japan_hase_deraTucked in along the walls of a valley just south of Nara is the Buddhist temple Hase-dera. The Japanese visit in the spring to see the cherry, plum, and magnolia in blossom. The compound is huge with over thirty buildings. Long flights of stone steps help you traverse the topography. Despite the size, Hase-dera has cultivated a landscape where it is difficult to separate the artificial from the natural. Click on the image for a larger view.

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New Years in Tokyo

tokyo_new_years_dayNew years in Japan is a rich event. Millions of Japanese visit shrines and temples. One of the largest temples in Tokyo and one of the busiest is Senso-ji in Asakusa. This temple is famous for its gate. What it is little known for is one of the shortest rituals of the new year celebration, moja-okuri. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Where Gods Dwell

tokyo_sugiIf anyone has seen the work of the director Hayeo Miyazaki, a common motif may strike you: trees. In the movies Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princes Mononoke, powerful, towering arboreal characters appear. The early Japanese believed trees, particularly evergreen trees, were dwellings for deities from heaven. With roots firmly in the earth and branches reaching into the sky, living off the wind and sun, and lifespans greater than any human, how could these beings be anything but divine. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “trees are the Earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.” Click on the image for a larger view.

Tokyo Ghost Story

tokyo_ghost_storyOiwa Inari Tamia Shrine is located between Tokyo station and the Sumida river. This small shrine is connected to one of the most popular ghost stories in Japan, Yotsuya Kaidan, a 19th century Kabuki play. The story’s main character is a woman named Oiwa. Actors visit this shrine to pay respect to her spirit before performing her role.

Oiwa is betrayed by a husband that murdered her father. She is horribly disfigured by a poisoned face cream given to her by Oume, a rival for her husband Iemon. Iemon, repulsed by Oiwa’s appearance, sends an accomplice to assault her to give him grounds for divorce. His partner cannot go through with the deed and reveals the plan to Oiwa. Showing Oiwa her disfigured image in a mirror, she is incensed. In her rage, she fatally injures herself with a sword. She dies cursing her husband, becoming an onryô, a vengeful spirit. By the end of the story, her spirit is revenged. A bloody tale, but a popular one.

Click on the image for a larger view.


Japan_binzaru_2Satori is the Japanese word for enlightenment, awakening. Zen Buddhist believe this does not happen gradually, but comes like a clap of thunder. D. T. Suzuki, the Japanese Buddhist scholar and philosopher, describes it as “seeing into your own nature,” “…to see our own ‘original face’ even before we were born, to hear the cry of the crow even before it was uttered, to be with God even before he commanded the light to be.”

The image is of Binzuru on the island of Miyajima in western Japan. I have written about the legend of this charming figure before. This type of scarf is popular with school girls and a kind offering this time of year. Click on the image for a larger view.

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shikoku_pilgrim_modernPilgrims flock to the island of Shikoku in Japan. Through the centuries, the fundamental practice of these pilgrims has not changed: they walk, they pray. To complete the entire route, a little over 1,200km or 750 miles, takes most travelers about fifty days. Some have claimed do this in thirty—a formidable feat. The path is mostly on roads. It hugs the coast and crosses mountains.

One hundred years ago, the average pilgrim is said to have spent about one hundred days to complete the pilgrimage. Roads, general health, and modern gear are mostly responsible in changing that. I am grateful of not having to wear the traditional straw sandals and cotton robes, which must have made this journey even harder. shikoku_pilgrims_1914This pair of pilgrims from the early 20th century are described as monks, but wrongly cited as carrying statues of the Buddha—the image on their backs is of Kobo Daishi. The photograph is from the book By Nippon’s Lotus Ponds; Pen Pictures of Real Japan by Matthias Klein and published in 1914. Click on the images for a larger view.

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Shugyo Daishi and the Pilgrim

shikoku_chodoanThe trail between temples 11 and 12 was enveloped in fog the day we travelled it. The mountain path followed a forested ridge. Then, strangely, the dirt trail ended in a flight of stone steps. As we climbed, a figure materialized from the trees.

We had reached Jyouren hermitage, a bangai, an unnumbered temple, one of over a hundred such places on the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku Pilgrimage. The statue is of Shugyo Daishi. This is not the image of Kobo Daishi, the saint pilgrims follow and the one that attained enlightenment, but the man that was seeking that enlightenment.

The tree behind the statue was said to have been planted by Kobo Daishi when, in a dream, he had a vision of the Buddha Dainishi-nyorai. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Passport to Enlightenment

shikoku_temple_84_nokyochoThe pilgrim to the Eighty-eight Sacred Places of Shikoku Pilgrimage carries a small book, nokyocho, in which the seal of each of the temples is inscribed, in this case, temple 84. It is one of the most important records of the journey and is treasured as a sacred object. If the pilgrim undertakes another pilgrimage, the same book is used with a new seal being inscribed over the previous ones. Pilgrims that have completed the path multiple times have pages covered red and black from the number of inscriptions. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Futon Daiko: Celebration

futon_daiko_ume_kita_choThe Futon Daiko festival at Mozu Hachiman Shrine in Sakai, Japan is a lunar festival, taking place in late September or early October on the weekend closest to the full moon. Nine town participate in this event.

These festivals are a celebration of community. A hundred or more people are need to carry these floats and far more in the community are needed to support the event. The bonds in these communities are strong and the festival maintains and strengthens them. Click on the image for a larger view.

