Ep. 079: Sefuku-ji, the Kansai Pilgrimage's Most Remotest Temple

Toiling up a mountain on a cold January day

Come along as I visit one of the most remotest temples on the Saigoku pilgrimage--these days, at least. Let's visit Sefuku-ji in Izumi City, Osaka Prefecture, in this episode of--


It was with some shock that, many years ago, while traveling around Arizona, I discovered that some of the most pristine, natural landscapes pictured in the august journal Arizona Highways could be taken with one's tripod firmly planted on the asphalt of one of Arizona's--well--highways.

Wilderness just ain't what it used to be.

But: think back. There was a time when reaching that same spot would have required weeks of slogging along on foot, by burro, or on horseback. That's progress for ya.

The same has happened with pilgrimages. Often, Government, Business, and Temple Authorities are in cahoots to bring more visitors--and therefore more tourist yen--to the temples. Government builds the roads and other infrastructure; Business sets up travelers' accommodations; and the Temples develop "customer service" to assure the pilgrim a pleasant (or even--dare one hope?--spiritually fulfilling) experience.

These days, convenience is the name of the pilgrim's game. So it's a rare treat to have to trudge up the rough, uneven stairs of a mountain trail to reach a temple that still tastes of the old days, back when all the temples were hard to reach.

No, really: it's a treat, I tell ya!

The hondo (Main Hall) at Sefuku-ji in rain--which was turning into snow

Sefuku-ji--meaning "Bestowing Luck Temple," but also called Makino-dera or perhaps Makio-dera (even Japanese Wikipedia "Englishes" it both ways) for the mountain it's located on--is one of those temples.

Honestly, this visit having been made nearly two full decades ago--in January, 2001--I can't really conjure up much in the way of personal anecdotes about my visit. But I can share with you a bit of what I saw, as well as some background on the temple itself. And don't miss the BIG REVEAL--something that surprised even me!

I also know that this strenuous climb was performed after having visited another temple in Hyogo Prefecture, over three hours away by train. It was the second day of a three-day dash around Kansai, and yeah, I slept well that night.


What can I say about this temple's history? Japanese Wikipedia itself says (in translation), "the early history of Sefukuji is deeply uncertain."

I'll say. Sefuku-ji's foundings are lost in the mists of time. Some say it developed from a center for mountain-based religious practices of a more-or-less Shinto flavor (see below), which would make sense when we see founding dates like 538--before the official introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 552! Others report that a specifically Buddhist priest named Gyoman built it and enshrined there a statue of Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya, better known to us as "The Laughing Buddha," but not in his fat, jolly form) in an effort to cure "the Emperor" of an illness. (I'm not sure which emperor, but likely Kinmei, as several sources place the temple's founding during his reign, 539-571.)

Partway up the trail to Sefuku-ji we reach the gate and its ni-o (two kings)

At its height the temple may have had up to 3,000 monks and 80 sub-temples spread over the mountain. The temple--unsurprisingly, given its location--is associated with shugendo, a syncretic tradition blending Shinto practices (including mountain worship); something like Daoism; and Buddhism--particularly the esoteric kind. Some of its practitioners have become famous today as "running monks," partly due to John Stevens's 2013 book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. This details their practice of running on mountain ridges; their "final exam" has them running 52.5 miles every day--for 100 consecutive days!

One of the most famous of the shugendo patriarchs--and a candidate for their founder--was En no Gyoja (born in 634, and died somewhere between 700 and 707). He is said to have resided some years at Sefuku-ji, and numerous yamabushi ("mountain worshipers") have practiced there ever since. (As a lark, when my Japanese students used to ask, "James-san, what are your hobbies?" I would say I was either a yabusame--a horseback archer--or a yamabushi! Either image caused great mirth.)

The Daishi-do with a statue of Kobo Daishi out front

Now here's the BIG REVEAL for this episode: do you remember Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, the Japanese Buddhist saint who we followed to China in Episode 047; whose still-extant center, Mt. Koya, we visited in Episode 032; and whose pilgrimage we followed around the island of Shikoku in Episode 039? I always knew that he was ordained at Todai-ji in Nara (home of the Great Buddha, which we'll visit together someday). But I never knew until now--the wonders of the internet!--that he shaved his head (thus entering training) at the age of 20--at Sefuku-ji! There's even a very small hall said to contain his hair (or, more likely, simply to commemorate the event, as he was a "nobody" at the time). This also explains why this Tendai temple--Tendai is a rival sect to Kobo Daishi's Shingon Buddhism--has a separate Daishi-do, a hall dedicated to Kobo Daishi.

