A River Where a Goddess Dwells

The Statue of Benzaiten in Agano

An Attraction on Fureai Trail Saitama Section 11

As one walks along the stream flowing through the middle of Agano Village at the beginning of Section 11, one will eventually catch sight of a large boulder atop which sits a small pine tree and a stone statue accompanied by several red flags bearing white characters. According to local legend, this stone is the residence of the goddess Benzaiten (弁財天), a deity that originated in India and has since entered the Japanese Buddhist-Shinto syncretic tradition.

The residence of Benzaiten in Agano, Japan

Benzaiten originated as a goddess of a holy river and was worshiped for making lands fertile and prosperous, but has since developed into a deity who governs all things that flow, including music, rhythm, and speech. They say the bridge near this rock is blessed by the goddess, and those who cross over it can feel her miraculous powers. If you are a musician or a writer, consider sending a prayer to Benzaiten as you pass.

© Brian Heise, 2018

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Fureai Saitama Intermission: The Legends and History of Hôdô-san Shrine (2 of 2)

The following post is Part 2 of my two part series about Hôdô-san Shrine in the town of Nagatoro, Japan. Be sure to check out Part 1 before reading on! And be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think.


The Sub-Shrines at Hôdô-san

It isn’t at all uncommon for Shinto shrines to be accompanied by one or more sub-shrines, or betsu-gû (別宮). In Hôdô-san’s case, there are three: Tenmanten Shrine, Hogyoku Inari Shrine, and Yamato Takeru Shrine. Each is dedicated to a different spirit, and each has its own legends, traditions, and holidays, which are explained below.


Tenmanten Shrine

Originally, this shrine was simply dedicated to the renowned Heian Period (794-1185) poet and statesman Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真). However, in later years another nearby shrine was combined with this one and so was renamed Tenmanten Shrine (天満天神社). Michizane, however, remained as the venerated spirit, and is today revered as a deity of calligraphy, scholarship, and agriculture.

The interior of Tenmanten Shrine

In the past the temple’s holy day was called Hatsutenjin (初天神) and was held every year on January 25th. On that day, the local children would make a visit to the shrine to present their first calligraphy of the year. Afterwards, they would gather together at a nearby house to spend the day having fun playing traditional Japanese games like karuta (歌留多) and sugoroku (双六) and eating delicious food.

These days, owing to modern work schedules, the holiday is now celebrated on the nearest Saturday to January 25th. These days, parents and children who are preparing for a test or for school admissions visit the temple to pray for success in these endeavors. For this reason the holiday is also called Kangaku-sai, or the “Encouraging Study Festival.” Those celebrating the holiday also leave small wooden ema (絵馬) plaques in front of the temple containing such messages as prayers for success in school or, as in the old days, the year’s first calligraphy.


Hôgyoku Inari Shrine (宝玉稲荷)

The Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is just one of the countless shrines across the country dedicated to fox god Inari, a god not of mischief as in the western tradition but of rice, tea, sake, and fertility. I suppose these things go together. This particular shrine was established on December 14 of the year Bunsei 5 (1822) when half of the spirit of Uka-no-Mitama (倉稻魂, the spirit of rice in storehouses), an associated deity to Inari, was enshrined here. I say half of because according to custom, that’s literally what is believed: a spirit cannot be simply worshiped in two places since the spirit is not considered to be omnipresent as in many Western traditions, and it has to be ritually divided in order to be worshiped in two different locations. The other half of Uka-no-Mitama’s spirit can be found at its original home at Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷社).

Foxes flank this shrine to the fox god

This shrine is revered by numerous people both within and without Nagatoro for it’s divine virtues, which are said to bring about bountiful harvests, prosperity in trade, and domestic security. It is also believed that if you visit the shrine at times when you’ve lost something, it will miraculously return to you.

The annual festival of Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is called Hatsuuma-sai (初午際), or the “First Horse Festival,” so named because it falls on the first day of the horse by the old lunar calendar. Additionally, there is a ritual held on the 25th each month called Otaki-age Matsuri (御炊上際), or “The Cook-up Festival.” This festival starts at 3 pm with prayers for wealth and happiness followed by offerings of red beans, rice, and holy sake left in the grottoes around the mountain so that the messenger of Uka-no-Mitama, the white fox Obyakko (御白狐), will come to work miracles.


The Shrine to Yamato Takeru no Mikoto

Longtime readers of this blog will have already heard something of the famous 8th century warrior and son of the 12th emperor of Japan Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, who led a great expedition to eastern Japan to subdue rebellious subjects. There are more than a few locations in this area that have legends about this man attached to them. Here at Hôdô-san, he holds a special place as the founder of this holy site.

The shrine to Yamato Takeru

According to legend, Yamato Takeru was enthralled with the beautiful shape and mystical atmosphere of this mountain, and so he decided to establish a shrine here (see the previous post for more information). Those who remembered Takeru’s compassion built this shrine, near the spring where he ritually purified himself before climbing the mountain.

The festival for Yamato Takeru is called the 88th Night, so named because it occurs on the 88th day following the first day of spring by the old lunar calendar, which is May 2nd by the current system. On this day believers reenact Takeru’s climb to the summit, carrying a ritual palanquin holding his spirit to the Inner Shrine at the top of Hôdô-san, where the festival is carried out and traditional Shinto dances and songs are performed. Another name for the festival is Tsutsuji Matsuri, or the Azalea Festival, because a prominent variety of azalea blooms at this time. In addition to marking the start of the farming season in the Chichibu area, it is also the official day when the mountain is ceremonially opened for the year, so the summit is lively with believers and hikers alike at this time.


Kagura: Entertaining the Gods

Among the several outbuildings at Hôdô-san Shrine lies one building that isn’t actually a sub-shrine per-se, but is rather a hall dedicated to a traditional form of Japanese theatrical performance known as Kagura (神楽), or the God’s Entertainment. This practice is rooted in the most ancient of Japanese mythology and originates from the following tale.

Long ago, the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照) hid herself in a cave to sulk after a dispute with her brother, thus casting the world into darkness. The goddess Ame-no-Uzu danced at the entrance of the cave in order to coax her out. The plan worked: Amaterasu was intrigued by her dance and came out to watch, and so light was restored to the world. From then on, the people of Japan commemorated this important event by repeating Ame-no-Uzu’s dance, which is now called Kagura (神楽), or “the gods’ entertainment.”

Though the Kagura tradition is carried out in some form all across Japan, the practice takes various shapes, from the formalized mikagura (御神楽) of official shrines to the folk versions known as Village Kagura, or satokagura (里神楽). In the Chichibu area, there are a total of six lineages of Kagura, one of which is still practiced today at Hôdô-san Shrine. The unique characteristic of this form of Kagura is the fact that there are individual dances dedicated to many gods that appear in the two great classics of Japanese mythology, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. In addition to simple dances, theatrical performances of famous stories from these two books also occur. Whether dance or theater, all of the performances are done silently save for a single Waka poem that appears in one of the stories, which is uttered aloud. In addition, a cauldron containing hot water used in a special purification ritual is hung outside of the Kagura Hall (pictured below).

