more effective when you imagine this face saying it to you.


New Years is Japan’s most important holiday of the year–and like many important holidays, it usually is celebrated over the course of several days. While there are plenty of traditions associated with this season (decorating with and eating rice cakes, playing special games and reciting seasonal poetry, etc), today I’d like to introduce Hatsumode, the first shrine and temple visits of the New Year. Yes, this is a repeat from the past three years, but the info remains timely.

This is a list of major shrines and temples for Hatsumode in the San’in region that are especially well known for the following special intentions. While certain strains of Buddhism may resemble other world religions more so in the personal salvation aspect, the Kami of Shintoism are generally happy to grant more worldly requests. Not that they always do so out of any innate goodness–many of them are unwilling to help unless you pay up, and when you do ask for something, you have to tell a lot of them your name and address or they won’t be able to find you later and grant your request. Kami may be powerful, holy beings, but they do have their limits! Whatever you do, be sure to show gratefulness first.

The following special intentions are just suggestions. While a matchmaking kami wouldn’t necessarily turn down a request for financial prosperity, your odds might be better if you chose your Hatsumode shrine carefully.

1. 出雲大社 Izumo Taisha
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: matchmaking, fertility, other general intentions
Dec 2013 update: Some basic Izumo Taisha info, though it’s mentioned everywhere on this blog
Dec 2015 update: It’s still mentioned everywhere, but here’s a couple more entries about the shrine layout and En-musubi.

2. 須佐神社 Susa Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: safety for one’s family, prosperous business, traffic safety, other general intentions
Dec 2013 update: This is a shrine dedicated to Susano-o, who defeated the Yamata-no-Orochi

3. 長浜神社 Nagahama Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Good luck in meeting challenges
Dec 2014 update: This is the shrine of Kunibiki legend!

4. 日御碕神社 Hinomisaki Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Protection from evil, matchmaking, matrimonial harmony, prosperity for one’s family, safety on the seas, etc.

5. 一畑薬師 Ichibata Yakushi
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Healing of eye diseases, safety for one’s family, safe childbirth, prosperous business, and any other general intentions
Dec 2013 update: See my entry here from when I served in a tea ceremony

6. 宇美神社・平田天満宮 Umi Jinja / Hirata Tenmangu
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: General good luck, fruitful studies, avoiding misdeeds

7. 熊野大社 Kumano Taisha
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Matchmaking, protection from evil
Dec 2013 update: Also a Susano-o shrine
Dec 2014 update: And one of the best places for Setsubun on Feb 3!

8. 平濱八幡宮 武内神社 Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Longevity, avoiding bad luck, prosperous business, safety for one’s family, traffic safety, etc.
Dec 2015 update: I will have a post about this one near the beginning of January!

9. 菅原天満宮 Sugawara Tenmangu
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Passing exams, fruitful studies, avoiding bad luck

10. 八重垣神社 Yaegaki Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Matchmaking, matrimonial harmony, fertility, safe childbirth, avoiding misfortunes and disasters
Dec 2013 update: A shrine known for its mirror pond that reveals how soon and how close you’ll meet your soul mate

11. 神魂神社 Kamosu Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Getting rich, prosperous business
Dec 2013 update: This is where I went for Hatsumode 2013!

12. 佐太神社 Sada Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Guidance, good luck, traffic safety, safety on the seas
Dec 2013 update: Home to Sada Shin Noh, a UNESCO World Heritage sacred dance
Dec 2014 update: As well as a cool example of Taisha-tsukuri architecture, see here and here.
Dec 2015 update: See also the legend behind the birth of the primary deity enshrined there, as well as more about Sada Shin Noh.

13. 美保神社 Miho Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety on the seas, satisfactory fishing, prosperous business, flourishing crops, safe childbirth
Dec 2015 update: Home to Ebisu, one of the mirthful lucky gods, as well as home to a couple of major rituals tied to Kojiki mythology

14. 清水寺 Kiyomizu-dera
Yasugi, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety for one’s family, prosperous business, passing exams, good health, traffic safety, making dreams come true, life-long good luck, safe childbirth, etc
Dec 2013 update: See my entry about it here

15. 勝田神社 Kanda Jinja
Yonago, Tottori
Special intentions: Prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and other general intentions

16. 宗形神社 Munakata Jinja
Yonago, Tottori
Special intentions: Life-long good luck on the battlefield, safety on the seas

17. 名和神社 Nawa Jinja
Saihaku, Tottori
Special intentions: Life-long good luck on the battlefield

18. 金持神社 Kamochi Jinja
Hino, Tottori
Special intentions: General good luck, but especially good financial luck

New Years is Japan’s most important holiday of the year–and like many important holidays, it usually is celebrated over the course of several days. While there are plenty of traditions associated with this season (decorating with and eating rice cakes, playing special games and reciting seasonal poetry, etc), today I’d like to introduce Hatsumode, the first shrine and temple visits of the New Year. Yes, this is a repeat from the past two years, but the info remains timely.

