The coming of warmer weather meant that it was time to don the traditional garb, and set off on one of our biannual pilgrimages. As I have explained before, there is an 88 temple loop that makes its way through the four prefectures of my island. About 1,235 years ago, a Japanese born monk named Kukai founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism and eventually set out on this 1,200km circuit. The tradition and culture of the pilgrimage are still maintained today by about 100,000 people every year, though relatively few still complete it on foot. These events are hosted by the prefecture so that we may embrace a cultural opportunity unique to our region and also to aid in helping it become registered as a UNESCO World Heritage location. The time around, we would be visiting six temples in the Zentsuji City area.
The obligatory group shot
Because Kukai himself was born in Zentsuji, I had been really looking forward to this grouping of temples and refrained from making my own trip. I figured that it was only a matter of time before an official outing would be arranged. Beyond the cultural heightened significance of that temple in particular, these events have slowly evolved to encompass more than just pilgrimage-related stops by drawing in other noteworthy sites. These didn’t blow me away per se, but they did do a lot to help fill in the gaps of my appreciation and understanding of the region’s history and culture. Finally, in addition to all that, this was to be the first ever overnight event. We would be staying at the onsite lodging at Zentsuji Temple so that we could participate in the morning ceremonies and more fully grasp what is to be a pilgrim over the long haul.
On a bright and early Saturday morning, Hannah, Ben and myself drove over to the western side of the prefecture to met up with the rest of the crew. Once we threw on our traditional clothes, we kicked off the crusade by walking about 30 seconds to a bus. This was a very nice surprise for those of us still somewhat less than perky. We were shuttled over to a large white building which was introduced to us as the former meeting hall of the Army 11th Division. We did get to go inside and receive further information about how it had once served as a meeting hall for the Japanese Armed forces and the various ways that the city has reassigned its purpose over time. Beyond those simple facts, there wasn’t much else to do other than snap a picture of its 100 year old architecture.
From there it was back on the bus where we rode up to the top of a mountain. Besides the fantastic view out over the ocean and the city, we were able to Kofun Tombs of Japanese dignitaries from over a thousand years ago. This first one we saw was a large platform made of stones surrounded by pots. We had along with us one of the guys who excavated the remains to explain what significance the different aspects bore, and also to open the ‘Do Not Enter’ gate so that we could romp around on it. I guess that my takeaway was that I had no idea that Korean-style tombs like this had any place in Japanese history. Back to the bus.
View was more striking than the tombs
We wound our way back down the slender mountain roads to one more tomb with rather than being a large stone platform, this was a more typical earthen chamber dug into a mound. While not as visually stunning, inside we were able to get a glimpse at some ancient carvings made into the stones. Again, our trusty official was there to answer our questions and also open the otherwise locked doors; we were able to enjoy the actual carvings rather then the boring reproductions lying adjacent. After one more ride, we ditched the bus to embark on our adventure.
The first day of walking focused on the temples of Zentsuji City, starting with Zentsuji itself and then continuing on to Susshakaji, Mandaraji and Koyamaji. The latter three were fairly average as proven by my lack of photos, but were of course complimented by their fantastic architecture and beautiful settings. Zentsuji however was as fantastic as one would expect of such a significant node of the circuit. The temple grounds were sprawling, meticulously maintained and loaded with remarkable structures. Along the way, we made a pit-stop at the Flower and Garden Festival. Here we could see a number of different greenhouses selling their wares. We didn’t stick around long though, there was a lot of walking to do and flowers were certainly not the reason behind this outing.
The gorgeous blue sky did a lot for this shot.
After Koyamaji, we headed back to Zentsuji where we would be staying for the night. Once settled, we all stripped down to enjoy the baths before meeting for dinner. The dinner was a traditional Buddhist meal comprised of several small vegetarian dishes. I’d have to believe that it was immensely healthy, and though filling I fear that I would struggle to live off of it. In the short time after dinner and before curfew a few of us walked around and looked for a place to buy some drinks, but I was absolutely overtaken by exhaustion and went back to the room to pass out.
The next morning I awoke at 5am bright eyed and bushy tailed thanks to the 9 hours of sleep I managed. The first thing on the agenda was to head to the temple and receive the teachings of the head priest. We made our way into the main chamber and sat among the other pilgrims. At 6am sharp, the priests utilized some simple instruments and chanted while the head priest took his position at the front. He talked about a number of problems going on in the world, and how to approach them. I didn’t completely understand everything he said, but I do echo the thoughts of another guy here in saying that even a basic understand of what is being said strips away some of the mystique. Of course culturally it was fascinating, but in other ways it’s not so different from a Sunday morning sermon – bad jokes and all. After his speech, he and the other priests led in o-tsutome, which is the reading and chanting of sutras before the image of Buddha. The session ended with the reception of a blessing and a trip down below the temple. After navigating a dark and winding corridor by tracing the walls, we came upon a shrine marking the birthplace of Kukai; the holiest spot of the entire 88 temple loop. The dark corridor is also a metaphor for the path of Buddhist study, descent into darkness, learning by help of the Buddha (painted all along the walls), and then reemergence into the light of nirvana.
One more shot form Zentsuji. This 5 story pagoda is the third largest in Japan, and the most significant structure we came across.
After another Buddhist meal for breakfast, we readied our things and set off to hit two more temples before the outing drew to a close. The first stop we made however was to a local museum with a number of the relics unearthed at the tombs from the day before. The remainder of our morning brought us to Konzoji and Doryuji. One noteworthy piece at Konzoji was a strand of 112 enormous beads that when spun had the same forgiving power of as many prayers. After going to the alter, we each spun it for one or two beads worth before moving on.
This edition of the Henro expedition was certainly the most complete trip this far. More so than just going to some temples, we were really able to see the religion up close and learned a lot more about what it is to embark on such a religious journey.
Throughout the duration of the weekend, a film crew from Kagawa Tourism Bureau tagged along to document the event. As soon as I get that video, I’ll get that posted as well.