The Kagura Hall

The variety of Kagura performed at Chichibu’s shrines dates back to the early 19th century, but these activities were suspended roughly half a century later during the political upheavals that led to the end of the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868). The formal practice resumed once more in the 1920s; prior to that the dances were performed by roaming Kagura troupes. One of those troupes was the Hinozawa Futobuto Society (日野沢太々協会) of Hinozawa village in nearby Minano Town (a few stops down on the Chichibu Line from Hôdô-san). At that time, the people of Nagatoro (then called Fujiyabuchi, 藤谷淵), lacking their own Kagura Troupe, went there to engage in the practice. However, in 1910 the Nagatoro’s own Fujiyabuchi Kagura Troupe was founded, and so the two troupes began to take turns giving Kagura performances at the local shrines.

In 1922 the Fujiyabuchi Troupe became the official Kagura performers for Hôdô-san Shrine and thus changed their name to Hôdô-san Shrine Kagura Troupe (Hôdô-san Jinja Kagura-dan, 寳登山神社神楽団). Since then, they have continued to preserve traditional performances and so in 1960 they were designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Nagatoro.

The major performances each year occur on January 1st, February 3rd or 4th (depending on the year), April 3rd, and May 4th.

What did you think about this post? Did you enjoy learning about the history and culture of this rural shrine? Let me know in the comments down below! And, if you want to make sure I can keep writing similar articles, consider leaving a tip in the tip jar! Be sure to stay tuned next week, as we move on down the Fureai Trail to see what lies on Section VIII: the Path Gazing Down on the Chichibu Basin!

© Brian Heise, 2018

Fureai Saitama Intermission: The Legends and History at Hôdô-san Shrine (1 of 2)

Out in the mountains northwest of Tokyo in a region known as Chichibu, Section VII of the Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail winds through the quaint riverside town of Nagatoro (長瀞). Given it’s rural location, one would hardly expect such a place to have much to recommend it, but in fact the area boasts one of the most beautiful and historic shrines that I’ve ever found in such a place: ancient Hôdô-san Shrine (寳登山神社), which according to legend has been operating in some capacity for nearly 2,000 years. Put together with the many other nearby attractions, this certainly makes Nagatoro a must-see destination for anyone looking for a day-trip out of Tokyo.

The entrance to Hodo-san Shrine

The Founding Legend

According to legend, Hôdô-san was established more than 1,900 years ago by the imperial prince Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (日本武尊), a child of the 12th emperor of Japan. Takeru arrived in the Chichibu area while on a military expedition to subjugate the locals, who had not yet bowed to his father’s rule. Upon reaching present-day Nagatoro, his heart was taken by the mysterious atmosphere and beautiful shape a mountain on the west side of the river, so he ritually purified himself in springwater and attempted to climb to the top. Not long after setting out, however, a wildfire suddenly broke out on the mountain and in no time he was surrounded by flames. Takeru and company fought the flames and it seemed like they might not survive, but then a group of large wolves appeared who helped him quell the rampant flames. After that, they accompanied him to the summit, but disappeared once he arrived there. Takeru considered these animals to have been the divine messengers of the wolf god Ôkuchima-kami (大口真神).

After the event, Takeru decided to call the mountain Hôdô-san (火止山), meaning “fire quelling mountain.” Looking out at the magnificent view of the mountains of Chichibu, he deemed it a place befitting the worship of the gods, so he established three shrines on the summit: one to the spirit of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan; one to Ôyamatsumi-no-Mikoto (大山祇命), the spirit who made the mountains; and one to Homusubi-no-Kami (火産霊神), the spirit of fire. In later years, the place became a prosperous holy site, and so an inner shrine (okumiya, 奥宮) at the summit and the main shrine (honden, 本殿) at the foot of the mountain were established to venerate Takeru’s spirit.

The view from the top of Hodo Mountain

In the early 9th century, a mystical orb was seen soaring over the mountaintop, which was taken as an auspicious sign from the gods. Consequently, the shrine and mountain were renamed Hôdô-san (寳登山), which possessed a similar pronunciation to the original but was written with the characters meaning Jewel-Ascending Mountain. From then to this day, the shrine has been an important place of worship.

Ascending to the Inner Shrine at the summit

The Inner Shrine at Hodo-san Shrine

Shops near the Inner Shrine

Hôdô-san Today

Today Hôdô-san Shrine can be found at the end of a long, wide thoroughfare marked by a large white torii gate that runs straight from Nagatoro Station to the foot of the foot of the mountain. The distance is easily walk-able, but taxis and buses are also available to suit the elderly and those with small children.

The main shrine complex features a main hall surrounded by a series of minor shrines dedicated to various gods and spirits and is located at the foot of the mountain. An inner shrine can be found at the summit and is accessible by either on foot or by cable car.

The Main Hall

Easily the most recognizable building at the Hôdô-san, the Main Hall is located at the top of a steep flight of stone steps at the end of the main approach, or omote-sando (表参道). In contrast to the typical Shinto Shrines found in the area, which tend to be either unpainted wood or painted plain red, this one is covered in a variety of bright colors and designs reminiscent of more famous shrines like the Toshogu in Nikko.

The Main Hall

The point that really sets this building apart from other shrines in Japan, however, are the scenes carved on its exterior. Each of these are drawn from classics of Chinese literature, namely four from The 24 Filial Exemplars (13th century) by the scholar Guo Jujing and a fifth from the Record of the Three Kingdoms (4th century) by Chen Shou. Their presence here at a holy place for Japan’s native religion shows the strong effect that Chinese culture had on Japan over the centuries, and the deep respect afforded to its wisdom.

The Main Hall up close

The Filial Exemplars

The 24 Filial Exemplars is a collection of parables intended to illustrate the proper application of the Confucian moral principal of filial piety, or loyalty to one’s parents. Although in the West we tend to learn of Confucius and his teachings as a distinct system of thought, these principles were in fact widely accepted as a basic philosophy of life all across Asia and were thus followed in tandem with the teachings of other religions, hence their appearance here at a Shinto shrine. The four scenes depicted here can be found high on left wall towards the front of the main hall, above the sliding wooden windows and below the eaves. Each scene progresses from right to left in the order that they are presented below.

He Fed His Parents with Doe’s Milk
Enshi’s (郯子) parents were losing their eyesight, so for their sake tried to obtain doe’s milk for medicine. He therefore donned the skin of a deer approached the herd, but a hunter mistakenly shot him. Nonetheless, Enshi obtained the milk and thus fulfilled his filial duty.