This is a list of major shrines and temples for Hatsumode in the San’in region that are especially well known for the following special intentions. While certain strains of Buddhism may resemble other world religions moreso in the personal salvation aspect, the Kami of Shintoism are generally happy to grant more worldly requests. Not that they always do so out of any innate goodness–many of them are unwilling to help unless you pay up, and when you do ask for something, you have to tell a lot of them your name and address or they won’t be able to find you later and grant your request. Kami may be powerful, holy beings, but they do have their limits!

The following special intentions are just suggestions. While a matchmaking kami wouldn’t necessarily turn down a request for financial prosperity, your odds might be better if you chose your Hatsumode shrine carefully.

1. 出雲大社 Izumo Taisha
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: matchmaking, fertility, other general intentions
Dec 2013 update: Some basic Izumo Taisha info, though it’s mentioned everywhere on this blog

2. 須佐神社 Susa Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: safety for one’s family, prosperous business, traffic safety, other general intentions
Dec 2013 update: This is a shrine dedicated to Susano-o, who defeated the Yamata-no-Orochi

3. 長浜神社 Nagahama Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Good luck in meeting challenges
Dec 2014 update: This is the shrine of Kunibiki legend!

4. 日御碕神社 Hinomisaki Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Protection from evil, matchmaking, matrimonial harmony, prosperity for one’s family, safety on the seas, etc.

5. 一畑薬師 Ichibata Yakushi
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Healing of eye diseases, safety for one’s family, safe childbirth, prosperous business, and any other general intentions
Dec 2013 update: See my entry here from when I served in a tea ceremony

6. 宇美神社・平田天満宮 Umi Jinja / Hirata Tenmangu
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: General good luck, fruitful studies, avoiding misdeeds

7. 熊野大社 Kumano Taisha
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Matchmaking, protection from evil
Dec 2013 update: Also a Susano-o shrine
Dec 2014 update: And one of the best places for Setsubun on Feb 3!

8. 平濱八幡宮 武内神社 Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Longevity, avoiding bad luck, prosperous business, safety for one’s family, traffic safety, etc.

9. 菅原天満宮 Sugawara Tenmangu
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Passing exams, fruitful studies, avoiding bad luck

10. 八重垣神社 Yaegaki Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Matchmaking, matrimonial harmony, fertility, safe childbirth, avoiding misfortunes and disasters
Dec 2013 update: A shrine known for its mirror pond that reveals how soon and how close you’ll meet your soul mate

11. 神魂神社 Kamosu Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Getting rich, prosperous business
Dec 2013 update: This is where I went for Hatsumode 2013!

12. 佐太神社 Sada Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Guidance, good luck, traffic safety, safety on the seas
Dec 2013 update: Home to Sada Shin Noh, a UNESCO World Heritage sacred dance
Dec 2014 update: As well as a cool example of Taisha-tsukuri architecture, see here and here.

13. 美保神社 Miho Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety on the seas, satisfactory fishing, prosperous business, flourishing crops, safe childbirth
Dec 2013 update: Home to Ebisu, one of mirthful lucky gods

14. 清水寺 Kiyomizu-dera
Yasugi, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety for one’s family, prosperous business, passing exams, good health, traffic safety, making dreams come true, life-long good luck, safe childbirth, etc
Dec 2013 update: See my entry about it here

15. 勝田神社 Kanda Jinja
Yonago, Tottori
Special intentions: Prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and other general intentions

16. 宗形神社 Munakata Jinja
Yonago, Tottori
Special intentions: Life-long good luck on the battlefield, safety on the seas

17. 名和神社 Nawa Jinja
Saihaku, Tottori
Special intentions: Life-long good luck on the battlefield

18. 金持神社 Kamochi Jinja
Hino, Tottori
Special intentions: General good luck, but especially good financial luck

Pretty much anywhere in Japan, you tend you see a lot of Jizo. He’s a very merciful Buddha especially known for looking after children, and there are statues of him everywhere. It’s not uncommon to find them in seemingly random places in the middle of a field or standing in an onsen, outside of shopping centers, or huddled together near temples.

