Kyoto: Spiritual Wonderland

Kyoto: Spiritual Wonderland

From KJ 25: Sacred Mountains of Asia

A mysterious boulder juts forth, exposed by a rent in the mountain’s skin, concealing in its shadow a trickling stream of water. Among the mountains that surround Kyoto in three directions there can be found countless such sacred places. In them, shrines for all variety of gods and Buddhas have been built. Here a Buddhist temple may have a Shinto torii gate while a Shinto shrine may surround a Buddha hall. In these strange sacred places Japan’s religions are reconciled.

Originally, the whole of Kyoto was a sacred place. This fact becomes clear as soon as one looks at the city geomantically, but this spiritual power has been lost in the heart of the modern city. Yet in its surrounds, scattered throughout the encircling mountains, there are many locales that maintain their psychic power. Many of these still serve as the focus of active popular religious practices.

From among Kyoto’s many remaining sacred places, I would like to introduce one: the Raccoon-dog Valley of Acala1 (Tanukidani Fudoson). Raccoon-dog Valley is set in the gorge of Kasho Mountain which is aligned on the city’s northeasterly compass point. This places it just at the front of the city’s kimon or demon gate. The temple complex is arranged on the climax of a hill with a wide view of the city below.

One bright sunny spring afternoon I lazily strolled up the hill from the Ichijo Temple bus stop, taking pleasure in the quiet of the Shisendo district. My usual course would have taken me north from the gates of Shisendo past the Shrine of the Heron Forest and on to the Monastery of Manjusri. But on this day I decided not to join the crowds of tourists herding into Shisendo and instead walked straight east up the Shisendo road. For some reason I had always thought that Shisendo was at the tail of a dead end street, but beyond it I discovered the Hachidai Shrine, and past this it led still farther up the slope of Mount Kasho. After an incline of five- or six-hundred meters, the roadway opened into a wide overlook. There I noticed a signboard that announced: “Raccoon-dog Valley of Acala and Places of Prayer.”

A strange sense of anticipation hung about this place and with the expansion of my view at the overlook my spirits brightened. To have simply headed back down the hill at this point would have already amounted to an utterly satisfying walk, but the path that led up into the depths of the mountain invited me onward.

As I walked on I was soon met by a long, seemingly endless stone stairway. At every turn along this climb there was arranged a religious device and at each was placed a cordially written signboard detailing the correct method of worship for that particular deity or place. I per¬formed the required rite for each as I came to it.

First, there was a Water Pavilion where I ritually purified myself with the water of a cascading fall. Next, after walking through a great stone torii, I came to an eerie Benzai2 of the White Dragon (Hakuryubenzaiten) set into a grotto. Here, in accordance with the instructions, I chanted the mantra “On-sora-sobateiei-sowaka” five times while ringing a bell. Then after pausing in front of each of the Seven Gods of Happiness3 I suddenly came upon a life-size standing bronze statue of the Great Teacher Kobo.4 He seemed to beckon me on toward the hall of the Great Teacher and the Light. Once there I was given the opportunity to choose from a plentiful menu of spiritual activities including a thirteen-Buddha pilgrimage, an 88-holy-sites walk, and a version of the Shinto 100 supplications. By the time I had ascended the 250 Stone Steps for the Expulsion of Evil, and come face to face with the Three Shinto Gods of Great Miracles5 both my mind and body were in a state of elation.

I was lost in this strange space, utterly divorced from that of the modern cafe-bar on Shirakawa Street where only a few minutes before I had eaten lunch. The spiritual distance I had traversed during this short walk made my head spin.

Above me, built onto an overhanging precipice, I could now see the Central Hall of the great evil slayer Acalanatha. On the way up to it I had to pass through an additional series of sacred spots. At each I stop¬ped and performed the prayers and incantations as advised. First there was a waterfall of Miyamoto Musashi’s6 Ascetic Practice. Then there was an Acala of the Water, a Shrine for Ebisu and Daikoku7, and another to the Great Bodhisattva of Godly Transformation.8 Finally there stood Ksitigarbha (Jizo) as the Water Child.9

With the grand and expansive view from the Hall of Acalantha I was absorbed into a yet higher plateau of my ongoing natural high. I sat down on a bench provided in the rest area and as beads of sweat formed on my forehead, drank a can of Mitsuya Cider from the vending machine. (For some reason this was the only drink the machine had.) It was like holy nectar.

Beyond the Main Hall there awaited a Pilgrimage to the Temple at the Heart of the Mountain, yet another spiritual pathway. When I had finished walking up this wondering path past the thirty-six statues of Acala’s Pages (doji)10 each with accompanying mantra, and reached the Hall for the Avatar of the Dragon of Good Fortune at the top of the mountain, I felt as if I had surely arrived at the doorstep of absorption into enlightenment.

Purification by waterfall, mountain pilgrimages, mantra chanting, the 100 supplications, prayers and evil expulsion… If we apply contem¬porary language to these practices the terms that emerge are those of spiritual healing and sports. With these one can obtain benefits for both mind and body.

If one discovers the technique to enjoy such things then Kyoto reveals itself as a kind of wonderland. This should make apparent the foolishness of paying exorbitant fees to be given the privilege of standing in line at a few famous temples in some packaged tour. The true “Kyoto Mountain Tour” should include a walk to the mountain top through the ten-thousand vermilion torii at Fushimi Inari,11 or an excursion from the Deep Mountain Hall of the King of Hell at Kurama Temple to the Kibune Shrine of Pure Water.12 Such masterpiece walks can rival any Disneyland adventure, and of such Kyoto has many.

In the dramatically materialistic civilization of our current age the level of interest in the spiritual world is still surprisingly high. The entire city of Kyoto can be thought of as a spiritual apparatus, a kind of spiritual amusement park if you will, and for this it should be given more attention. Kyoto is still a mysterious and eternal spiritual wonderland.

Translation and notes by James Heaton
Drawings by Tanaka Makiko

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