He fed his parents with doe’s milk

He Carried Rice for His Parents
Shiro (子路), one of Confucius’ 10 disciples, lived a life of poverty, but though he himself ate meager meals, he spent his daily earnings on rice which he delivered to his parents without begrudging the long road. Thus, he fulfilled his filial duty. Confucius greatly lamented Shiro’s passing.

He Fought a Tiger to Save His Father
Yôkô (陽香) and his father were working in the mountains when a tiger appeared before them. In an attempt to sacrifice himself for his father, Yôkô leaped out in front of the tiger though might have eaten him at any moment. Even the tiger could sense the depth of his filial devotion in risking one’s life for his parent, and so both father and son were saved.

He fought a tiger to save his father

He Cried and Bamboo Sprouted
Môsô’s (孟宗) mother was deathly ill during a brutally cold winter, but she desired to eat bamboo shoots in spite of their being out of season. In order to grant her request, Môsô went out into the cold bamboo forest to look for shoots even though he knew he could not possibly find one. However even the heavens were moved by this display of filial devotion, and so the gods made shoots grow up through the snow.

Interestingly, the story as presented at the shrine differs from the original telling. In that story, Môsô was told by a physician that his sick mother needed a soup made of bamboo shoots to be healed, but since it was winter and they were unavailable he simply went to the forest and cried. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise and, going to the source, he found bamboo shoots growing.

The Record of the Three Kingdoms

The Record of the Three Kingdoms might be the most famous work of early Chinese scholarship and chronicles the history of the country from the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE) through the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280), from whence the book derives its name. The work was so monumental that it became widely read throughout east Asia, including in Korea and Japan, hence why a depiction from the book can be found on Hôdô-san’s Main Shrine. The carving here is of General Zhao Yun (趙雲) at the Battle of Changban Dike (長坂坡の戦い) in 208 CE.

Zhao Yun is counted among the many beloved characters of the book along with his beloved horse White Dragon (白龍) and his spear Yajiao (涯角). At the Battle of Changban Dike, which preceded the even more famous Battle of Red Cliff (the subject of Jon Woo’s movie), Zhao Yun was tasked with defending Liu Shan (阿斗), the son of his leader Liu Bei (劉備). Zhao Yun fought hard to protect the boy, who would later go on to rule the kingdom of Shu. For this reason, he was often called “The Pillar of Shu” (蜀の柱石).

This post started getting a little long, so the second half will appear next week. If you enjoyed reading about this shrine, be sure to like and comment below! And, of course, click subscribe on the bar on the right to make sure you get to see next week’s post.

© Brian Heise, 2018


Fureai Saitama IV: The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures

An Unfolding Leaf

The changing of the seasons was something I hardly noticed when I was younger. It just seemed as though we’d jump from grey winter to green summer and back with hardly a beat, and there didn’t seem to be that much to notice anyway. I mean, sure, there were the flowers in spring and the fall colors too, and I did enjoy them, but they were just a blip on my radar, gone again and not to be thought about again until the next year, and then only because they were there right in front of my face.

And why should I have noticed? Why should I have paid attention? I was busy. I had a social life, friends, part-time job, and of course school. If I wasn’t at school with my nose buried in books, or bustling around the yard at Doc and Cindy’s old house keeping their estate in order, or sneaking off to some weekend party down by the river, I was sitting inside with my nose buried in a book or my eyes glued to the TV screen. I don’t think I ever lingered in one place long enough to truly appreciate the process that was unfolding before my eyes.

Fast forward to my first year after graduating from college. Then I was teaching English at a high school in South Korea, where every morning I found myself sitting at the same bus stop for about fifteen minutes every day for an entire year. Not having much to do then, I would just look around absently while my mind wandered. That is, until one morning in early spring when I noticed without any intention the very first sliver of green on a bush nearby: the very first leaf of spring. I was quite struck by the fact that I had never once in my life prior to that noticed that singular moment.

These days I wait eagerly for that first sign of foliage, and week by week as I walk along the Kanto Fureai Trail, I often looked at the tips of the branches searching for that speck of emerald, waiting for that superior green landscape that far outstrips the colorless winter slopes. On the day that I hiked section 4 in Saitama, I had the chance to experience this in a whole new way. You see, down in the valley, spring was already in full swing, with flowers blooming everywhere and leaves nearly reaching full mast, but on the ridgeline not a single leaf had even started to grow. On my way up the slope, then, I had the chance to watch Spring happen in reverse as the leaves slowly folded and shrank the higher I went until eventually there weren’t any left at all.

The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures

Up to this point, the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama has been winding through the ancient state of Musashi (武蔵), present day Hanno City (飯能市) on a more or less northward trajectory towards Chichibu (秩父), who longtime readers might recognize as the starting point of my summer trip from last year. Here on Section 4, the Path Where the History of the Passes Endures, the trail finally crosses over the border into Chichibu after a trek along a ridgeline filled with old passes that once served as the highways for pre-industrial Japan. The number totals seven in all, bearing such names as Perfect Circle (Shômaru, 正丸), Former Perfect Circle (Kyû-Shômaru, 旧正丸), Kokuzo (虚空蔵), Shearing-point Hill (Kariba-zaka, 刈場坂), Greatfield (Ôno, 大野), Highgrass (Takashino, 高篠), and Whitestone (Shiro-ishi, 白石).

A roadside teahouse; the owner is a sweet old lady, so drop in and spend some money if you pass by.

Personally, I found the walk to be a relatively easy, leisurely trot through the woods, but it has to deficiencies. First, much of the path follows directly on or very near paved mountain roads, making the sound of passing cars and cyclists pretty constant. Secondly, outside of Circle Mountain (Maru-yama, 丸山), there really isn’t much by way of sweeping views either. But, if you’re looking for a relaxing walk that doesn’t require too much effort, this section is definitely worth taking up.


Encircled by mountains as it is, the Chichibu area is typically thought of as being cut-off from the surrounding areas, but in reality Chichibu has always been closely connected to the outside world by a great many mountain roads. The number of passes connecting Ogose Town (越生町) with the Musashi Plateau is particularly great, suggesting that long ago Ogose was central to the economy of the area. Old milestones can still be found along these routes today, and the carvings etched into them that reveal something of those old times. For example, the markers along Highgrass Pass (Takashino Tôge, 高篠峠) indicate that the road was also used as a pilgrimage route. Accordingly, we can say that the road, which was constructed for economic purposes, also enhanced cultural exchange.

Worn by centuries of traffic, a deep trough has been worn in this mountain pass.