IMG_2101

Although they follow the same basic pattern–dark stone build, pleasant face, red frock and hat–there can be some variation in the poses and styles. Some are solemn, while others are downright chibified. Then you get some strong ones, ready to take on all the burdens of those who seek their aid. Superhero-like Jizo-sama such as these aren’t afraid of anything!

Take, for instance, Genki Jizo, a local hero of Matsue’s Hokki district, striking what is known in Japan as the “guts pose”!

genki4
genki1

Almost anyone with any experience using Japanese–or even just living in Japan and not knowing much Japanese–will smile at the sound of the word genki, which slips just as well into English conversation because there’s not really an appropriate equivalent term. The kanji, 元気, could be clumsily translated as “base mood” or more whimsically as “source of spirit” but neither really catches the meaning of the basic greeting, O genki desu ka? “Are you well?”

Appropriately located outside of a center for genki old folks.

Appropriately located outside of a center for genki old folks.

But someone described as genki is not only well–they are healthy, they are cheerful, they are spirited. This isn’t usually only a state, it’s a disposition. Japan doesn’t strive to raise healthy kids, it strives to raise genki kids. It doesn’t encourage friendly greetings, it encourages genki greetings.

And you, readers! Are you genki?

Genki Jizo wants you to be genki!

genki2

As a conclusion to my Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines posts for now, I’ll conclude with Omori Town, a preserved historic neighborhood nearby Ryugenji Mabo Mine Shaft where much of the silver related trade was handled. This area is just one are in the larger UNESCO World Heritage site.

If you take the shuttle bus from the museum, the first place you’ll notice is Rakanji Temple, which is home to over 500 statues made in the 18th century to honor workers killed in mine shaft accidents. For a small fee, you can cross the bridges and take a look inside.



Like most any other place in Japan, populated or not, you’ll find a smattering of shrines and temples, such as Kanzeonji Temple.


Although there are preserved residences you can walk through and see how they were used in the Edo period, other historic buildings still function as serving the community or tourists, be it as a post office or grocer. I think we took a good hour to walk around the town, but it was one of the biggest preserved Edo period areas I’ve been to–I’m glad we planned on fitting it in!






This is a folk tale as told by an old lady from Kurayoshi, Tottori, who was born in the late Meiji era. Let’s keep in mind that the content was passed among common people for the sake of entertainment, not for accurate discussion of Buddhist cosmology.

kurayoshi

This is a story that happened a long, long time ago. At that time, in the district of Wada, there was a temple called Jokoji, and they had a new head priest come in. The head priest at Tentokuji Temple in Tottori heard about this, and said, “I heard they just got a good new head priest out there at Jokoji Temple. I would like try him out with a few Zen questions.” He sent out a messenger saying such.

The head priest at Jokoji Temple was very distraught to hear this news. “Well, I’ve got myself in quite a pickle,” he sighed heavily. “I just came here for the money, I can’t answer any questions about Zen!” The upcoming visit made him very stressed.

At that time, it turns out Jokoji Temple was fairly popular with the religious pilgrims, so it was frequented by many visitors. As was common with many popular temples, there were business ventures based around these visitors and pilgrims. One such venture was a little manju (sweet dumpling) shop owned by a man named Chochibei. Based on a suggestion from his daughter when they were having trouble getting the right ratio of filling and dumpling, they specialized in selling very, very large manju for a cheap 2 cents, and there were always people lined up to get these giant manjuu.

Since his business was at the temple, Chochibei saw the new head priest everyday, and noticed he was in low spirits. “What’s the matter, Mr. Priest? You don’t look like you’re feelin’ so well lately.”

“I’m not sick or anything, not to worry.”

“Yeah, but I’ve rentin’ this space to sell manju for the past month or so, an’ in that time I’ve noticed a change. I really think you should see a doctor or somethin’.”

“Thanks, but a doctor wouldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

Still, Chochibei asked a third time if anything was wrong, and finally the head priest opened up to him. “You see, Mr. Chochibei, the head priest from Tentokuji Temple is going to visit on the 16th day of the 3rd month to quiz me, but I won’t be able to answer his questions.”

“A quiz? If it’s anything like a mathematics quiz that’s nothing t’ worry about. Two plus two is four, you know?”

