Benten Quay

I’ve written about Mihonoseki a few times before (see here and here and here), but on this particular trip I went specifically to see the Aoishi-datami paved street and the temple it leads to, seeing as I didn’t take a look on a previous visit to the famous Miho Shrine.

Read more about Sakaiminato, Daikonshima, and the Meoto-Iwa.

I’m not the first to write about Mihonoseki either, as Lafcadio Hearn and other famous writers have already described it and its role in Japanese history before me (there is still a ways to go because its significance is explained in my comic renditions of the Kojiki myths). Miho Shrine is home to the mirthful lucky god Ebisu, who is not only the god of fishing and commerce but of song and dance–therefore a number of famous musicians have beens spotted visiting Mihonoseki, too!

If you’re keeping an eye out for them, you might notice these signs around the area with quotes about Mihonoseki written by famous people. This is Toson Shimazaki.

The aoishi are literally “blue-green stones” that are used in this pathway between Miho Shrine and Bukkoji-ji Temple.

This is me and my new friend next to an “ao-ishi” at Benten Quay.

Lined up altogether, they lent a certain mood to the otherwise homey atmosphere. The best way to enjoy this path is by snacking on freshly grilled squid first.

Lately there seems to be a fascination with the decorated manhole covers around Japan. Here is one from Mihonoseki to add to your viewing pleasure.

I like seeing real fish better than seeing manhole fish.

A pleasant uphill walk later, we made it to Bukkoku-ji to see the grave of Ikuta Shonosuke, otherwise known as Kichiza in many historical works of fiction. He’s not usually the star of the story he’s featured in, though–that infamous role belongs to Yaoya O-Shichi.

In the year 1682, 16-year-old O-Shichi took refuge in a temple after a fire broke out in her Edo (nowadays called Tokyo) neighborhood. There, she met handsome young Kichiza, who was working as a page at the temple, and she fell in love with him. Upon returning home, she set another fire hoping that it would give her the chance to meet him again. This made her so infamous that it is inauspicious for a girl to be born in the same year as her (the year of the Fire Horse, which comes every 60 years–the next one is 2026).

She’s been immortalized both as a villain and a tragic heroine, which is likely due in part to her trial. The law was such that criminals age 15 or under would not be put to death, so the judge tried to help her out by telling the crowd she was only 15. She didn’t catch on to this, though, and asserted that she was 16. The judge had no choice but to penalize her to–appropriately?–being burnt at the stake.

Most of the stories end there, however many romantic liberties they’ve taken. It is said, though, that Kichiza felt so troubled over this that he went on a pilgrimage all around Japan to pray for her soul. It was here at Mihonoseki that he died at age 70 on October 4, 1737.

There are also a handful of wooden statues of different Buddhas from the Heian era to be seen here the temple within Bukkoku-ji, Dainichi. Speaking of the Heian era, a couple of emperors who were exiled to the Oki Islands stayed in this Bukkoku-ji on their way off the mainland.

Rest in peace, Kichiza! And with any luck, O-Shichi is resting in peace now, too.

Later that day, the room would be filled with guests listening to the pouring rain and thunder while warming themselves with tea.

It’s just after 7am on a cool, clear November morning. I’m wearing a kimono and sweeping the wooden veranda of a temple up in the mountains. Ah, it hits me. Looks like I found the Japan I always daydreamed about.

It started with the view of the sunrise over Lake Shinji as we were gathering our tools up to the temple–usually I only see the sunset view!

This was my first time serving in a tea ceremony gathering, having only formally attended one for the first time in June. Over the course of 13 successive ceremonies throughout the day of 15 to 35 guests each, I was not preparing tea myself, but serving the tea and sweets to the guests. I was nervous at first, but it soon became automatic. This took place in the tea room overlooking the eastern gardens of Ichibata Yakushi, a temple in the mountains of Izumo between Lake Shinji and the Sea of the Japan. Established in 894, it is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, and has been attributed with miracles of healing throughout the centuries, especially in regard to eye-related health. This is the head temple of the Ichibata Yakushi Kyodan independent school of Buddhism, which has at least thirty other temples throughout Japan.