One might surmise travelling over the mountains is harder, and building a road over them is harder still; this being the case, one might also wonder why more of the old roads didn’t follow the rivers instead. Aside from the fact that crossing the mountains is far more direct, it may also be the case that these mountain routes were preferred because they didn’t get washed away in floods as easily as those following rivers.

Geography and Geology

Circle Mountain

Standing at 960.3 meters above sea level, Circle Mountain, or Maruyama (丸山), is easily the tallest point on the trail and, as it turns out, the tallest point in the whole Musashi Plateau. Located just beyond the halfway point on the route, this mountain has a clear grassy patch right at the summit where paragliders like to take off; on the day I passed through I just happened to see one take off right in front of me. The lack of trees here provides quite a nice view of the valley below and Kanto Plain beyond.

A paraglider recently departed from the summit of Maruyama

In Japan, it’s fairly common for mountains to bear multiple names, and Maruyama is no different. One other name it bears is Highgrass Mountain (Takashino-yama, 高篠), though this name refers not just to the peak known as Circle Mountain but to all the mountains over 900 meters high in the nearby area as well. Another name it bears is Great Circle Mountain (Ômaru-yama, 大丸山), a name used to help distinguish it from Perfect Circle (Shômaru).

The view from Circle Mountain

Paleozoic Fossils

Those who read the last post will remember that the Peak of Izu and others in this region are made from chert, an ancient sedimentary rock formed from the remains of prehistoric organisms from the Paleozoic Era. The representative fossil found in this layer of rock, known to geologists as the Chichibu Paleozoic Stratum, is that of organisms from the Fusulinida order, called bôsuichû (紡錘虫) in Japanese. Typically ranging from the size of a grain of rice to a black bean, these protozoa once made calcium shells shaped like miniature footballs, which fused together to form limestone rock. If you look carefully, you can probably find some. I’m no geologist, but I think maybe the picture below might show some.

Possible fusilinda fossils


The Jizô of Safe Childbirth

Not long after departing Shômaru Station, you will see a small red-roofed shrine building on the side of the road. Not attached directly to a larger complex, it hardly looks important at all, but it actually houses a rather famous statue of a bodhisattva, the Jizô of Safe Childbirth (Anzan Jizo-son, 安産地蔵尊). Many such images located at larger temples are difficult to view as they are only put on display for a limited time every year, this one appears to be easily visible right through the front door anytime.

The shrine Housing the Jizo of Safe Childbirth.

Originally the principal object of worship at the former Wealth-Spring Temple (Kyû-Hôsenji, 宝泉寺) located in valley below, this small Buddhist image contains a tainaibutsu (胎内仏), a smaller statue housed within a larger statue. It came to be housed in it’s current location after the promulgation of the Kami and Buddha Separation order in 1868, which was intended to extricate the heavily entwined foreign Buddhist religion from the native Shinto faith. Legend has it that, when the authorities came to remove the statue to the neighboring Righteous Treasury Temple (Shôzôin, 正蔵院), it miraculously increased its weight, becoming unmovable. After that, it was decided to move it to this small Kannon Hall that venerates the Kannon of Child-rearing. I guess the gods approved, because here it stands today.

Even before this miraculous event, the statue had earned a number of devotees due to its miraculous ability to prevent miscarriages. According to tradition, when a woman found that she was pregnant, she would come and take a sash from in front of the statue (see the picture below), tie it around her midriff, and wear it until the date of the birth. They say that women in the valley don’t ever miscarry because of this practice.

The interior of the Kannon Hall housing the Jizo of Safe Childbirth statue

Each year on April 24th a festival for childbirth and child-rearing is held at the shrine. Be sure to stop in if you’re hiking through.


Another holiday to look forward to in this area is O-sarukô, a Shinto celebration that takes place every year on the first Day of the Monkey in February by the lunar calendar. Roughly translated as “Monkey Mass,” this festival is for venerating the gods of the mountains, who are said to protect the hills and forests as well as the men who work there.

Though perhaps not as widely celebrated as it once was, here in the mountain western part of Saitama Prefecture, it is still particularly well observed. If you want to participate, you could drop into one of the major shrine complexes in the area, but for a more a closer connection to the soil, hike the trail in search of roadside shrines or large old trees and boulders, which represent mountain spirits.

A collection of hokora, small roadside Shinto shrines

Given that this holiday is not part of a centrally organized religion, the exact target of worship varies from place to place, and could venerate anything from major deities such as Ôyama-Tsumi-no-Kami (The God Who Piled up the Great Mountains, 大山祇神) and Ki-no-Hana-Saku-Ya-Hime (The Princess of Blooming Tree Flowers, 木花咲耶姫) to more generic spirits such as saruta-hiko (monkey-boys, 猿田彦), tengu (goblins, 天狗), and even actual monkeys.


The celebration itself is a rather simple affair: all you need to do is wrap a shime (注連), a special rope used in Shinto for consecrating a pace, around a big old rock or tree to pay your respects to its spirit. As Shinto is not an organized religion but rather a loose collection of religious practices, anyone can do this. If you’ve got a particularly noteworthy old tree or rock in your neighborhood, why not put up a shime and pay your respects?


Flora and Fauna


Yama-buki (山吹), or Kerria in English, is a deciduous shrub that grows wild in wet places along valley streams in the mountains of Japan and produces bright yellow flowers. It’s name means “mountain-breeze,” which is believed to derive from the fact that it’s slender branches wave easily when the wind blows even slightly. The outer surface of it’s egg-shaped leaves is a brilliant green with concave veins branching out forming channels. These are useful for easily shedding water during the plentiful spring rains, maximizing the efficiency of the leave’s photosynthesis.


Eizan Violets (叡山菫)

A perennial flower that grows wild in forests and groves, the Eizan Violet has leaves that grow not from the stalk above ground but directly from the root underground. The leaves are “hairless” on both sides and in the flowering season they divide into three sections. Around April, the flower stem grows up among the leaves and sprouts somewhat large horizontal-facing scented flowers of pale purple or white color with faint purple streaks on the petals.

By 柑橘類 (talk) – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7081656

The name Eizan Violet comes from the famous center of Buddhist worship on Mount Hiei. The mountain’s full name in Japanese is Hi-ei-zan (比叡山). Dropping the first syllable yields Eizan, the name of the flower. Though I’ve never been, I suppose this flower must be common there. They are also sometimes called Ezo Violets (蝦夷菫), Ezo being the old name of Hokkaido before it was formally incorporated into the Japanese empire. Perhaps these are also commonly found there.

The Tanuki

Possibly the cutest of animals native to Japan, the tanuki is known commonly in English as the Japanese raccoon dog, which can be found just about anywhere in Japan including the mountains of western Saitama. As the name suggests, this member of the canidae family appears to be somewhat of a cross between a dog and a raccoon. And, like raccoons back in the US, you can find them just about anywhere in Japan, from remote mountains to relatively urban areas. In the more than two cumulative years that I’ve lived in Japan, however, I’ve only seen one. That was in the farmlands of northern Kyushu.

