Rokugo Manzan
the beginning of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism

vol.1

Located in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu, the Kunisaki peninsula is home to a significant cluster of villages, mountains, temples and shrines which were at the center of developing a unique religious culture more than 1,300 years ago.

Since ancient times, this area has been open to influences from China and the Korean peninsula that would mix with indigenous cultures and beliefs. Even to this day, the area is home to unique practices which go back centuries.

03/30/2021

Rokugo Manzan. Nature, human endeavor and a culture of prayer.

Mario Anton will be taking us through this journey. Born in Shizuoka to a family of New Yorkers, he currently lives in Bungo Takada, located on the Kunisaki peninsula. Always an intrepid traveler in search of new ideas and ways of thinking, we were happy to have Mario guide us through Rokugo Manzan.

The Usa Jingu Shrine is where the uniquely Japanese practice of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism began. On the grounds we can see the ruins of Mirokuji Temple, where it is believed that the disciples of “Ninmon” worshipped. It was from this “base” that the disciples would spread their practice across the peninsula and deeper into the mountains.

It is said that the founder of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, Saicho, had come to pray here both before he left for pilgrimage and education in China and also upon his return.

During the unfortunate period in the Meiji era when the “Haibutsu Kishaku” (Literally: “Abolish Buddhism and Destroy Shakyamuni”) movement gained some traction, some of the Buddhist temples built to co-exist on the grounds of Shinto shrines were destroyed (Mirokuji temple is a notable example). However, a large majority of shrines and temples in Rokugo Manzan still co-exist, with temples found on the grounds of shrines, and vice versa.

It is testament to the enduring belief system of the local population who throughout the ages had chosen to thank and worship both Shinto deities and the lord Buddha, for natures bounties.

We are reminded of the most important manor in the Usa Jingu shrine complex, the Tashibunosho-Osaki area is home to terraced rice fields and small villages dotted around, and is a designated national heritage site.

The views that can be seen here are of the timelessness of human co-existence and dependence on nature. The Rokugo Manzan experience acts as a constant reminder about how two differing philosophies can co-exist with a mutual respect for each other. It is this gentleness of spirit and openness of thought which imbues this landscape and its ancient history with such richness.

Now it’s time for some food. Japanese food in general features heavily what is “local” and what is “seasonal”. Mario tells us that in the Kunisaki peninsula, a meal must also always feature fruits of both mountain and sea.

A highly recommended eatery, we are told, is the “Soba Rikugo Restaurant”, just outside of Tashibunosho.

The chef, Matsuzaki-san tells us that he ended up in this area in search of the best, purest water he could find (to make the best soba noodles possible with). He explains that the local water is pumped from a particularly deep water table, lending it a very desirable quality.

“Good food and cooking begin with good ingredients, and in that sense, I am very blessed to be in an area like this” Matsuzaki-san tell us. Today he prepared a starter using leafy greens from organic producers “Hikari farms” in Bungo Takada and tomatoes from Kunisaki-city. This was followed by sashimi of ling that has been aged for 10 days and tilefish from the Bungo sea corridor grilled with salt and rice malt and soba noodles made from stone-ground buckwheat. His food is always a testament to the local produce and is a declaration of his love and admiration for the Kunisaki peninsula.

The (national cultural treasure designated) Fukiji temple, is one of the top three temples containing an enshrined image of Amitabha (along with the Byodo-in temple in Uji, Kyoto and the Chusonji Konjiki-do in Hiraizumi, Iwate) and is the oldest wooden structure still standing in Kyushu. It is a greatly revered temple which has even been written about in the Heian era, described as a temple built in dedication to the high priest of the great Usa Jingu Shrine.

The deputy chief priest of this temple, Mr. Junyu Kono also works as a soba noodle chef in the connecting inn, the “Ryoan Fukinoto”. He cooks for inn guests only, but he made a special exception for us and fed us some of his hand kneaded, hand-made soba noodles. The buckwheat was deeply fragrant, having just been ground that morning at Bungo Takada.

Around the Tennenji temple, visitors can find breathtaking sceneries, mainly thanks to the magnificence of the surrounding mountains. There is a pilgrimage undertaken every 10 years through these peaks, and the most perilous part of this journey, the Mumyohashi bridge can be seen from below. Also at this temple, an ancient ceremony depicting the legend that demons (oni) were turned into enlightened beings, is performed.

This ceremony takes place around January 7th of each year, in a nod to its lunar new year origins. At dusk, the priests of Tennenji will cleanse their bodies in ritual bathing in front of an icon of “Fudo Myo-o” (Acalanata – the god of fire) carved into a rock in the Nagaiwaya river. Once sufficiently purified and protected, the priests will dress up as demons in readiness for the ancient performance. After the sun goes down, the proceedings commence with prayers for good harvest and safety. This is followed by wild dancing by the “demons” holding torches until deep into the night. Incantations and prayers are performed on pilgrims by hitting them with torches at the climax of this ceremony. The demons in this context are perceived as carriers of good fortune because as legend has it, by coming to this part of the world, they were cleansed of their old demonic ways to become enlightened beings. It is also a clear nod to the mountain-worship origins of the local spirituality, and the adaptable, pragmatic mindset of the coast-dwelling, “open-to-outside-influences” nature of this community. The Demons were said to dwell in the mountains with many special powers and perhaps the whole point of this ceremony is for the believers to try and attain some of these powers that the demons have.

With Shinto-Buddhist syncretism underway, this land would absorb any influence that would come its way and incorporate into its own. An adaptability and flexibility that would persist, is what guaranteed the success and influence of the culture here.

Mario says that this truly diverse and deeply accepting nature of the local culture will stun any Westerner upon first visit.

Perhaps a lot of the easygoing and accepting nature of the Japanese people has been lost in modern life. Our Japanese ancestors lived according to the principle that all things will pass and that all worldly things are impermanent, giving them perhaps the ultimate strength, flexibility and adaptability of mind.

text | Tsugumi Yakushiji photography | Tomohide Tani special thanks | Mario Anton