Ep. 030: Another Snowy Day at Nariai-ji

A visit to a snow-clad mountain and the "Bridge to Heaven"

When you mention pilgrimages in Japan, the 88-Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku gets all the glory. It's dedicated to Kukai (Kobo Daishi, 774-835), the monk who brought the esoteric sect of Shingon Buddhism to Japan after studying it in China.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against that pilgrimage (I've done it!) or the Daishi (I've even visited sites from his sojourn in China). But there are at least three other major pilgrimages in Japan, and innumerable minor ones.

You guessed it: I've done the Big Three, and a half-dozen of the others.

The Nihon Hyakku Kannon Junrei

Those three pilgrimages can, in a sense, be spoken of as one. They comprise 33 temples in the Kansai area (around Kyoto), 33 more in the Kanto area (around Tokyo), and 34 in a mountain valley above Tokyo. That makes 100, so it's sometimes called the Nihon Hyakku Kannon Junrei--the 100 Temples Dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva in Japan. But each of the three components is also discussed separately.

It took me from November of 1999 to May of 2001 to complete the Kansai portion, called the Saigoku (West Country) pilgrimage. I did these as time permitted on longer breaks from my job in Tokyo. (The Bando course, in Kanto, occupied shorter journeys--even day trips--in roughly the same time-frame, May of 1999 to July of 2001. And I did the Chichibu course--only 60 miles--entirely on foot over two weekends in late July of 2001, before setting off down the Old Tokaido and on to the Shikoku 88 for ten weeks later that year--just before my return to America.)

So from time to time I'll tell you about some of the more interesting things I saw on the Kannon routes. But first, I guess, let me tell you a little about Kannon herself.


A bodhisattva is one whose being (sattva) is enlightened (bodhi). You may have noticed that the consonants in bodhi--b, d, and h--are shared by the word buddha, which means "one who is enlightened." But a bodhisattva differs from a buddha in that, although he or she has worked his or her way up to enlightenment, he or she has vowed to stop short of nirvana until all beings become enlightened.

This brings us to a charming--if somewhat disturbing--story about the most popular of all bodhisattvas, Kannon (called Guanyin in Chinese, and in Sankskrit Avalokiteshvara), whose name means "the one who hears the cries of the world." A rather bizarre form of Kannon shows her* with eleven heads and numerous arms--said to be 1,000, and indeed I have seen versions with a sort of sun-like disc behind her made of radiating arms, but more often represented by 40, 16, or even just four.

A Chinese Kannon (Guanyin) with eleven heads and 1,000 arms (literally!)

A 16th-century (possibly satirical) novel, The Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas, tells us that Kannon's strenuous efforts to save all sentient beings once caused her head to split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (of whom she is said to be an emanation, and who usually appears in her tiara) took compassion on her, and made a head of each of the eleven resulting pieces, so now, with eleven heads, she can hear and see more clearly all those who need her help.

Likewise, when her two arms shattered from trying to help so many, Amitabha again came to the rescue, forming the pieces into a thousand arms, as "many hands make light work."

This is just one of literally hundreds of legends about this most popular of East Asian bodhisattvas, but it's an excellent illustration of her best-known trait: Compassion.

*Note: I have settled on female pronouns, though she can be represented as male or, more often, androgynous.

Off to Kyoto (Prefecture)

During my New Year's work break in January of 2001, I took a three-day trip to Kyoto, the fifth of six trips during which I visited the 33 Kannon temples of Kansai. Though I was based in Kyoto city, the trip would take me to two temples in Shiga Prefecture; one each in Hyogo, Osaka, and Gifu; and on the very first day, January 6, to two sites in the far north of Kyoto Prefecture.

Note the words "January" and "north." Yes, I saw some snow! In fact, at my first stop, Matsunoo-dera in the city of Maizuru, I saw as much snow as I've ever seen at a temple. I shared a cab with another pilgrim (at his suggestion, yet I somehow ended up paying for the whole thing!) and managed to get some fine shots of him toiling up the stairs in the snow. Consider the cab fare a modelling fee. (Never mind that the road was so icy that the cab couldn't make it all the way up the mountain--yet insisted I pay full price for the fixed fare the other pilgrim had negotiated! Maybe it was a scam?)

A pilgrim in the snow

Anyway... leaving Maizuru, I took a couple of trains to Amanohashidate, one of the "Three Most Scenic Spots in Japan."


After poking around Chion-ji Temple, at the southern end of the Amanohasidate, I took a cab around to the north end. Beautiful as the pine-tree-lined walk across the sand spit may have been, I was short on time, and it was danged cold. Another time, I hope.

At the north end, there's a shrine, Moto Ise Kono Jinja, said to be the origin (moto) of the gods that now live in the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, one of Shinto's holiest and most important sites. It's a beautiful place--but as I was in a rush, I sped past its splendors to the base of the cable car that ascended to my destination: Nariai-ji, (maybe) meaning the "Temple of Mutual Success," and supposed to be a place guaranteed to grant one's prayers.

A Japanese girl tries to make the "bridge" go to "heaven" as her amused boyfriend looks on.