By 663highland – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1162806

In Japanese, there is an expression called “Tanuki Sleep” or tanuki nehairi (狸寝入り), which refers to a feigned sleep. This comes from the fact that, apparently, if you surprise a tanuki, they have a tendency to faint.

Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures
Click here
Start: Shomaru Stationon the Seibu Chichibu Line (西武秩父線正丸駅)
End: Shiroishi Garage Bus Stop (Shiroishi Shako Basu-tei, 白石車庫バス停)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Low
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing)
Camping Locations:* Between Kokuzo (虚空蔵) and Shearing-point Hill (Kariba-zaka, 刈場坂)
Length (distance): 15.6 km
Length (time): 4 hours and 50 minutes
Food access: A small refreshment stand not far up the road from Shômaru Station; a restaurant and gift shop in Shômaru Pass

*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: 140.4 km (7.8%)
Courses completed: 11/160 (6.9%)
Days Spent: 9

© Brian Heise 2018

Fureai Trail Saitama Section II: The Path Visiting Inner-Musashi’s Famous Temples (Bonus)

In the last post I wrote that I was finally finished with my series on The Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Famous Temples, but I was wrong. Sure, I was well aware of the fact that there was one more old temple at the end of the trail next to Agano Station, but I had thought I only had a single paragraph’s worth of information to write about it so I planned to just tack it on to the beginning of the post on Section III of the Saitama’s Fureai Trail. However, when I sat down to write it, the one paragraph turned into two, then three, then before I knew it I had a whole post’s worth of material, so I’m presenting that to you here today. Read on to learn about the fourth temple on the path: The Law and Light Temple.

The gateway to the Law and Light Temple


Background and General Info

Founded in the 3rd year of the reign of Emperor Shitoku (至徳三年, 1386 CE), the Law and Light Temple or Hôkôji in Japanese (法光寺) is affiliated with the Sôtô Sect (曹洞宗) of Zen Buddhism, the most popular form of Zen in Japan today with around 14,000 temples. At the Law and Light Temple, the principal deity of worship is the Life-Extending Earth-Womb Bodhisattva (Enmei Jizô Bosatu, 延命地蔵菩薩), the patron deity of children in the Japanese pantheon (see part 2 in this series for more information about Jizô).

The teachings of Japan’s Sôtô Zen have their roots in the teachings of the great Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma, who brought the earliest form of Zen to East Asia in the 5th or 6th century. Zen then flowered into a major branch of Buddhism in China, spawning multiple new interpretations. One of these made its way to Japan when, in the 13th century, a student of the faith named Dôgen (道元) returned to the archipelago after years of study on the mainland, adding his own ideas and thus initiating the Sôtô Sect, though it would be Master Keizan (瑩山) who spread the religion far and wide across the archipelago.

A signboard at the temple announced the creed of the Sôtô Sect is as follows. All mankind are children of Buddha, so we are all imbued with his essence at birth. However, if we are ignorant of this fact, we sow the seeds of pain and hardship. But, as long as we just once repent to Buddha and become a true believer, our hearts will calm, our lives will fall into order and brighten, we will gladly contribute to the betterment of our society, and we will be able to endure any hardship. We can find our personal happiness and our reason for existing through this practice.

Personally, I find this creed’s resemblance to Christianity rather striking. Though there does seem to be an absence of the concept of original sin, the idea that one need only repent once and become a true believer to receive the benefits of the faith certainly does warrant comparison. It could be a coincidence, but I have to wonder whether or not word of Christian teachings had reached Asia by this time. It certainly isn’t implausible as the Japanese Soto Sect was founded more than 1000 years after that of Christianity.


Festivals and Pilgrimages

If you’re going to make a trip to the Law and Light Temple, be sure to keep in mind the principal yearly events held there. First, there is the Kanon Festival’s Great Perfection of Wisdom Prayer Gathering (観音祭大般若祈祷会). This gathering centers around the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, one of the principal religious texts of this temple.

The other event to look out for is held twice each year — on the second Sunday in July and on August 10 is the Great Sejiki-e (大施食会), a memorial service for the spirits of those who have fallen into the Gaki Realm (餓鬼道), or the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. This realm is one of six in the world of Buddhist teaching, each representing a different level of reincarnation depending upon one’s virtue from one’s previous life. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts is second from the bottom, placing it just above Hell (Jigoku-dô, 地獄) and just below the Beast Realm (Chikushô-dô, 畜生道). As you can guess from the above, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts isn’t exactly the most pleasant place to be. In a nutshell, its inhabitants are trapped in a state of permanent starvation, but without dying. If you drop in on one of the two dates, maybe you can send some prayers for these unhappy souls.

As for pilgrimages, this temple falls along the 313 Musashino Kannon Pilgrimage route and the 108 Kanto Jizô Pilgrimage, which I describe in greater detail parts one and two of this series. This temple is #311 and #11 on the two routes, respectively.

A statue of Kannon


Ancient Treasures

If religion in and of itself isn’t your thing, at least be sure to get a view of the ancient treasures of the temple: the wood-carved Jizo Bodhisattva and the “Stone-Palace” Kannon Grotto (Iwadono Kanon Iwaya, 岩殿観音窟), both dating to the 14th century CE. I unfortunately didn’t get to see either one as I passed through at the end of a days hike and was a bit too tired and lazy to poke around and figure out what was there. Don’t make my mistake!

Noted as one of Saitama’s tangible cultural properties, the Seated Wood-carved Image of the Bodhisattva Jizô is the main object of worship at the temple. Produced by the Takuma School of artists in 1386 AD, the piece stands at a height of about 40.5 cm and was made using the yosegi-zukuri technique in which the statue is carved from several separate pieces of wood and later assembled. This particular statue also exhibits the hôe-suika (法衣垂下) or “hanging-robes” style, in which the hems of the figure’s robes hang down low below it’s pedestal, appearing somewhat like bird’s wings, suggesting influence from China’s Song Dynasty. The statue is currently housed in the Main Hall of the temple.

The Kanon Grotto, located about a half a kilometer up the mountain next to the temple, is a natural limestone cave transformed into a place of worship. Finding the place might be a bit of a trick since there aren’t any signs in English, but if you follow the path under the train tracks and up towards the large graveyard, then you might just accidentally get on the right way. If you see a red structure built right up against a cliff face, then you’ve found it. Housed within are several relics of the fourteenth century, including a depiction of Fudô Myô-ô carved into the cliff face.