In my personal experience, I’ve noticed this temple has a very dedicated and faithful following, and they are very enthusiastic to educate foreign travelers about the temple. The head priest is proficient in English (or so I hear, since we were both too busy with other things to have any conversation), and at least based on my observation is concerned, it seems this temple is active in the Izumo Shinbutsu Pilgrimage. You’ll hear of many Buddhist pilgrimages in respective areas of Japan that may focus on a particular school of Buddhism, listing by number all the temples in that particular pilgrimage. Pilgrims are typically spotted wearing white outfits and prayer beads they collect from each temple and hiking with walking sticks. For most famous temples, common visitors will drive most of the way! Either way, it’s common to see a line of shops along the route with specialities to offer pilgrims and common visitors. At Ichibata Yakushi, it’s manju (filled sweet dumplings).

The Izumo Shimbutsu Pilgrimage, however, is somewhat unique in that it combines both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The Izumo area has historically leaned more towards Shintoism than Buddhism and segregated the two, whereas throughout most of the rest of Japan Buddhism has at times held more influence, or in practice there was little distinction between the two (they’ve been formally segregated since Japan started Westernizing). The basic idea behind this pilgrimage is that there is no reason different shrines and temples–different religions–should not bind together in prayer and holiness for the sake of world peace.

That said, each shrine or temple on the pilgrimage has its own unique history and dedication, and it’s own following of sorts. For instance, Mizuki Shigeru‘s Non-Non-Ba—the “religious granny” who taught him about the strange unseen world when he was a child–was an adherent to this temple. As such, there have been a couple recent additions to the statues of Buddhas around the temple.

A famous character from Mizuki Shigeru’s “GeGeGe no Kitaro”, known as Medama Oyaji. This is what remains of the title character’s father, and you see this eyeball in all kinds of creative places. I suppose it makes sense to have him at a temple known for eye health.

One of the many Ichibata Manju shops on the path up to the temple

Anyway, back to the tea ceremony! Or rather, a break I took from it in the afternoon when the crowds were thinning. Every year, Ichibata Yakushi–like a handful of other temples, including Gesshoji Temple in Matsue where tea-loving feudal lord Matsudaira Fumai is buried–performs a ritual to burn old chasen (the bamboo whisks used in the tea ceremony) and thank them for their service. I went out to watch and they were happy to let me take pictures, and happy to let people who had no idea what was going on to come and attend the brief ceremony. Everyone was handed a pray book to follow along with the chanting, and after buring the incense and offering thanks, everyone was invited to toss a few chasen in to be burned.

Yes, I can read it aloud, but no, I don’t have a deep understanding of it.

Head Priest Iizuka

Immediately after that, I returned as quickly as I could to help out in at least one more ceremony for the day, but as soon as I arrived I was whisked away to the hall by one of the teachers. Oh no, I thought, am I going to get lectured for taking such a long break while everyone else was working so hard? Instead, she led me into a tiny, dimly lit room where the people organizing the tea ceremonies events for the day were sitting in a more intimate space, using another set of tools that hadn’t been shared with the succesive guests, and eating some fluffy wagashi that had been brought from Nara. This teacher had wanted to share with me the quieter side of tea ceremony asthetics and engage in conversation with the tea master and me. They were many sentiments and I heard before and share, at however shallow a level of understanding I may have. This part of the conversation sticks out in my mind, though:

“It’s so nice that we get to use such old works of art like this.”
“Yes, it’s surprises me sometimes that these aren’t kept in museums to preserve them.”
“The chawan tea bowls you see in museums have gone to waste. They’re tools. If they aren’t being used, they’ve lost their purpose.”

For more Ichibata Yakushi blog pages in English with prettier pictures:
Connect Shimane: Ichibata Yakushi Temple
More Glimpes of Unfamiliar Japan: Ichibata Yakushi revisited

I’ll bet you read the title and thought this would be about Kiyomizu-dera of Kyoto. Surprise! There’s more than one temple of pure water–this one is about a couple hundred years older, and affiliated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism rather than the Kitahosso sect like the one in Kyoto. This one in the San’in region (of course), specifically Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, on the border of Tottori Prefecture.