But the cable car didn't quite ascend all the way. At the upper terminal there's a park, and in it a "viewing platform" from which we can see the aforementioned Amanohasidate. This is a two-mile long sand bar lined with (they say) 7,000 pine trees. It almost joins one side of the bay to the other, with a couple of gaps at the south end allowing the Asoumi Sea to flow in and out with the tide.

It's a peculiar view, and as mentioned, considered one of Japan's "most scenic," along with the "floating torii" gateway at Miyajima (near Hiroshima), and the pine-clad islands at Miyagi Prefecture's Matsushima--which means "pine-clad islands." This short list is attributed to a scholar named Hayashi Gaho, who made his pronouncement in 1643.

But leave it to the Japanese to come up with some wacky ways to enjoy themselves. There is a small stage at the viewing platform on which you're supposed to stand with your back to the view. Then: bend over. That's right, look at the view with your head between your legs, and they say the sand spit will appear to be rising to heaven. Thus the site's name: Amanohasidate means "the Bridge of Heaven." (Frankly, I don't see it. Maybe, because the bay reflects the sky, it's possible that it appears to be running across the sky, but not on the leaden day I was there.)

Does it look like it's going to heaven? You be the judge!

From the viewing platform area, a shuttle bus is supposed to run a mile or so up to Nariai-ji. Not THAT day! I had to walk up the road. Well, sorta up--like, three steps up, slide back one.

At any rate, I made it, and the temple was everything I'd hoped for.


Nariai-ji’s 1774 hondo (main hall) in the snow

The main hall at Nariai Temple dates to 1774. It contains a statue of Kannon--to be discussed below--that is only on view once in 33 years. (Thirty-three again! The number is sacred to Kannon. Picture a figure standing on a point--that's one--with eight more figures emanating out in each of the four directions. Eight times four is thirty-two, plus the one in the center. Eight is sacred, as I've said before, like the number of corners on a cube, thus defining a three-dimensional space. At least, for this among many other reasons.) I was there in 2001; the next viewing would be in 2005, so I didn't wait around. Maybe in 2038?

A dragon carved by "Lefty" Jingoro--if he existed

What I did see was the "Mamuki Ryu," the "Face-to-Face" (perhaps "staring"?) Dragon, on a plaque in the main hall. It is attributed to a great--if legendary--multi-talented artist named Hidari Jingoro. Hidari means "left," and the story says that so skilled was he that the other artists grew jealous and cut off his right hand. Fortunately, he was left-handed! Which came first, the name or the handedness, is unclear. This is the same sculptor said to have carved the dragons at Tokyo's Tosho-gu, mentioned in Episode 018.

Home of the "contradictory bell"

Another site of legend in the temple is the bell tower with its "contradictory bell." They say a child fell into the crucible as the bell was being cast. His mournful cries could be heard the first time the finished bell was rung--so it has never been rung since.

The pagoda dates all the way back to 1998.

The five-story pagoda, beautiful as it is, is actually quite new--just three years old on my visit. So, no legends.

"Pics or it didn't happen!"

I recently read that the temple was originally built in 704 on the top of the mountain behind it. After a landslide in 1400, it was moved to its present site (not by the landslide, I hope!), halfway up the mountainside. The view from the top is supposed to be stupendous.

So there I was, soaking up the atmosphere, when I stumpy little guy in work clothes and rubber boots comes clumping up to me and says something like, "Hey, wanna go to the top of the mountain?" And I replied, "I'd love to, but... snow!" (Like a native!) And he says, "C'mon," and proceeds to walk toward--A SNOWPLOW! He was on his way up and I hitched a ride!

What I wanted to see from the mountaintop (same shot as above, unflipped)

As we headed up the winding and frankly quite thrilling road, I realized I was dang near out of shots, and decided I'd better put a new roll of film in my camera. With benumbed fingers, and occasionally lunging for something to hold onto, I got it done, and took a number of spectacular shots from the top, including one of Amanohashidate.

Then down we came. I thanked him (bowing profusely), and slipped and slid my way back down to the cable car.

Where I discovered that I hadn't threaded the end of the film in properly, and I had nuthin'.

As the kids, say, "Pics or it didn't happen!" Oh, well. I have my memories, and the driver's kindness remains.

Deer Kannon

Let's wrap up with a much older (and more meaningful) story, from the Konjyaku Monogatari, a collection of tales compiled around 1120.

The first known presence on the mountaintop from which I didn't get any pictures had been the hermitage of a monk named Shinou. Far from the town folk who would usually provide support for a monk, and having suffered through a devastating snowstorm, he was starving. At last he made his way out into the snowbanks, where he found a deer who had succumbed to the cold.

Realizing that he would have to break his vows or die, he decided to strip some meat from the unfortunate dead creature's thigh and cook it up. This sustained him until more appropriate provisions could be obtained.

In thanksgiving, he approached the statue of Kannon in his hut--and discovered a piece missing from her thigh! He realized that the bodhisattva had provided for him, and through his rigorous devotion the statue was miraculously restored.

As usual, the story has many variations, but the most thought-provoking one for me was the version in which the dead creature was not a lithesome, graceful deer but an ungainly, ugly old boar!

Another bodhisattva in the snow


Well, friends, that's it for this episode. Thanks for joining me, and until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Let's take a look at a couple of churches that were--umm--transformed by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo--not far from where I live right now!