The graveyard connected to the temple


Trail Info

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)
Click here
  Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Difficulty: Easy
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

Fureai Saitama II Part 3 of 3: Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine

This post is part 3 in a 3-part series on the shrines and temples on the second section of the Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. Be sure to check out the first and second posts in this series as well!


Down from the Ne-no-Gongen

After the Ne-no-Gongen temple, the path turns downward on a steady descent to the valley floor and Agano Station, the end of the Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Historic Temples. Shortly past the parking lot for the temple, the trail drops of the pavement and passes through a pine forest, but afterwards meets with a narrow road and from then on the dirt path turns to pavement for the rest of the way. The serious hiker may be disappointed by this, but I encourage such people to take the time and absorb the environment of rural Japanese life. Once you learn to appreciate that, the appeal of the paved sections improves.

As you travel down the road, keep your eyes open for Asami Teahouse (Asami Chaya, 浅見茶屋) on the right. It’s a large, traditional-style old wooden building with a real country-time feel to it. The place has a reputation as an excellent place to rest and eat (and maybe have some sake or a beer) at the end of a day’s hike. Unfortunately, the place was closed for the day when I passed through, so I can’t offer my own review, but definitely stop in for yourself if you get the chance and leave a comment below.

Hikers taking a break at Asami Teahouse

If you do happen to pass by on an off-day for the teahouse, all is not lost for refreshment. Just continue onwards until you hit the valley floor and you’ll arrive at Tôgô Park (東郷公園), where you’ll find a couple options, though none with quite the flair that the teahouse has. I ended up getting some curry and a coffee at one of these places. I can’t remember the name, but it was right by the road and had a nice atmosphere, though the refreshments were fairly average.

An old, rough cut stone lantern, probably a few hundred years old at least.

The real point of interest near Tôgô Park, though, is not the restaurants but the nearby Ondake Shrine, a large-scale religious complex covering the side of a mountain with its sanctuary at the summit. Most noteworthy about the shrine is it’s numerous memorials to one Marshal Tôgô, the most famous admiral of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Though not particularly well remembered today, at the time this war was significant on both a regional and world level, in the former because it settled the question of which country would dominate the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century and in the latter because it was the first time that a non-European nation had bested a European one in the modern era, forcing the world to take note of the Japan’s growing power and authority.

Such places occupy a complicated space in contemporary Japanese culture. As a memorial to successful war for domination over part of the Asian mainland, this place without question calls to mind the country’s ignominious imperial past, one that many Japanese would like to forget but which their continental counterparts tend to be unwilling to allow. At the same time, just as there is still a fair amount of nostalgia for the antebellum days of the American south, yearnings for the Empire of the Rising Sun to this day attract a certain disgruntled subsection of the population. I’m left to wonder how the locals feel about the shrine though, as the place was completely deserted both times I visited it, so I couldn’t ask anyone.


The Attractions at Ondake Shrine

Enter Ondake Shrine through the massive stone torii gate, passing by the newly constructed Village Shrine (sato-miya, 里宮) with it’s shining roof of freshly minted brass shingles. According to the accompanying sign, the 80-year-old original shrine had aged to a state where it was becoming difficult to perform religious rites, so it was rebuilt thanks to the donations of the congregation.

Not long after passing the shrine, the road leads into the forest. On the right is a statue of a robed samurai, though I’m not sure who the person was. Beyond that, we reach the base of the mountain and the first flight of stairs rising steeply upwards. These continue one after the other all the way to the top. Though it isn’t so high, it’s a rather strenuous climb.

Statue of a samurai

Naval Munitions

Shortly, we reach the first of the memorials of the Russo-Japanese War: two examples of ordinance utilized in the conflict, each sitting atop high stone pedestals. One is a specimen of the principal shell in the arsenal of the Russian Baltic Fleet, whose superior numbers and firepower proved a major obstacle for Japan’s fledgling modern navy. The other example is a Russian sea mine. These were deployed in large numbers at Port Arthur, which is located in northern China and was an important point in the conflict. The Russians prevented the Japanese fleet from approaching by using these devices.

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The Statue of Marshal Tôgô

One of the greatest heroes of modern Japanese military history is Marshal Tôgô, supreme commander of the Japanese navy during the Russo Japanese War. Outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s veteran Baltic Fleet, the odds were far against him. However, since the Japanese couldn’t easily resupply their troops in China and Korea if the Russians were able to prevent their cargo ships from landing, defeating the Russians at sea was critical for the troops fighting on the continent. For this reason Marshal Tôgô took the initiative and engaged the Russians in spite of his disadvantages and won a resounding victory, earning him lasting fame as a war hero.

The founder of Ondake Shrine, Kamoshita Seihachi (鴨下清八), thought that the exploits, virtue, and influence of Marshal Tôgô ought to be passed on to future generations, so he sought to have a bronze statue of the general commissioned. Such a statue, however, would not be cheap, so to raise the money he created a slogan based on Tôgô’s most famous utterance. On the day that he destroyed the Russian fleet, Tôgô had sent a message to his superiors, saying “[today is] the battle for the fate of the Empire.” Kamoshita switched the word “one battle” or issen (一戦) with the homonym issen (一銭) meaning one hundredth of a yen, and yielded the saying, “one hundredth of a yen for the destiny of the Japanese Empire.” Using this slogan, he collected donations for the statue.

Kamoshita, however, couldn’t have the statue commissioned without the permision of the marshal himself, a task that proved to be easier said than done. Time and again Kamoshita visited the Marshal’s residence, but Tôgô staunchly refused, saying that no such bronze statue would be made of him while he was still alive. Nonetheless Kamoshita persisted and, after something like 80 visits, the Marshal was finally moved by his sincerity and in the end he consented. On April 17th of Taishô 14 (1925), a bronze statue of the Marshal was erected in full dress uniform.

A photo of the installment ceremony accompanies the statue today. I remember being struck by the stern faces of those photographed, most especially Kamoshita’s severe expression, accentuated by his shaven scalp. I would have thought that the event would have been a happier occasion.

The statue of Marshal Tôgô


The Deck Plate of the Battleship Mikasa

The moment that decided the Russo-Japanese War was the Battle of the Sea of Japan, which occurred on May 27th, 1905. The Russian fleet was on the move, headed for Vladivostok; meanwhile Tôgô and the navy were on high alert. Tôgô sent the following message to his superiors: “Having received a report that enemy ships were sighted, the combined fleet will set sail immediately. We shall attempt to annihilate them. Although the weather is clear today, the waves are high.” He then uttered the words that would later become famous: “This is the battle for the fate of the Empire. Each of us will give out utmost efforts,” (皇国興廃在此一戦 各員一層奮励努力).

