2017 East Alps Trip II: Taiyôji

How does one reason themselves into hiking in a typhoon? Well, for me it wasn’t hard. I wanted to be on the trail bad, so I was prepared to do just about anything to make that happen. Fortunately or unfortunately, circumstances also made this easy. The typhoon was scheduled to hit on the southern shores of Kyushu (九州), the southernmost of the four main Islands of Japan, and would travel up the length of the archipelago until finally passing over the area where I would be hiking. Surely, I thought, with all of that time travelling over land the storm would be mostly dissipated and by the time it gets to me it’ll hardly be worth mentioning. This is the mental work I put in to get myself to ignore the fact that I clearly knew: the typhoon would hit, probably Monday afternoon.

Typhoon be damned! I left my Oshiage (押上) apartment, caught the Hanzomon Line (半蔵門線) and rode out to Ikebukuro (池袋), where I transferred to the Red Arrow Express bound for Chichibu. In high spirits (present in spite the look on my face in the picture below), I watched as the urban sprawl of Tokyo gradually faded into rice paddies and mountains.

Looking serious on the Red Arrow Express.

I stared out the window at the passing mountains and villages as each stop was heralded over the loudspeaker by a stiff, professional sounding female voice, first in Japanese and then in British accented English. As the train approached its final destination, I saw a mountain looming over the approaching town with half its face cut away exposing grey stone. It reminded me of the limestone quarries I saw back in the Ozarks when I was growing up, but on a much larger scale. As much of a fan as I am of the benefits that industrial progress has brought to us all, seeing such permanent mark left on the land as that always gives me a bad feeling in my stomach.

Waiting for the bus outside of Chichibu Station.

Stepping off the train, I made straight for the bus station and, after waiting a few minutes, caught the bus that would take me to the Taiyôji Entrance (太陽寺入口) of the park. In a way, one could view the speed with which I entered and departed the town as representative of my attitude towards this trip as a whole: I really didn’t care about anything except getting on the trail as fast as possible. This town, far from an attraction, was just something I had to pass through to get on the trail. I hadn’t even read anything about the it or its attractions until I started writing this post a few minutes ago, but I did find an article on Japan Visitor that gives some interesting details. Apparently its a town with quite a history. I should probably go back some day and visit some of the other sites, but I probably won’t.

A small mountain village on the way to the Taiyouji Entrance.

The bus to the Taiyôji Entrance winded slowly up narrow mountain roads for about an hour before I finally stepped off at my destination. I was on a quiet stretch of road with a mountain stream running along it. A bridge crossed the stream ahead, and a sign clearly indicated that this was the way to go to reach the Taiyôji. I set off.

After years of hiking around Japan and Korea, I’ve become accustomed to the difficulties one might face in actually finding the trailhead once getting off the bus. In this case, there was no obvious start of a trail, but I had learned from experience that often it could be quite a walk along a road before coming to it. Since I knew the trail had to pass through the temple, I decided to just follow the road knowing that even if I had to follow it all the way there, I would definitely find the trail once I arrived.

The heat and humidity was intense as I walked up the road. I’m not sure quite how long I walked, but according to my map it should have taken about an hour and forty-five minutes to reach a place called “Ô-hinata” (大日向, “The Great Sunny Place”). Eventually I did arrive there to find a small fishing hut, a noodle restaurant and, finally, the start of the trail. Knowing this would be my last chance at a hot meal for the next few days, I dropped into the noodle shop and ordered plate of cold udon. I know, I’m a genius.

The weather up to this point had been great: mostly overcast, but with occasional bursts of sunshine. While I was eating my udon, however, I noticed that small drops of water were beginning to appear on the glass roof above my dining platform. “It’s just a few drops,” I thought. “Nothing to worry about.” Well, by the time I left it was raining pretty good. I put on my poncho and resolutely set out.

I quickly found a problem with the poncho: although it was effectively keeping the rain off me, in the muggy summer heat I was quickly drenched in sweat on the inside. I briefly decided to just remove it and cool off in the rain, but I found that, despite the heat, the rain was actually quite chilly. Dressed as I was in gym shorts and a T-shirt, I decided to brave the sweat and put the poncho back on. Better hot and sweaty than a case of hypothermia. I trudged on, and before long I was drenched inside and out.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but it’s raining quite hard right now.

As I rounded a turn in the path, the rain gradually tapered off and a gateway came into view: it was the entrance to the Taiyôji, the Temple of the Broad Sun.


The Story of the Taiyôji

According to legend, in the ancient days of the gods this valley occupied deep and hidden place where tengu, or heavenly dogs (sort of long-nosed goblin-like creatures) lived. Isolated for long aeons, it was here that the Buddhist priest Bukkoku Kokushi (仏国国師) founded the Temple of the Broad Sun, or Taiyôji, in 1313 CE.

The story of Kokushi and the temple begins in the period of political unrest in Japan at the end of the Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代, 1185–1333) through the Nambokuchô Period (南北朝時代, “The Period of the Northern and Southern Courts,” 1336 – 1392). Born in Kyoto as the third son of the reigning emperor Go Saga (後嵯峨天皇, literally “The Later Heavenly King Rugged-Mountain”), Kokushi would join the priesthood at age sixteen, perhaps to escape factional fighting in capital. Seeking a place to practice asceticism, he traveled to the Eastern Provinces, today the area around Tokyo and the Kanto Plain. There he became a priest at Kenchôji Temple in Kamakura, one of the most famous and powerful Buddhist temples in Japan at the time.

After some time at the temple, he decided to leave the temple to seek a deeper form of enlightenment and after much hardship arrived in a valley that was said to be so remote that not even birds and beasts could enter it. It was in that valley, a place completely indifferent to the political struggles of the outside world, that Kokushi founded the Taiyôji. At least, that’s the story according to the temple’s own website, not exactly what one could call the most credible of historical sources.

Visiting the Taiyôji

I of course didn’t know any of this at the time, nor did I care. I was just happy that the rain had stopped, counting myself lucky that the typhoon had in fact turned out to be not so much trouble after all. I walked down the path as you saw in the picture above, and as I got closer I caught a glimpse of the two wooden statues flanking the entrance, a fairly typical greeting for a Japanese temple.

Passing through the gate I saw the Hondô (本堂) or Main Hall (pictured below) directly ahead, and also a collection of other buildings arrayed further up the mountainside. The temple had clearly seen better days. Despite its auspicious name, the buildings were looking somewhat worse for wear. The wood was faded and dully with age (not unusual for a Japanese temple), but much of it was also chipped and eaten away as well. Overall, it was a pretty drab and dreary place. Being as wet as I was, I wasn’t in much of a mood for pictures, so I didn’t take any other than panorama of the Hondô below, nor did a spend too much time exploring the complex. Though, as I found later, if you interested in getting more acquainted with this place, you can do a temple stay for about $90.

The Taiyôji Hondô.

The whole time I was there, I didn’t reflect much on the curious point that the rain, which was a dying typhoon mind you, mysteriously stopped upon approaching a temple whose namesake was the “Broad Sun.” Nor did I then consider the curious fact that the rain resumed once more, and worse than before, shortly after I left the temple. Even more ironic is the fact that later that night I would throw a live cricket into a fire and, in response to my companion’s surprised look, say, “What? I’m no Buddhist.” True story.

This post is part two of a multi-part series. Click the buttons below to view the rest of posts in this series.

© 2017 Brian Heise

2 thoughts on “2017 East Alps Trip II: Taiyôji

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