Like a great number of old temples and towns across of Japan, over the course of its history it has gone through many fires and reconstructions. The temple itself is 1400 years old, but the oldest surviving building is its main hall, Konpondo, which was reconstructed in 1393 and renovated in 1992, both times funded by the faithful. After it was tied up in (or burned up in) the battles between the Mori and Amago clans in the warring states era, the Horio clan of Matsue saw to the reconstruction of many of the other buildings.

One of the major things that has earned this temple so many faithful followers is its reputation for yakubarai, or “expelling evil.” Like many other cultures around the world, Japanese culture has notions of supernatural luck and influences, and there are times you are more prone to bad influences than others. In particular, there are certain unlucky ages called yakudoshi when you are especially susceptible. Shrines and temples that specialize in this often have a large sign posted about what ages people need to watch out for.

“How is your destiny at 25 years old?”

Deeply religious people entering these years have the option of paying about ¥5000 (roughly $50 USD) to undergo a purification ritual. I’m not very familiar with these rituals, but I’ve seen some of them advertised as only taking about 15 minutes. I also don’t have any knowledge of how many people have these rituals performed. Others may simply be more cautious than usual during those ages.

While both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples offer yakubarai rituals and protective charms and talismans, they seem to differ on which years are lucky and which ones are not. The first time I saw one of these boards at a Shinto shrine, I was entering the unlucky part of my luck cycle (luck tends to build and then plummet and start over). A handful of years later, and now according to this temple, I am once again entering a bad luck period. Maybe I should time my visits so I only visit places that say I’m having good luck?

There are other reasons for visiting any given shrine or temple, though. Many have reputations as nature-viewing spots (Kiyomizu-dera is known for its cherry blossoms as well as its autumn leaves), and others provide a retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life. We went as just another part of enjoying a hot summer day.

Hot and humid those Japanese summers are, it’s cooler in the forests and up the mountains.

On the short hike up (or down) from the parking lots, there are a handful of inns where visitors stay during the heights of cherry blossom or maple leaf seasons, as well as restuarants providing Buddhist-style vegetarian cuisine.

Besides Konpondo, one of the other famous buildings in the treasure tower, a the 3-story pagoda–the only one of its kind in the San’in region. While many pagodas in Japan are just for viewing from the outside, this is one of the few you can climb up from the inside.

Leave your shoes outside, and climb on up! It was a narrow space and hard to say whether you climb stairs or ladders.

I thought it was fun, but it was even more fun to go with someone who was afraid of heights.

Around the center pillar and on each level, there were a number of little treasures.

I also really liked seeing the complex woodwork. Lacking the mind of an architect, I don’t understand how it works, but it looks neat.

And, of course, there was a stunning view. Can you spot the tip of Lake Nakaumi?

Being named after the pure water the mountain is known for, there are a number of uses for that pure water. Hence, the temple is also known for its youkan, a traditional confection described here in more detail.

We took home some gelato made with said youkan.

It was the kind of summer temple visit that was refreshing in more ways than one.

Cettia diphone, the Japanese Bush Warbler (or Japanese nightingale), known here as 鶯 uguisu).

While they are typically associated with the coming of spring and have many poetic names to that effect*, I first noticed these little birds while I was taking a winter walk around Matsue Castle and saw a few of them playing in the bare, snow-laden bushes. At the time, they weren’t making their signature “Hō-hoke-kyo” chirp**, but I did enjoy their twinkling voices. Cute as they were, they were a little too fast for me to take a picture of.

Now that it’s spring, however, I’ve been asked a few times: “Have you heard the uguisu yet? They sing hō-hoke-kyo.”

Yes, and I’ve seen them plenty, too!

