This post is part 2 of a three part series on Section 2 of Saitama’s portion of the Kanto Fureai Trail. Be sure to check out part 1 first.
The Significance of Mountain Passes
As I departed the Bamboo Temple, the wind began to pick up and the air chilled as the trail took me into the shadow of the hill. The trail ascended some distance and before long, I came to a fork in the path where I met an old man headed in the same direction as me but coming in from the opposite fork. We walked silently for quite a while, and then we struck up a conversation. We didn’t talk long, but I remember him telling me about his trip to Nagano with some colleagues to go skiing, about which he confided his worries about falling and getting hurt. “I’m not so young anymore,” he said with a laugh. He was about my dad’s age.
The cold air was starting to bother me a little, so I picked up the pace to increase my body heat, and I quickly left my companion behind. Before long, I arrived at Beanmouth Pass (Mame-kuchi Tôge, 豆口峠), where a path from the valley rose up and crossed the ridge, dropping back down the far side.
It really wasn’t much of an impressive place. In fact, it seemed hardly worthy of a name at all, located as it was on such a low ridge in this kind of an out of the way place. And yet it’s certain to say that people don’t name places if they don’t carry at least some importance, and yet the mountains of Japan are full of these seemingly inconsequential passes that still have names. Clearly there’s something noteworthy about them.
To understand why, first consider the fact that Japan is more than 90% mountainous. This means that to go just about anywhere in Japan, you have to cross a ridge. Now imagine yourself a few hundred years back, before there were tunnels running under the ranges for the major train lines and highways. In those days, if you wanted to visit the next village over, you had to cross over a pass to do it — that’s to say, the passes were really analogous to the highways of today. These days, if you want to go somewhere, you need to know the name of the road; in those days, you had to know the name of the pass. Therefore, of course, you had to name them.
Aside from this fact, the passes also served a rather interesting religious role as a place for conducting exorcisms. In the old days, whenever there was an outbreak of disease in a village, the villagers would gather together in a big group and dash up to the highest point of the pass beating bells and big drums in order to drive off the evil spirits that caused it. The fact that they chose this place to drive off the spirit is doubly symbolic. On the one side, being the highest point its also closest to the heavens toward which they’d presumably be wanting to send the spirit. On the other side, such places just happened to be the furthest point between two villages. Could this be to lessen the chances of unleashing the spirit upon their neighbors?
A Splitting of the Ways
Not so far from Beanmouth Pass and fairly close to next temple, we come to a split in the trail: one way goes steeply upwards to the left and the other continues ahead on level ground. This is a major fork in the Saitama section of the trail, where the path diverges east in one direction and west in the other, reconverging some tens of kilometers ahead in either direction and forming a large circle. Take care at this point: the path up the hill to the right is section 3 of the Saitama sections; be sure to keep to the level path to complete this section.
The Embodiment of the Rat
Just a few minutes beyond the split I arrived at the Ne-no-Gongen (子の権現), yet another of Musashi’s famous ancient temples. Unlike the Takedera, whose name was immediately obvious as meaning, “Bamboo Temple,” this one was fairly difficult to grasp at first reading, and I had in fact been puzzling over the meaning of the name since I first saw it posted on one of the trail signs that morning. The first confusing point was the initial character, which is typically read as ko and means “child,” but the signs had it glossed as ne. As it would turn out, when read as ne, the character refers to the Chinese zodiac sign of the rat. The second word, gongen, I also found, is a religious term referring to a class celestial being defined as embodiment of a Buddhist deity in the form of a Shinto god. Remember that syncretism thing I was talking about in the last post? Anyway, if you put it all together the name means “The Embodiment of the Rat.” It’s a peculiar name, isn’t it?
As you might have guessed, there’s a story behind the name: the temple’s founder was a man who history remembers by the name Saint of the Rat (Ne-no-Hijiri, 子の聖). Of course, this just leads us to another question: how did a saint get a name like that? One might be tempted to think that he had done something unusual with rats, like maybe a St. Patrick-esque exploit, but in fact the name refers to the date of his birth. In ancient Asia time was counted in cycles of twelve, with each one associated with a particular animal. I’m sure, for example, that you’re already at least vaguely familiar with the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac, each of which is associated with a particular year, but for most of Asian history these twelve animals were also used to count months, days, and even hours. Our very own Ne-no-Hijiri, according to the legends, was born on what was called a Round Day of the Rat — that is, he was born in the hour of the rat on the day of the rat in the month of the rat in a year of the rat.
Born in the land of Amano (天野, present day Wakayama Prefecture) in the year in the 9th year of the Reign of Emperor Tenchô (天長, 832 AD), legend has it that the Saint of the Rat was gifted from birth with sharp insight into the teachings of Buddha. He is said to have spent most of his life wandering Japan and to have first attained virtue (徳) on Mount Yudono (湯殿山) in northern Honshu. It was only at the ripe old age of 79 that he finally settled in one spot, that being the site of this temple in Musashi where he build a thatched roof hut and there venerated the 11-Faced Kannon in the 9th year of the reign of Emperor Engi (延喜, 911 AD). In his last words, he spoke of the many times he had injured his feet and legs while ascending mountains in his younger days, and so he promised his followers that those with foot injuries who pray to him earnestly would be cured. To this day, he is worshipped as a protector of feed and legs, and even now one can find offerings of shoes left to him in entryway of the main hall of the temple. It was his disciple Esho Shonin who first elevated the Saint of the Rat to the status of great manifestation (dai-gongen, 大権現) of a Buddhist deity, and from there arises the common name of the temple as the Manifestation of the Rat.