Futon Daiko - William Ash

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Kumadanaji, Temple 8—Shikoku Pilgrimage

shikoku_temple_8_bell_towerKumadanaji, Bear Valley Temple, is not a scary as it sounds. Tucked in the end of a small valley, it is a peaceful place. This temple has one of the most impressive compounds on the pilgrimage. The main hall can be seen on the right and the steps on the left lead to the Daishi hall. We climbed the bell tower to ring the temple bell—two good friends, both pilgrims before us, had taken shelter at this temple and were the inspiration for our pilgrimage.

At Kumadanaji, Kobo Daishi is said to have had a vision of the Shinto god of Kumano, who bestowed upon him a small statue of Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokitešvara). Kobo Daishi carved the temple’s main image of Senju Kannon (Avalokitešvara of a thousand hands) to enshine it. Click on the image for a larger view.

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The 88 Scared Places of Shikoku Pilgrimage

shikoku_temple_1_dougyoThe 88 Scared Places of Shikoku Pilgrimage is probably the most famous pilgrimage in Japan. The route circles the island of Shikoku and takes about 45–60 days to complete on foot, although there are other ways pilgrims choose to travel. Naomi and I had the great fortune to walk this path three times. This year we will be publishing our experience of this remarkable journey.

These pilgrims are praying at the Daishi hall of Ryõzenji, temple number one. The four characters on the back of the hat (同行二人) are the refrain of the pilgrim—Dõgyõ ninin. Simply translated it means the same journey, two people. The second person to which it refers is Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, saint, poet, calligrapher, civil engineer, and the person credited in making this pilgrimage. While the pilgrimage is nonsectarian, every pilgrim puts their faith in O-Daishi-sama, as he is known.

Futon Daiko: Kaidan

The Futon Daiko festival at Mozu-Hachiman Shrine in Sakai, Japan is an amazing event. Each of the nine towns have their own float, or dashi. Two teams of fifty to seventy men are needed to carry these two and a half ton structures. And they do not simply carry them, but march in a straight-legged gait and sing.

The real trial for these men are the steps, or kaidan, that lead to the main shrine. After carrying the dashi all day, the floats are taken up and down these steps multiple times. It is a dangerous maneuver, but a crowd pleaser. Click on the image for a larger view.

Futon Daiko - William Ash

Mõja-okuri: The End of New Years

tokyo_moja_okuriMoja-okuri is a rite that signals the end of the New Year celebrations in Japan. This ritual takes place on January 18th at Senso-ji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple in Tokyo.

After dark, the lights are turned off in the temple grounds. It is pitch black. Two priest dressed as demons and carrying flaming torches run out of the main hall and through the precincts. They leave the temple grounds and go to a nearby site where the torches are extinguished in a small pit. The whole event is over in five minutes.

The priests represent evil spirits—one red, one blue. If the sparks from the torches fall on you, it is believed you will have good health throughout the year. People collect the ashes that fall from the torches as good luck charms.

The Legend of Binzuru

japan_nara_binzuruSitting outside many temples in Japan is the well-worn figure of Binzuru. He is one of the most charming characters in Buddhism. His power to heal was matched by his love of drink.

One day, the Buddha asked Binzuru to visit a wealthy man whose family was plagued by evil spirits with the simple instructions to exorcise the spirits and to leave without falling into temptation. Binzuru banished the demons in the house. The wealthy man, being grateful, wanted to celebrate. After repeated offers of drink, Binzuru capitulated to have one drink as not to be rude to his host. It was not long before he was drunk and the spirits returned.

The Buddha, hearing of this, banished Binzuru from his company. Binzuru, filled with regret, followed the Buddha around the country and sat outside the Buddha’s tent to hear his sermons. On his deathbed, the Buddha, knowing of his loyalty, called for Binzuru and forgave him. He commanded Binzuru to remain in the world as a healer. Binzuru sits outside the temple so people come to him to ease their suffering—it is thought if you rub the part of the statue that corresponds to the part of the body that is ailing, it will be cured.

This particular statue of Binzuru is outside Todai-ji in Nara. During New Years, mandarin oranges are left as offerings. Click on the image to see a larger view.

New Years in Japan

japan_nara_daibutsu2New Years in Japan is a special time. Unlike the West, where it is a fun party on the eve of the first, in Japan, the celebration is observed for several days, and rites and traditions can last the month of January. Visiting the local shrine or temple is a major event, known as hatsumode. One of the most visited temples is Todai-ji in Nara, which houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha. The figure is about 15m/50ft in height.

Nagayama Kofun and the Mozu Necropolis

Nagayama Kofun is considered one of the satellite mounds of Daisen Kofun. Whether this was an individual grave site or a site for servants or retainers is unknown. The moat of Nagayama Kofun at one time had a rather mundane function—for 95 years, it was a popular fish farm were local sport fishermen came to relax. The farm was closed in 2011 after a long, and somewhat odd, legal battle with the city of Sakai. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Chinaoka Kofun and the Mozu Necropolis

kofun_chinaokaChinaoka Kofun is the oldest of the Mozu Necropolis. While there are many spectacular Kofun in Sakai, of the known 107 historical sites, sixty one have been destroyed and many of the remaining forty six damaged. Only the tip and sliver of the main mound remains of Chinaoka Kofun, the rest destroyed by the encroaching neighborhood. A small shrine has been built next to the Kofun, which can be seen to the left of the electric pole in the image. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Jounoyama Kofun and the Mozu Necropolis

The Japanese had been building Kofun in this area for hundreds of years. The early graves were small mounds. Jounoyama Kofun, like many of the smaller mounds, is now a small neighborhood park. What treasures these burial sites may have contained are long since lost. Click on the image for a larger view.