Here’s what Lafcadio Hearn had to say about them in his essay, “In a Japanese Garden“:

Wild uguisu also frequently sweeten my summer with their song, and sometimes come very near the house, being attracted, apparently, by the chant of my caged pet. The uguisu is very common in this province. It haunts all the woods and the sacred groves in the neighborhood of the city, and I never made a journey in Izumo during the warm season without hearing its note from some shadowy place. But there are uguisu and uguisu. There are uguisu to be had for one or two yen, but the finely trained, cage-bred singer may command not less than a hundred.

It was at a little village temple that I first heard one curious belief about this delicate creature. In Japan, the coffin in which a corpse is borne to burial is totally unlike an Occidental coffin. It is a surprisingly small square box, wherein the dead is placed in a sitting posture. How any adult corpse can be put into so small a space may well be an enigma to foreigners. In cases of pronounced rigor mortis the work of getting the body into the coffin is difficult even for the professional dōshin-bozu. But the devout followers of Nichiren claim that after death their bodies will remain perfectly flexible; and the dead body of an uguisu, they affirm, likewise never stiffens, for this little bird is of their faith, and passes its life in singing praises unto the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law.**

With this in mind, I played the call of the uguisu to my friend’s parakeet. Now that got it chirping!

*Poetic names:
harudori or harutsugedori: “spring Bird” or “spring-announcing Bird”
hanamidori: “flower-viewing bird”
utayomidori or kyoyomidori: “poem-reading bird” or “sutra-reading bird”**
Might also be referred to as a sasako bird in poetry.

**Hō-hoke-kyo is an abbreviated name for the Lotus Sutra.

The Japanese approach to religion is sometimes a little more worldly than eternity-focused. That’s not to say there isn’t a deeper side of religious practice, as there certainly is a depth and variety of it, but practices like leaving beer as an offering for Buddha are completely normal.

Alcohol is a somewhat universal offering, is it not?

The requests you can make of a Buddha–in this case, the very merciful Jizo-sama–can be surprisingly shallow in light of other religious practices, but nonetheless very popular. There is plenty of scholarly research about Japanese perceptions of beauty and beautiful people which I don’t need to go into here, but suffice to say that people–especially young women–can and do go on beauty tours. One of the places they come to is Tamatsukuri Onsen, on the southeast bank of Lake Shinji.

Our local hot springs--highly recommended!

Shimane is known as the best prefecture in Japan for beautiful skin, but the Tamatsukuri hot springs in particular are known as the Baths of the Gods. Besides mythological records of the Izumo region like the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, we also have the 8th century encyclopedia of the Izumo region, the Izumo-no-Kuni-no-Fudoki (one of the most complete anthropological and geographical records of Japan for that time period), in which these hot springs were described as a place where the young and old alike would party in the baths that kept their skin looking young and pretty. Today it’s not just the locals, but vacationers staying at the ryokan (fancy inns) or just strolling through the area who take advantage of these waters and beauty products made from them.

That’s why signs like this on the outskirts of the ryokan area are only slightly surprising.

“There are lots of BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE around this area, so keep your eyes peeled!”

While the historic shinto shrine, charming shops, foot baths along the Tamayu River and the luxury hotels are probably the things that first come to mind when people think of this area, I thought I’d introduce Seigan-ji, a temple built around the year 1500 and known for its Oshiroi Jizo. It is the 33rd of the 33 Izumo Kannon pilgrimage spots.

More general pictures of Seigan-ji are here (Japanese page), but they don’t have pictures of how to make a very specific request of the Oshiroi Jizo-sama. You start by buying a little prayer tablet, either for your face or your body, on which you write how you’d like to change your body image on one side, and indicate the area on the picture on the other side. You then hang this board next to the Oshiroi Jizo.

After doing so, you apply some white powder to the spot on the Oshiroi Jizo-sama that corresponds to the spot you’d like to change.

The story goes that a high priest did this and the ugly birthmark on his cheek disappeared. People not only do this to remove shallow imperfections, but also for to heal ailments and injuries.