The result of the battle was decisive. Under Togo’s command, the outnumbered and outgunned Japanese navy wiped out the Baltic Fleet, letting only three of the 38 ships escape; six were captured and the rest were sunk. Togo’s own flagship, the Mikasa (三笠), was hit during the battle, leaving massive holes torn into the thick metal plating. Today, on the slopes of Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine, visitors can view a section of this plating and imagine what it must have been like to be there on that day.

Damage to the hull of Tôgô’s flagship, the Mikasa.

Tôgô Shrine

Marshal Tôgô passed away in May, Shôwa 9 (1935); just under a year later Ondake’s Tôgô Shrine was erected in his memory. Kamoshita Seihachi chose this location deep in a green forest in accordance with the marshal’s wishes. This shrine both extols his achievements as well as venerates his spirit as a kami of peace. The annual celebration associated with the shrine is held on May 27th, the date of his victory over the Russian fleet. At the celebration, participants pray for world peace and the safety of Japan.

The shrine itself proved difficult to photograph, located as it was atop a steep stone staircase. Inside are several watercolor paintings of marshal and his fleet, wrinkled and faded from water damage over the years.

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A Russian-made 3-inch Field Artillery

The Russo-Japanese War was far more than just the naval war that we’ve discussed so far: there was also a land-based campaign in Manchuria, the northeastern area of China adjacent to North Korea. In this conflict, the Russians gave the Japanese a rough fight due to their state-of-the-art field artillery like the one pictured below. At the time, Japan’s artillery used older technology: upon firing, the cannon’s carriage recoiled, causing a loss of accuracy. In contrast, the Russian artillery had a body designed to absorb the recoil shock so that the carriage didn’t move so much, resulting in a much better accuracy rate on top of being easier to use.

Russian field artillery


The Sanctuary of Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine

If you visit Kiso (木層) in the Shinshu (信州) area, you might chance to pass another Ondake Shrine. This, in fact, is the original. Kamoshita Seihachi founded the shrine in Chichibu in the 28th year of the reign of Emperor Meiji, performing a special Shinto ritual known as “dividing the spirit” (bunrei, 分霊) in which he divided the spirits worshipped at the Ondake Shrine in Kiso so that it could be worshipped at both locations. The sanctuary at the top of the mountain at Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine was constructed for worshipping the spirits of Kiso’s Ondake from afar, so that when one offers prayers here, the spirits in Kiso will receive them. Every year on July 9 a festival is held for world peace and for the safety of the temple’s patrons. The original structure was rebuilt in the year Heisei 10 (1998) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the temple’s founding.

The Sanctuary (Honden) of Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine


Some Art

A samurai stands on the beach holding an arquebus rifle.

Sitting astride a horse swimming in the sea, a warrior takes aim at approaching ships.


To Agano Station

Having concluded my visit to Ondake Shrine, I hiked out the last few kilometers to Agano Station. The path followed along a small stream running through the village, past a small village shrine and eventually arriving at the station. When I passed through, it was in mid February, so the sun was already getting low even though it wasn’t much later than 4:00. While waiting for the train, I drank a beer and chatted with some other hikers.

The village of Agano


A Japanese graveyard in Agano Village


Trail Info

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)
Click here
Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Difficulty: Easy
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

Fureai Saitama II: The Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Historic Temples (2 of 3)

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.

A dilapidated structure on Beanmouth Pass

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.

A small shrine up the hill from the split. If you see this, you know you’re going the wrong way.

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.

Offerings of shoes in the Main Hall of the temple


Points of Interest

The View

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.

The view from the highest point at the Ne-no-Gongen


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.

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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.

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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 Head Monk’s Residence (Honbô, 本坊)

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 Main Hall (Hondô, 本堂)

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.

The statues of the two kings

More Photos from Around the Temple

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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 Info

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)
Click here
  Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Difficulty: Easy
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

Fureai Saitama II: The Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Historic Temples (1 of 3)


As I lay down on my futon on the night before the hike, I wondered (as I often do) if I really wanted to go out and spend all day outside wandering around the mountains. I imagined the alarm dragging me kicking and screaming from my sleep, followed by a departure from the warmth of my blankets and into a day of shivering in the cold. Wouldn’t it be better to just sleep late, then spend the day with a hot cup of coffee in a shop somewhere, reading a book or maybe studying a bit on a topic of interest?

As it turned out, by the time my alarm went off, I had completely forgotten about my plans for a hike, but I was also already comfortably awake and well rested, staring absently at the ceiling contemplating this and that. Suddenly I heard the sound of the alarm, and at first I thought it was time for Ivy to go to work; it took me about thirty seconds to realize that I it was for me. The negative thoughts from the previous night long gone, I got up without reservation, grabbed my bag, and headed off to Kinshicho Station.

It turned out to be a beautiful, crystal clear day, though as it was about mid-February the weather was still pretty chilly, even more so because of the intermittent brisk wind. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant day and I quickly found myself shedding my coat in favor of a hoodie. It might have been just a bit too cold for only that, but for some reason as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the sensation of cold much more than when I was younger. As a kid, I absolutely hated the cold. I would shiver away the winter months, cringing whenever I had to go outside, hunching over and shivering like a small rodent confronted with a larger carnivore.

At some point, this changed. I’m not sure whether my attitude changed first and then the sensation or whether the sensation changed first and with it my attitude. All I know is that today I face cold weather with chest forward and nose high, wearing much less warm clothing than in the past and yet feeling the touch of the cold rather pleasantly rather than uncomfortably. Maybe pleasant isn’t exactly the right word — maybe appreciation is better.

Being comfortable all the time drains the will to survive because in that situation survival requires no will. Feeling the cold air is like feeling the invitation of mortality, touching the edge of danger like standing on the edge of a cliff knowing you could fall. It’s just enough to remind one of the struggle for survival and awakens an awareness of one’s own limited time on this Earth — and with it the consciousness and appreciation being alive.

The Path Visiting Inner Mushashi’s Historic Temples

Since I started hiking the Fureai Trail, I had been making my way through the Tokyo Sections, so I had been exclusively riding the Chuo Line out to each trailhead as that was the principle line that services western Tokyo. Now that I had finally reached Saitama, though, I finally found myself on a new line, the Seibu-Ikebukuro line, issuing from the moderately famous Ikebukuro neighborhood of Tokyo. It only took about 50 minutes to get to Saitama’s Hanno City (where I had finished last time) from there, but the bus out to the trailhead took another 50 as well, so it was a bit of a trip. Time passed quickly for me as I paged through Fukuda’s Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, and in no time I was stepping off the bus in Little Palace Bus Stop (Kodono Basu-tei, 小殿バス停). The valley was sparsely populated, by Japanese standards at least, with a pleasant little stream running through the middle. I spotted some people having a picnic.

