Ep. 073: Japan's Highest Falls--oh, and a Temple

Seiganto-ji and Nachi Falls

Let's visit Seiganto-ji, the first numbered temple of the 33 dedicated to Kannon (Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion) in the Kansai area of Japan. That's the Saigoku Sanjusan Reijo which we saw in broad strokes in Episode 044.

This was not the first temple on that pilgrimage that I visited--in fact, it was the 17th, exactly in the middle of the 33--but nevertheless it made a Big Impression, as you'll see in this episode of--


A Monk Finds a Home

Imagine this: you are an Indian Buddhist monk named Ragyo, whose travels had taken you to the farthest East. From there, you are heading home past a group of islands when a ferocious storm breaks up your tiny ship on a pile of rocks at the end of a wild peninsula. Crawling ashore, barely alive, you find sustenance and, after a time, begin to explore this nearly uninhabited place.

Nachi Falls, Japan's highest, with the shimenawa rope across the top

One day, you notice a whooshing sound which, as you work your way toward it, becomes a mighty roar. Breaking through the foliage, you witness a towering waterfall--in years to come, determined to be almost 450 feet high, and the longest single drop in these islands that would become known as Japan. (Never mind that all of this is said to have happened in the fourth century--before Buddhism is known to have reached Japan!)

And so you begin to practice austerities under the falls, barely able to stay standing on your feet under the volume of water crashing down on your head. (I have seen this done, and you will too about a year from now, at another temple later in this series.) And one day, while meditating in this extreme fashion, you open your eyes and look down--and there, shining up from the bottom of the pool, is a small, golden statue of Kannon, and you realize that you have been called to be here! You build a small hut nearby to house the figure, and settle down here, releasing your hopes of returning home. This, this is now your home.

The 50-year-old pagoda near the falls

And so you meet the fate of all, and the years pass, and two centuries later the fame of your piece of earth has spread, and another hermit monk, named Shobutsu, carves a 13-foot statue of Kannon and places your golden statue inside--in her heart. Your hut is enlarged until, in the mid-980s, Emperor Kazan establishes the Saigoku pilgrimage circuit (again, see Episode 044) and names Seiganto-ji, your place, Number One.


This is one way to tell the story. Evidence is that at the top of Nachi Falls, there was long a Shinto shrine. To this day, a shimenawa--a rope made of rice straw (or sometimes hemp) used to mark off sacred space--hangs across the lip of the falls, strung from two rocks said to be the kami (guardian spirits or gods) of the falls and the modern Shinto shrine at its base.

Toiling up to the niomon

Most temples in Japan have two stories of their founding: one is legendary, like the story of the statue in the river and the golden dragon descending in the case of Senso-ji in Tokyo (see Episode 061); and the other a more concrete, historical account. But the two need not contradict each other; here they seem to get along perfectly well.

The nio

I have been able to find nothing about the monk Ragyo aside from this story. Amusingly, his name translates "nakedness." The term is used today in Japan for the Jain monks, who go about "sky clad" (naked). Since Ragyo was from India, is it possible he was such a holy man, and not a Buddhist at all? However, the rules for Jain monks (and nuns) prohibit travel in any type of vehicle, including boats, so if Ragyo was a Jain holy man, he was a renegade. The image of a "sky clad" Jain monk doing austerities under a waterfall, though, is not hard to conjure!

A Shrine and a Temple

The temple's name means something like "The Temple of Crossing the Blue Beach," a reference perhaps to the seashore just three miles or so to the southeast. It is cheek-by-jowl with a modern Shinto shrine, the Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the Kumano Sanzan (three mountain) shrines that has inspired over 3,000 branches throughout the country. The Nachi shrine is joined to its two sisters by the Kumano Kodo ("old road"), actually a network of trails crisscrossing the Kii Peninsula. (The road, the shrines, some sites at Mount Yoshino, and our beloved Koyasan--see Episode 032--were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, "the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.")

The shrine gate off to the left of the path to the temple

It's not terribly unusual to see a temple and a shrine so close together. Indeed, in Japanese history, there were many such jingu-ji or "shrine temples," but in 1868, the restored Meiji government passed the "Kami and Buddhas Separation Act." This was a nationalistic (over-)reaction to the "foreign influence" of Buddhism, in which Shinto gods were considered manifestation of Buddhas. (Gods, you see, would still be subject to the law of karma; by becoming Buddhas, they would be free of such encumbrances.)

Part of Kumano Nachi Taisha

And so today you might be able to pass through a gate from a shrine directly into a temple, or vice versa, but they are "separated." In other places, the temple was razed to the ground; this one survived, but barely, as we will see in a moment.

At Nachi, as we climb the (many, many) steps toward the temple, we reach a "Y" from which a left turn takes us to the shrine, and a right to the temple. Both are dominated by the falls.

Seiganto-ji Today

Taking the right-hand path, we reach a niomon with its "two kings," and then arrive at the hondo or main hall. At this temple, it's called a Nyoirindo, because within is the figure of Nyoirin Kannon, this one with six arms holding, among other things, a wish-fulfilling jewel and a wheel (representing the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings).

The Nyoirindo, the main hall

This is not the statue carved by Shobutsu, because the entire complex was burned to the ground and then rebuilt in 1590. At the time of the separation of shrines and temples in 1868, the temple was further degraded by being abolished completely, and its priests stripped of their authority. Only the Nyoirindo and the priests' quarters survived.

But gradually some of the buildings have been restored. The signature three-story pagoda dates only to 1972, the 300th anniversary of its former destruction! And a treasure hall has been built to hold, among other things, the statues, mirrors, and sutra cylinders found in a "sutra mound" at the base of the falls back in 1918. This was a means of saving valuables from raids and--intriguingly--from an anticipated age of deteriorated dharma, the mappo.

The hole-y tree (get it?)

Also on the grounds of the shrine is an ancient camphor tree, said to be 850 years old, the more notable because the shrine buildings themselves are shiny and new--and huge, dwarfing the temple and its handful of halls. The tree has a hole in it big enough for an average-sized person to squeeze in, and there's a small altar inside.

But the real attraction, of course, is the waterfall, a fine example of how natural features often give rise to "sacred" establishments, which are of course no more sacred than the natural feature itself--as the shimenawa shows. Holy men of the shugendo religion, a syncretic nature-based faith, have been practicing under the waterfall for centuries--and even leaping off of it to gain passage to the "next world" (kids, don't try this--anywhere!). Lovers, too, have used it as a leap.

A last look back at the pagoda and falls

This is a precious place, well worth the effort expended to reach it.


Well, that’s about that. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


You may unsubscribe to Temple Tales at any time by simply replying to this Newsletter and writing "Unsubscribe." You will receive one more letter as confirmation.

If you have any problems reading the Newsletter or accessing the Podcast, please write to me at TheTempleGuy@GMail.com, and I'll help you in any way I can!

In the next episode: Back to China, where we'll continue our day in Hangzhou, moving from the temple where a crazy monk was kicked out to the one where he passed away.