“Well, something like that…”

“Hmm. If it’s troubling you that much, then just leave it t’ me! I’ll take your place when he comes!”

The 16th day of the 3rd month soon arrived, and the head priest of Tentokuji Temple arrived with a procession of monks. At that time Chochibei was out selling his manju, shouting loudly, “Two cents! Two cents! One giant manju, two cents!”

The head priest of Jokoji Temple was listening and sighed, wondering if it would really be alright to leave this task to a manjuu salesman. Before he could change his mind (not that he’d have had any better option), Chochibei dashed in and started changing his clothes, saying, “Alright! Let him come at me with those questions! I’ll any of ’em!” Now dressed as a head priest and hardly recognizable, he entered the hall just as the head priest of Tentokuji Temple did. The visiting priest bowed, and Chochibei decided to mirror him to try to look the part.

They were then seated in front of each other, silently. The visiting priest then raised his arms over his head like a large ring.

What? The head priest of Tentokuji wants my giant manju? Alright then! I usually sell them for two cents, but since he’s in charge of a loaded temple, I can charge him a little more, thought Chochibei, who then held up three fingers.

In response, the head priest held up two fingers.

Tryin’ to haggle with me since he already heard the price was two, huh? Tough! I just raised the price! he thought, and then pulled down his eyelid and stuck his tongue out at him.

The head priest then held out one outstretched hand, as if indicating the number five.

Chochibei was pleased. That’s more like it. He’ll take five manju at that price! He answered with a nod and approving grunt.

The head priest of Tentokuji Temple smiled, and nodded his head. “Very good, very good indeed.” He then stood and turned to leave.

“Wait a moment, Mr. Priest! We’ll prepare a feast for you right away, so please stay.”

“No, no need. I am already quite satisfied,” he continued to smile as he made his exit. “I can see that Jokoji Temple has a very good new head priest.”

On his way back, the head priest was still commenting to himself about what a good priest he had met. His followers eagerly asked him what they had discussed. “First, I started by asking him about the Earth,” he explained, “and he answered with the Three Realms. So I asked him Japan*’s place in all this, and he said that it is in Divine Eye. I asked if he was sure it wasn’t among five worlds**, and he was sure. So I was satisfied with that.” The other monks were all impressed by the depth of such answers.

Chochibei, on the other hand, was asked by the real head priest of Jokoji Temple what the other head priest had asked about. “Oh, that?” he replied. “Seems he just wanted to buy my manju. I said I’d charge him 3 cents, but he wanted ’em for 2 cents. He came around after I made a face at him and said he’d buy five of ’em. We didn’t talk about anything but manju.”

“Oh, I see. Well, alright then.”

In the end, despite the lack of mutual interpretation of the episode, everyone was quite satisfied.

—-
Note: This story has puns!
*”Japan” is Nihon or Nippon, which is synonymous with “two (fingers)”
**”five worlds” (as I’ve translated it for simplicity’s sake) is gokai, which is synonymous with “mistake.”
With regard to the terminology, I’ve gone with Three Realms as opposed to the Trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu it was referring to in Japanese, and Divine Eye as opposed to just “eye” so as the capture the spirit of the story. Again, this is just a fun folk tale.

Modern day Jokoji Temple (click for source)

Maybe a ghost story doesn’t seem like appropriate content for Mother’s Day, but many people love to point to this story as one of Lafcadio Hearn‘s favorites, seeing as he was seperated from his mother at a very young age.

Of the cemetery Dai-Oji, which is in the street called Nakabaramachi, this story is told-

In Nakabaramachi there is an ameya, or little shop in which midzu-ame is sold—the amber-tinted syrup, made of malt, which is given to children when milk cannot be obtained for them. Every night at a late hour there came to that shop a very pale woman, all in white, to buy one rin worth of midzu-ame. The ame-seller wondered that she was so thin and pale, and often questioned her kindly; but she answered nothing. At last one night he followed her, out of curiosity. She went to the cemetery; and he became afraid and returned.

The next night the woman came again, but bought no midzu-ame, and only beckoned to the man to go with her. He followed her, with friends, into the cemetery. She walked to a certain tomb, and there disappeared; and they heard, under the ground, the crying of a child. Opening the tomb, they saw within it the corpse of the woman who nightly visited the ameya, with a living infant, laughing to see the lantern light, and beside the infant a little cup of midzu-ame. For the mother had been prematurely buried; the child was born in the tomb, and the ghost of the mother had thus provided for it—love being stronger than death.