The waterside park near Kodono Bus Stop

Not far up the road from there the trail began, heading up the hillside on the right: the beginning of “The Path Visiting Musashi‘s Historic Temples.” At just under 10 kilometers long, this section is short and easy, with hardly any significantly steep sections, but also without a lot of nice views like the ones we’ve seen along previous sections. What makes this section stand out, though, is the numerous old temples along the way, adding a decidedly historic and religious flavor to the walk. Though I haven’t historically had much interest in such things, I nonetheless found myself lingering at each one, taking in all the information I could find.

Stone steps.

Sunlight through pines.

The path.

The way from the trailhead wasn’t steep, and in no time I reached the pass and from there descended a gentle slope. Through the trees, I glimpsed a thatched roof: I had arrived at Bamboo Temple, the first on the route.

Bamboo Temple

Bamboo Temple

The building that I was looking down at turned out to be the Main Shrine of the Oxhead King (Gozu Tennô Honden, 牛頭天王本殿), a major deity in the pantheon of Japanese syncretic Buddhism. The building, I would later find, is actually a reconstruction dating back to only 2004, the previous structure having been lost to fire in 1999. Despite the its young age, the current structure, with its mossy thatched roof and authentic construction, manages to preserve the sense of historical presence that many other reconstructions in Japan fail to achieve, belied as they are by their obviously modern structures with only a bare façade of the original. This one, luckily, was well documented by a historical survey team, allowing it to be rebuilt much as it had been originally.

Front view of the Main Shrine of the Oxhead King

One point that sets this temple apart from others extant in Japan is the fact that it sports a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto components. To be sure, this was certainly not rare at all throughout most of Japanese history: unlike European tradition, where religions were strictly separated and often antagonistic with each other, throughout most of Asia and especially in Japan, differing religions were embraced alongside each other, leading to mixed traditions, a practice academics call syncretism. In Japan, this meant that the native Shinto religion of nature worship (somewhat analogous to Paganism in Europe) blended with the already syncretic Buddhist traditions of China, which began being imported to the island country around 600 A.D. For the next millennium and a half, the two religions enjoyed a more or less peaceful symbiosis.

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This, however, came to an end in 1868, when the new Meiji government issued the Kami and Buddhas Separation Order (Shinbutsu Hanzenrei, 神仏判然令), forcing each religious institution to align specifically with one or the other in an attempt to isolate foreign culture from native culture. The result of this, ironically, was the destruction of a uniquely Japanese syncretic tradition. It seems, however, that some institutions managed to escape the order, the Bamboo Temple being the only one in the Tokyo area to do so. For this reason, anyone interested in Japanese religion ought to make a visit.

The syncretism is evident in the architecture of this temple: the Oxhead King’s Shrine sports a thatched roof, constructed in traditional Japanese style. A more typical construction in Buddhist temples is a roof made of dark ceramic tiles, a style imported from China.

The patron deity of the temple, the Oxhead King, is a perfect representation of the syncretism that makes this temple so unique. The earliest form of the deity traces all the way back to India as the guardian deity of the Jetavana Monastery, one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries in that country. From there, his worship spread to China, where he became incorporated into Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, Daoism, and even Yin-Yang philosophy. Upon entering the archipelago, the character evolved even more, developing further within Yin-Yang thought while also becoming incorporated into various folk legends and even coming to be considered a manifestation of the male progenitor deity of Shintoism, Susa-no-Ono. Visitors to the temple today pray to him for advancement in society, protection from disaster, and relief from disease.

Totem of the Oxhead King

At the Bamboo Temple, the Oxhead King and his eight sons are worshipped together, lending the temple its formal name of Eight Kings Temple (Hachioji, 八王寺); Bamboo Temple, as it turns out, is just a nickname arising from the forest of bamboo that surrounds the temple grounds. I heard that within the Sanctuary (kyûden, 宮殿) of Main Shrine is housed an image of the king surrounded by his sons, with an ax in his right hand and a rope in his left, but as I was told the sanctuary is only opened to the public once every twelve years, in the year of the Ox in the Chinese Zodiac. The next one is 2021, so if you happen to be in the Tokyo area then you should check it out. For those who have a more limited timetable, there’s also the yearly festival held on July 15th.

The Oxhead King, with rope and ax in hand.

The Highfield Pine of the Bamboo Temple

Commonly called “umbrella pine” in English, this variety of evergreen native to Japan is known in Japanese as the highfield pine (kôya-maki, 高野槙), so named for it’s prevalence in highland areas across Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu south of Fukushima. The English name derives from the shape of its branches, which according to Japanese accounts forms an egg shape but apparently whoever gave it it’s English name thought it looked like a folded umbrella. Unfortunately, I failed to get a good picture of it as I didn’t recognize it’s significance until after I had already left.

The highfield pine can be seen on the right.

The Bamboo Temple’s pine can be found a little down the hill from the Oxhead King’s Shrine next to a long, low building that I think is probably the monks’ residence. This particular specimen is notable for two reasons. First of all, it’s quite old, estimated at somewhere around 400 years, and stands at a height of 26 meters, with a trunk circumference of 3.86 meters and a root circumference of 7.55 meters. The lower branches of this tree are a bit deformed, but it still maintains the species’ characteristic egg shape.

It’s second claim to fame is the legend surrounding its origin. According to the story, this very tree was planted by Ôta Dôkan (太田 道灌), a famous samurai and later monk who is renowned for, among other things, founding the castle town that centuries later became the metropolis that is modern day Tokyo. Due to this story, the pine is also known as the Dôkan Maki.

The Peace Bell

As you wander through the garden of the Bamboo Temple, a large, rusted iron bell hanging from a tripod might catch your eye — this is the Peace Bell, or Heiwa-no-Kane (平和の鐘). Forged from unused ordinance left by the American military in Baguio City in the Philippines in 1945, the conversion of these weapons of war into a work of art very literally symbolizes the transition from war to peace, and from enemies to allies. Baguio City resident and movie director Kidlat Tahimik brought the bell with him when he visited the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, praying for peace, and it was later enshrined here at the Takedera. The sign accompanying the work requests that visitors ring the bell for world peace.

The Peace Bell

The Kannon Hall at Bamboo Temple

Avalokiteśvara in India, Guanyin in China, and Kannon in Japan, she is Buddhist deity of mercy, “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World.” One of the principle deities of Buddhist tradition, it’s quite common for temples in Japan to have one such hall on their premises. The Musashino area, through which this section of trail passes, contains a total of 313 such halls, and are organized numerically into a pilgrimage route, with the final stop being the Kannon Hall here at the Bamboo Temple.

The 313th Kannon Hall of Musashino

More Photos of the Bamboo Temple

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Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Visiting Musashi’s Historic Temples (Oku-Musashi no Kosatsu wo Tazuneru Michi, 奥武蔵の古刹を訪ねる道)
Click here
  Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Difficulty: Easy
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