I didn’t do it because I was too flustered with people I knew watching, but as soon as I walked away I suddenly though of everything I would have asked for! Oh well, can’t push my luck. I went home with a little bottle of Tamatsukuri beauty water anyway.

There’s something wrong with this picture–you don’t rinse your hands above the fountain, but in a lower basin next to it so as not to contaminate the water!

I got my bottle for free–and the little old lady taking some for herself was very enthusiastic about the water’s effects.

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.

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

2. 須佐神社 Susa Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: safety for one’s family, prosperous business, traffic safety, other general intentions

3. 長浜神社 Nagahama Jinja
Izumo, Shimane
Special intentions: Good luck in meeting challenges

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

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

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

11. 神魂神社 Kamosu Jinja (This is where I went!)
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Getting rich, prosperous business

12. 佐太神社 Sada Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Guidance, good luck, traffic safety, safety on the seas

13. 美保神社 Miho Jinja
Matsue, Shimane
Special intentions: Safety on the seas, satisfactory fishing, prosperous business, flourishing crops, safe childbirth

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

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

Seeing as I’m out here in Shinto country, I’ll be taking part in this tradition–possibly moreso to see the crowds! I’ll report on the experience in a few days, but until then, I have some vacation days to enjoy.

In the meantime, here is a Kadomatsu (traditional New Years decoration) set out in front of Matsue Castle. Some Kami will come and live in those bamboo stalks for a few days to bring good luck–but not to worry, they’ll be released a little later in January when those decorations are burned.

Pine is traditionally associated with January, too.

This is a folk tale from Yoshiga Village, in southwestern Shimane Prefecture. It mentions a Jizo, which can be thought of as the patron Buddha of children (particularly deceased ones). Jizo statues are fairly recognizable, not just for his merciful face, but for the red scarf he wears. Jizo statues are found throughout Japan, and this is only the first of the Jizo stories I’ll be covering. Lafcadio Hearn, a famous author who lived in Matsue in the 1890’s, also wrote extensively about Jizo.

A long time ago, there was a boy whose mother had died. When he was about six years old, his father married another woman, and when his father was away, his step-mother would not let him eat any food. When he was out and about and saw others eating, he would sigh to himself about how tasty the food looked, and then he would return home and ask, “Mother, could I please have some food?”

“No, no, you can’t have any food right now, foolish child. Go out and play, and don’t say such silly things.”

And so he continued to go without food while his father was gone. Again and again he would ask, but to no avail, until one day his step-mother replied, “Fine, fine. If you want to eat so badly, take this riceball and feed it to the Jizo down there. If the Jizo eats it, then I’ll let you have some food. But if the Jizo doesn’t eat it, you can’t eat anything either.”

Overjoyed, the boy took the riceball and ran down to the Jizo. He cried, “Jizo-sama, Jizo-sama! I beg you, please eat this riceball. If you do, then I can eat something too! But… but if you don’t eat it, then I’ll never be able to eat while my father is away!” As he started to sob, the statue reached out a stone hand and took the riceball, with a crunch crunch he began to eat it.

The boy ran home and told his step-mother, “He ate it, Mother! He ate it! Jizo-sama ate the riceball, so I can have some food too!”

However, his step-mother replied, “Don’t say such stupid things! It’s impossible for a stone statue of a Jizo to eat a riceball! No matter what you say, I’m not giving you a thing!”

“I’m not lying!” he pleaded. “Come see for yourself! Get the old lady next door to come see, too! Quickly, while it’s still eating!”

Unable to calm him down while he was making such a fuss, they went along with him and say that the stone Jizo was still eating eating the riceball with a crunch, crunch, crunch.

The boy’s step-mother was shocked. “I’m such a horrible person!” she cried. “I never gave him any food, and told him to feed the stone Jizo even though I knew it was possible. Little did I think Jizo-sama would actually eat it! From now on, I’ll make sure to feed this child!”

From that time on, she always fed the boy, and she began to love him and treat him as her own child.

This is a famous Jizo in Matsue, “Oyukake Jizo.” It semi-literally translates to “the Jizo to pour hot water on.”