(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

When I went on Matsue’s Ghost Tour, it wrapped up here at Dai-oji temple, nestled into a neighborhood not far from where I live. The temple has a history as long as the city itself, and it used to be connected to the outer castle moat by waterway, so the samurai living closer to the castle would visit the temple by boat.

On a cheerful, sunny day, the temple sits quietly among the houses, humble and easily unnoticed.




It seems the temple used to be a little more overgrown, providing more places for ghosts to hide. I’m not sure how old these photos are, though.

Click for source

There’s a part of me that wishes it were still covered like that, but it makes me wonder what it was like when Lafcadio Hearn lived here over a century ago. There is a street nearby to the temple (the street I think he was referring to within the Nakabaramachi district) with a lot of Showa era buildings and old family businesses so it’s somewhat easy to imagine a midzu-ame vendor around there, but even that wouldn’t be old enough to be accurate to the time Hearn lived here, or even the time this story supposedly took place! It seems there are similar stories to this one that take place in other parts of Japan as well, so it makes me wonder how much claim this temple really has or not to being the source. Whatever the case, this story of motherly love rather than ghastly haunting has staying power, and I don’t really think the details detract from it.

Chatty monks!

In my hometown, there was a cafe I only visited once but it left a deep impression because it is, as I understand, run by Orthodox monks. It provided a cozy meeting space and a library of books so as to contemplate wisdom with a freshly caffeinated mind. Not usually the kind of place you’d expect to run into monks, but at least in the US, if you’re interested you can usually find some way to chat with a religiously ordained person.

In Japan, however, many people are curious about Buddhism but do not feel they can just wander into a temple and start asking questions. Would they be bothering the monks with their curiosity? Would just a quick try at zazen meditation be okay instead of making a big commitment to it? Which sect of Buddhism would you even know to go to? What are the differences in what they believe in each temple? Typically these practical unknowns may keep people from going out of their way to find out, and they’ll just assume that funerals may be their only chances to see Buddhism in action. That’s where the emphasis is placed, right?

Not necessarily.

Across the country, it’s somewhat rare to have a chance just to chill out and casually talk with a Buddhist monk (which in some sects makes no differentiation between male and female) or drill them with low-level or high level questions about anything from their daily routine to what happens after we die. It’s even more rare to gather monks from different sects together in the same place for this kind of discussion.

Though the Izumo part of the San’in region places a lot of cultural emphasis on the Shinto side of things (and there are historical reasons for that), we still have our share of Buddhist temples and they still take over on spiritual sides of life experience that Shinto doesn’t typically cover. Recently, Matsue has started hosting Obousan Cafe, or “Monk Cafe.”

For now, it’s still being held in the Kiharu Cafe space in the Matsue History Museum, on Saturday nights when the museum is closed for the day and all has gone quiet on the surrounding historic streets that teem with tourists during the day. On the night I attended, many of the participants were from outside of Matsue. Before we started I made small talk with a few girls from Tottori, and at my discussion table later on there was even someone visiting from Yokohama who came to take part. We were joined by four monks who were happy to have the chance to meet with us.

The evening started at 8:00pm with some zazen (seated Zen meditation). I’ve seen some Buddhist texts in English translations and have made no sense of sutras as I’ve heard recited in Japanese, but there was no such detailed instruction of scripture. Instead, the monk from Housenji Temple instructed us in the Soutou Sect way of zazen: simply do it.

You start by bowing towards your sitting place, then towards the monk guiding you in meditation.


Learning the correct posture.

Usually, this very simple (and therefore difficult) form of meditation is done facing a wall, but instead we had the night view of the low-lit Izumo style Japanese garden I’ve always enjoyed seeing during the day from the cafe. With your glance towards the floor in front of you, however, you’re not supposed to get distracted by it. With no instruction on what to meditate on but simply instructed to breath so as to calm our hearts, the monk rang a chime to signal the start of meditation, and the room went silent.

……..

……………

When’s the last time you sat still in 15 minutes of silence?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. While I can’t say my mind was completely still (ha! far from it!), it was probably closer than I usually get in my day-to-day busy life. However, probably in large part due to my martial arts and tea ceremony practice, 15 minutes wasn’t too difficult for me to handle–I know that in the past it definitely would have made me more antsy. After the monk rang the chime again, we turned around to face him for a brief break. He acknowledged very calmly that it may have felt short to some people, but may have felt excruciating to those whose feet fell asleep (again, tea ceremony practice kicked in and I was okay!). Although discipline and regular zazen practice would allow people to be much more effective at calming their minds, there was no striving to “get better at it” or anything like that–once again, our goal was just to do it.