Points of Interest
For those who enjoy nice views, the highest point at the temple, accessed by ascending a flight of stairs behind the Main Hall (本堂) of the temple, provides a sweeping view of the Kanto Plain, from which you can view the Tokyo Skyline. On clear days in the winter, when the dry air cuts down on haze, you can even see the Tokyo Skytree (one of the tallest buildings in the world), and you can even see as far as Mt. Tsukuba, one of Japan’s most internally famous mountains, though it isn’t well known to foreigners. Though better views of the Kanto can be seen from Jimba Mountain or Hi-no-de Mountain, this one is still worth taking a look at if you’re passing through.
In addition, this temple is located along two pilgrimage routes. The first is the Musashi Kannon pilgrimage route, which I talked about briefly in the last post. The final stop on the route is at 313th Musashi Kannon Hall at the Bamboo Temple; here at the Ne-no-Gongen is located the 312th hall. The second route is that visiting the 108 Kanto Jizoson (地蔵尊), shrines that venerate the Buddhist divinity Kṣitigarbha, known as Jizô in Japan. In Japan, he is venerated as the guardian of children and is prayed to in particular regarding children who died before their parents.
The Two Pines
Ahead of the main gates of the temple you’ll be greeted by the twisted forms of two massive pine trees contorted in the prolonged throes of arboreal death: they are known as the two pines, or nihon-matsu (二本松). One of the trees still sports some green branches, but a view from the back shows a split trunk revealing a hollow inside; the second tree presents no green at all and is hardly more than a tall stump. Nonetheless, the former magnificence of these trees is still plainly evident from their massive girth. I couldn’t find exact numbers on their circumference, but they’re far larger than the umbrella pine at the Bamboo Temple. According to legend, these pines were planted from the cuttings of pine branches that were used in lieu of chopsticks at the time that the Saint of the Rat founded the temple. They’re believed to be about 1000 years old.
The Iron Sandals
Before I had learned that the patron saint of this temple was a guardian of feet, I found it rather peculiar that there were a pair of giant iron sandals (kurogane-no-waraji, 鉄のワラジ) displayed near the Main Hall. Weighing in at two tons and standing taller than the average person, they’re said to be the only such sculpture in the whole country. According to a pamphlet I picked up while there, they are meant to represent the custom of offering footwear when making a prayer.
The Head Monk’s Residence
Probably the first building that will catch your attention when entering the temple proper is a large, thatch-roofed wooden building. This is the Honbô (本坊), the residence of the head monk of the temple. With its massive roof thatched with pine bark and kanai grass, the historic structure is a major attraction of the temple today. Though not visible from the outside, the central supporting pillar of the building is also noteworthy: it’s made from a massive maple trunk with a circumference of 2 meters. I suspect that it would be pretty hard if not impossible to find a maple of that size today.
The Main Hall
Though beautifully constructed and apparently historic, this main hall, or Hondô (本堂) was built in the 58th year of the reign of Emperor Shôwa (1983). The original historic structure was unfortunately lost to a fire caused by a lightening strike in 1981. Luckily, through the donations of the temple’s parishioners, it was rebuilt in just under two years.
If art history is your thing, then a look inside the building at the left side of the altar will give you a sight of a real treasure: an wood-carved statue of the Buddhist deity Acala, called Fudô Myô-ô (The Immovable Shining King, 不動明王) in Japan, which dates to before the 12th century. Though I didn’t get a look at it myself, the signboard outside the temple says that it stands at 101.7 centimeters tall and is carved from a single block of wood. In this statue, Fudô is depicted with a round, boney face, long nose, and plump physique and is wearing a johaku sash hanging from his left shoulder across his torso, and a type of skirt called a mo. Apparently centuries of burning incense around it has turned it’s original wood grain almost entirely black.
The Statues of the Two Kings
As you pass through the main gate of the temple not far down the road from the Two Pines, you’ll see two gaudy orange and blue statues flanking the path. Constructed in Showa 11 (1936), these statues depict two of the four guardian Deva Kings of Buddhist tradition. One often finds a pair of similar statues housed within the gates of temples in Japan, but it’s uncommon for them to be situated in the open air as these two are.
More Photos from Around the Temple
The last leg of this section of trail takes us past yet another temple, but this one with a much more recent historical flair. Rather than looking back into the history of Japanese religion as we did with the Bamboo Temple and the Manifestation of the Rat, we’ll see one dedicated to the memory of the 1904-1908 Russo-Japanese War, the war that propelled what was then a backwoods island nation to the forefront of world consciousness as the first non-European empire in the modern era to best a Western one in combat.
Trail Name: The Path Visiting Musashi’s Historic Temples (Oku-Musashi no Kosatsu o Tazuneru Michi, 奥武蔵の古刹を訪ねる道)
Map: Click here
Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Natural Beauty: Low
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing)
Camping Locations:* Mamekuchi Pass (豆口峠)
Length (distance): 9.5 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Ne-no-Gongen Temple (子の権現), Asami Teahouse (浅見茶屋), Tôgô Park (東郷公園)
*Note that these are not officially designated camping locations but simply places that I judge would be nice to put down a tent. Camp at your own risk.
My Trail Stats:
Distance traveled: 110.3 km (6.1%)
Courses completed: 9/160 (5.6%)
Days Spent: 7
© Brian Heise 2018