Incidentally, a "real" hair pagoda is located at Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou, China, where Huineng (in the bass-ackwards way of some things Chinese) shaved after becoming the Sixth Patriarch of Chan (Zen)! (See Episode 038)

As for the more mundane history: like many other temples in the area, this one was burned down by Oda Nobunaga in 1581 as part of his campaign to unify Japan by eradicating pockets of resistance, many of them focused on powerful temples. His great-nephew Toyotomi Hideyori soon rebuilt it, but a mountain fire took it out again in 1845, and it never recovered its previous size. What we see today was all built thereafter.


An unused bridge along the steep climb up to the temple

Our journey really begins at the end of a winding nine-mile bus ride from Izumi-Fuchu JR Station. From the parking area, the ascent begins: narrow stone steps with a steep rise. The climb is relieved here and there by little clearings along the side; one of these contains the Hair Honoring Hall for Kobo Daishi. Part way up, we encounter a typical (and therefore very fine) gate with the Ni-O, the "Heavenly Kings," and at last, after toiling over a half a mile (and ascending maybe 650 feet), we emerge on a terrace where we are greeted by a horse.

A horse? Well, a bronze statue of a horse, anyway. Legend says Emperor Kazan--legendary founder of the Saigoku circuit (see Episode 044) got lost on his way from our previous temple, Kokawa-dera (see Episode 077), to here. A horse appeared (or not--some say the emperor only heard the sound) and led him to the temple. This horse commemorates that event. (Incidentally, the parking lot of Sefuku-ji is only 16 miles by road from Kokawadera.)

The horse--in sleet

Numerous online sources tell us that this temple's main figure is a Bato Kannon, or "Horse-Headed Avalokiteshvara." This is not so; to my knowledge, only one temple, Matsuno-dera in Maizuru, can boast of this honor. So there is serious confusion about Sefuku-ji's honzon. In the main hall, in addition to the two types of Kannon, there's also the Miroku Bosatsu, the original of which was supposed to have been placed by Gyoman, and a statue of Manjushri (Monju Bosatsu). Along with several others, the most responsible of all temple guidebooks (published and distributed by Mangan-ji in Chiba) affirms the Thousand-Armed Thousand-Eyed Kannon as honzon, and that's good enough for me. I believe there is a Bato Kannon, but that's not the main image--perhaps, I read, it's back-to-back with the honzon.

I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure this lovely old expanse of wood is the back of the temple's Main Hall.

But one small problem remains: if Gyoman placed a Maitreya, why is the honzon now Kannon? There's an app--I mean a legend--for that.

It seems that over a millennium ago, a monk settled down at Sefuku-ji to study, and, preparing to depart, requested funds from the temple to cover his travel expenses. The temple's leadership refused, and the monk left in a huff.

One kind soul, named Hokai, felt bad for the unnamed brother and set out after him. By the time Hokai reached him, the monk had arrived at the seashore--just 10 or 12 miles from the temple as the crane flies--and he was walking on the water! Hokai realized this must be Kannon herself, and carved a statue of her when he returned to the temple. That's the honzon.

The day I visited Sefuku-ji, snow fell; the temple is, after all, over 1,500 feet in elevation, and I visited in January; the day before I was in deep snow at Nariai-ji in Miyazu (see Episode 030), but this was just a dusting. Though I worried a little about hiking back down the mountain on slim slippery stone steps, the powder did put a nice "shine" on things!

The little Dainichi-do--in the rain

I strolled around a bit, taking in the small Daishido mentioned above (dedicated to Kobo Daishi) and the smaller Dainichi-do, dedicated to the Great Sun Buddha (now my personal Buddha, though I don't think he was then), as well as several others, before carefully picking my way back down through the stunning gate and arriving at the parking lot in time to catch the last bus back to the railway station and my train to Kyoto.


Well, that's about that. 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: We'll wrap up our trifecta of Key Temples on China's Putuoshan by visiting the deliciously-named "Dharma Rain" Temple