The second period of meditation only lasted 10 minutes in the interest of time constraints. I was feeling very calm, but a bit sleepy. Had I have closed my eyes I probably would nodded off! This is not the style of zazen in which the head priest whacks your shoulder with a paddle to rescue you from drowsiness.

Quietness felt like a special experience and even as I was thinking I can totally do this at home!, the monk leading us practically read my mind: “You might think you could do this at home, but it turns out to be much more difficult that you would think. You would need a lot of willpower, so it’s easier to train yourself in the right setting.”

Yeah… he’s probably right. Also, if you ask, it seems monks can very easily get you in touch with their zazen groups. I think having other people around also helped me stay focused–accountability, you know?

After this, the staff quickly arranged the tables and an array of local wagashi. Then the monks joined us at our different table groups and began serving us tea while introducing themselves, speaking in hushed tones and unhurried paces, though obviously excited to have a listening audience. I barely had a chance to think of some questions of my own since the Japanese participants in my group had already prepared a number of them and the monks were happy to elaborate at length, and I was content to simply listen for a while.

There were very interesting questions like, “are there ghosts, or do souls reincarnate right away? If that’s the case, then why do we celebrate O-bon or visit our family graves?” The details in the answers to such questions as this may differ from sect to sect and I don’t feel qualified to provide answers here seeing as I wasn’t taking notes, but the first monk I spoke with from Jiunji Temple of the Nichiren Sect, made sure to emphasize that it’s very much so for the sake of living people observing these customs as it would be for the spirits.

One thing he said that really stuck out to me was about the prayer beads. At least in Nichiren, the left hand represents the present world we live in and sin in, and the right hand represents the unseen world. The prayer beads are kept on the left hand as a seal on all the evils of the world, and when you put your palms together in prayer, this is signifying a meeting of the two worlds. Whether you keep the beads in your left hand while doing so or slip them over both hands varies by sect. The design of the beads also varies, and he pointed out that the long cords on his beads are used for handling objects that should not be handled directly.

Halfway through the talk session the monks rotated, though participants were free to move around to talk with whichever monk they wanted to. I finished the evening speaking with a higher-ranked male monk and lower ranked female monk from Junkouji Temple, which is of the Joudoshin Sect. (To organize these different sects in your head and learn more of the history, please see the flow-chart on this article by Mami on Tokugu.) We talked a bit about their prayer beads, too. While some are build differently for different genders based on the size of their hands and how they would customarily handle them, many other details are just according to personal preference. The higher-ranked monk simply liked his wooden beads, and the lower-ranked monk chose amber beads because they aren’t so cold to handle in winter.

I hadn’t asked much of anything yet, but for lack of any pressing theological questions, I asked what got them interested in the religious life. The lower-ranked monk was very excited to answer this question and tell her personal story of discussing the breadth of Buddhism as a lifestyle through asking questions during a few funerals in her family. As she prattled on passionately, she caught herself when she saw the upper-class monk smiling patiently.

“I’m sorry! I just got so excited to finally be able to answer something! I’ve gone on too long, why don’t you speak?”

“No, no, go right ahead!”

“Haha, I’m embarrassed to be overstepping my sempai!”

As she continued on her soap box, she started preaching along the same lines are the Nichiren monk. “People usually think Buddhism only has to do with death, funerals, and the after-life,” they had said. “Actually, the teachings are more for how you should live your life, as it will affect your after-life! I wish more people took the time to learn more about it in their daily lives, rather than wait until someone dies before they visit a temple or talk to a monk. That’s why I’m so glad to see everyone here asking questions–we’re happy to teach.”

bou-temples

There are tentative plans to continue another round of the meditation and talk sessions, and if possible they’d like to hold it in a temple to have more people take part, provided they can still have monks of different sects attend (there will probably be more info on the homepage or Facebook page). As it develops, the staff is very interested in how to work around the language barrier to welcome more foreign visitors so they can have a low-pressure experience like this with minimal time commitment. While discussion is definitely easier if you can follow the ebbs and flows of it in Japanese, I don’t think the zazen would be a problem for anyone. After all, you can learn the correct postures just be being observant even if you don’t understand the words being used, and after that, it’s not even about words–it’s just about being.

…being quiet, anyway.